Study Guide

Bleak House Respect and Reputation

By Charles Dickens

Respect and Reputation

Sir Leicester receives the gout as a troublesome demon, but still a demon of the patrician order. All the Dedlocks, in the direct male line, through a course of time during and beyond which the memory of man goeth not to the contrary, have had the gout. It can be proved, sir. Other men's fathers may have died of the rheumatism or may have taken base contagion from the tainted blood of the sick vulgar, but the Dedlock family have communicated something exclusive even to the levelling process of dying by dying of their own family gout. It has come down through the illustrious line like the plate, or the pictures, or the place in Lincolnshire. It is among their dignities. Sir Leicester is perhaps not wholly without an impression, though he has never resolved it into words, that the angel of death in the discharge of his necessary duties may observe to the shades of the aristocracy, "My lords and gentlemen, I have the honour to present to you another Dedlock certified to have arrived per the family gout." (16.2)

You've got to love a guy who is so into getting the respect he deserves that he even classifies diseases into those that are appropriate or inappropriate to a man of his social stature. That's either totally ridiculous or kind of secretly awesome.

Mrs. Woodcourt, after expatiating to us on the fame of her great kinsman, said that no doubt wherever her son Allan went he would remember his pedigree and would on no account form an alliance below it. She told him that there were many handsome English ladies in India who went out on speculation, and that there were some to be picked up with property, but that neither charms nor wealth would suffice for the descendant from such a line without birth, which must ever be the first consideration. She talked so much about birth that for a moment I half fancied, and with pain-- But what an idle fancy to suppose that she could think or care what MINE was! (17.112)

So can we talk about the horror that is this woman? And that she's going to be Esther's mother-in-law? To sit there and constantly talk about how important birth is to the Woodcourt family and how high-born they are – seriously, even if Esther weren't totally into Woodcourt, this would be pretty shockingly rude.

"Ha'n't you no relations, now," asks Grandfather Smallweed with a twinkle in his eyes, "who would pay off this little principal or who would lend you a good name or two that I could persuade my friend in the city to make you a further advance upon? Two good names would be sufficient for my friend in the city. Ha'n't you no such relations, Mr. George?"

Mr. George, still composedly smoking, replies, "If I had, I shouldn't trouble them. I have been trouble enough to my belongings in my day. It MAY be a very good sort of penitence in a vagabond, who has wasted the best time of his life, to go back then to decent people that he never was a credit to and live upon them, but it's not my sort. The best kind of amends then for having gone away is to keep away, in my opinion." (21.18-19)

George's credit rating suffers because he can't (or doesn't) give any references. Back in the day, before social security numbers, credit scores, and background checks, there really wasn't much to go on to evaluate someone's credit risk. It was usually just reputation-based – and you can imagine how accurate an assessment that would be. Obviously moneylenders are almost always horrible, evil characters in Victorian novels, but you can sympathize a little with how unsupported they were in their business, and the kind of financial risk out there in the days before modern banking products. OK, that's it for our finance lesson.

"And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions," says Sir Leicester with stately gloom, "that I have been informed by Mr. Tulkinghorn that Mrs. Rouncewell's son has been invited to go into Parliament. [...] He is called, I believe--an--ironmaster." Sir Leicester says it slowly and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a lead-mistress or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal. (28.23-27)

Sir Dedlock is floored by the idea that Rouncewell would be allowed into Parliament alongside him. Granted, they'd be in different houses: as a member of the aristocracy Dedlock is in the House of Lords, while as a commoner Rouncewell would be in the House of Commons. But still. Also, the euphemisms are great – "uprooting of distinctions" means "he should be kissing my boots." And finally we get a good sense of what Sir Dedlock values – birth – when he calls a clearly quite wealthy factory owner and iron magnate "Mrs. Rouncewell's son," a.k.a. someone born to be a servant.

