Many critical discussions of Charles Dickens's Bleak House concern his treatment of subjectivity, both its association with violence and the domestic (see, for example, McLaughlin), and the way in which the author's narrative strategies work to explore this issue. Most obvious of these strategies is no doubt the alternation of the character Esther's personal narrative voice with an omniscient one. Very broadly, the omniscient voice begins with Court of Chancery and quickly moves, proto-cinematically, to the fashionable Lady Dedlock and her Lincolnshire estate, Chesney Wold; Esther's narrative begins with her childhood as a penniless orphan, raised under a false name, and with no knowledge of her own personal history. Although overlap does, of course, occur (Esther herself turns