"[Mr. Rouncewell] arrived this evening shortly before dinner and requested in a very becoming note"--Sir Leicester, with his habitual regard to truth, dwells upon it--"I am bound to say, in a very becoming and well-expressed note, the favour of a short interview with yourself and myself on the subject of this young girl." [...] Mr. Rouncewell is a little over fifty perhaps, of a good figure, like his mother, and has a clear voice, a broad forehead from which his dark hair has retired, and a shrewd though open face. He is a responsible-looking gentleman dressed in black, portly enough, but strong and active. Has a perfectly natural and easy air and is not in the least embarrassed by the great presence into which he comes. [...] Sir Leicester is content enough that the ironmaster should feel that there is no hurry there; there, in that ancient house, rooted in that quiet park, where the ivy and the moss have had time to mature, and the gnarled and warted elms and the umbrageous oaks stand deep in the fern and leaves of a hundred years; and where the sun-dial on the terrace has dumbly recorded for centuries that time which was as much the property of every Dedlock--while he lasted-- as the house and lands. Sir Leicester sits down in an easy-chair, opposing his repose and that of Chesney Wold to the restless flights of ironmasters. (28.30-38)

The text slows down here nicely to imitate the gradual, calm, long flow of Sir Dedlock's thoughts as they wander around the estate of Chesney Wold. This is in contrast with Rouncewell, who is all action and fast movement.

Out of the court, and a long way out of it, there is considerable excitement too, for men of science and philosophy come to look, and carriages set down doctors at the corner who arrive with the same intent, and there is more learned talk about inflammable gases and phosphuretted hydrogen than the court has ever imagined. Some of these authorities (of course the wisest) hold with indignation that the deceased had no business to die in the alleged manner; and being reminded by other authorities of a certain inquiry into the evidence for such deaths reprinted in the sixth volume of the Philosophical Transactions; and also of a book not quite unknown on English medical jurisprudence; and likewise of the Italian case of the Countess Cornelia Baudi as set forth in detail by one Bianchini, prebendary of Verona, who wrote a scholarly work or so and was occasionally heard of in his time as having gleams of reason in him; and also of the testimony of Messrs. Fodere and Mere, two pestilent Frenchmen who WOULD investigate the subject; and further, of the corroborative testimony of Monsieur Le Cat, a rather celebrated French surgeon once upon a time, who had the unpoliteness to live in a house where such a case occurred and even to write an account of it--still they regard the late Mr. Krook's obstinacy in going out of the world by any such by-way as wholly unjustifiable and personally offensive. (23.91-92)

It's not often that novelists need to make scholarly citations in their novels, but here that's just what we've got. All those names and books and bits of research Dickens cites are real-life people who claim that there's such a thing as human spontaneous combustion. Krook had combusted in the previously published part of the novel, and that nonsense was so viciously and immediately attacked by readers that the next chapter tried to restore Dickens's own reputation.

Charley and I had reason to call [the village at Chesney Wold] the most friendly of villages, I am sure, for in a week's time the people were so glad to see us go by, though ever so frequently in the course of a day, that there were faces of greeting in every cottage. I had known many of the grown people before and almost all the children, but now the very steeple began to wear a familiar and affectionate look. Among my new friends was an old woman who lived in such a little thatched and whitewashed dwelling that when the outside shutter was turned up on its hinges, it shut up the whole house-front. This old lady had a grandson who was a sailor, and I wrote a letter to him for her and drew at the top of it the chimney-corner in which she had brought him up and where his old stool yet occupied its old place. This was considered by the whole village the most wonderful achievement in the world. [...] There were many little occurrences which suggested to me, with great consolation, how natural it is to gentle hearts to be considerate and delicate towards any inferiority. One of these particularly touched me. I happened to stroll into the little church when a marriage was just concluded, and the young couple had to sign the register.

The bridegroom, to whom the pen was handed first, made a rude cross for his mark; the bride, who came next, did the same. Now, I had known the bride when I was last there, not only as the prettiest girl in the place, but as having quite distinguished herself in the school, and I could not help looking at her with some surprise. She came aside and whispered to me, while tears of honest love and admiration stood in her bright eyes, "He's a dear good fellow, miss; but he can't write yet--he's going to learn of me--and I wouldn't shame him for the world!" Why, what had I to fear, I thought, when there was this nobility in the soul of a labouring man's daughter! (36.13-15)

One of the morals of the novel might be something like, "be nice and keep up your good reputation as best you can, because who knows when you'll need people to respect and admire you." Imagine if Esther hadn't made all these friends the last time she was down here and just came out of nowhere with her scary-looking scars. (They really would be scary – Google "smallpox scars" if you dare). We're betting it wouldn't have been such a love-fest.

"You see, my dear, to save expense I ought to know something of the piano, and I ought to know something of the kit too, and consequently I have to practise those two instruments as well as the details of our profession. [...] that part of the work is, at first, a little discouraging, I must allow. But I have a very good ear, and I am used to drudgery--I have to thank Ma for that, at all events-- and where there's a will there's a way, you know, Esther, the world over." Saying these words, Caddy laughingly sat down at a little jingling square piano and really rattled off a quadrille with great spirit. Then she good-humouredly and blushingly got up again, and while she still laughed herself, said, "Don't laugh at me, please; that's a dear girl!"

I would sooner have cried, but I did neither. I encouraged her and praised her with all my heart. For I conscientiously believed, dancing-master's wife though she was, and dancing-mistress though in her limited ambition she aspired to be, she had struck out a natural, wholesome, loving course of industry and perseverance that was quite as good as a mission. (38.21-22)

This is actually a pretty kind thing for the novel to point out. Success isn't only achieved by those who go out there and change the world; normal, middle-of-the-road lives that are well-lived deserve our respect as well.

England has been in a dreadful state for some weeks. Lord Coodle would go out, Sir Thomas Doodle wouldn't come in, and there being nobody in Great Britain (to speak of) except Coodle and Doodle, there has been no government. It is a mercy that the hostile meeting between those two great men, which at one time seemed inevitable, did not come off, because if both pistols had taken effect, and Coodle and Doodle had killed each other, it is to be presumed that England must have waited to be governed until young Coodle and young Doodle, now in frocks and long stockings, were grown up. This stupendous national calamity, however, was averted by Lord Coodle's making the timely discovery that if in the heat of debate he had said that he scorned and despised the whole ignoble career of Sir Thomas Doodle, he had merely meant to say that party differences should never induce him to withhold from it the tribute of his warmest admiration; while it as opportunely turned out, on the other hand, that Sir Thomas Doodle had in his own bosom expressly booked Lord Coodle to go down to posterity as the mirror of virtue and honour. (40.1)

Ah, politicians. It's nice to know their reputation as liars and hypocrites has been around so long.

"That is very true. If in my knowledge of the secret I do what I can to spare an innocent girl (especially, remembering your own reference to her when you told my story to the assembled guests at Chesney Wold) from the taint of my impending shame, I act upon a resolution I have taken. Nothing in the world, and no one in the world, could shake it or could move me." This she says with great deliberation and distinctness and with no more outward passion than himself. As for him, he methodically discusses his matter of business as if she were any insensible instrument used in business.

"Really? Then you see, Lady Dedlock," he returns, "you are not to be trusted. You have put the case in a perfectly plain way, and according to the literal fact; and that being the case, you are not to be trusted. [...] As to sparing the girl, of what importance or value is she? Spare! Lady Dedlock, here is a family name compromised. One might have supposed that the course was straight on--over everything, neither to the right nor to the left, regardless of all considerations in the way, sparing nothing, treading everything under foot." (48.101-105)

It's interesting...when Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn are talking here about the "innocent girl" who should be "spared," they mean Rosa, the maid. But the way the dialogue is structured, they could just as easily be talking about Esther and how her life would be affected if this secret were to come out. A nice double-entendre. Oh, and check out how Tulkinghorn totally doesn't care about human life. He treats Lady Dedlock like an object of "business," and Rosa should just be a thing trod "under foot."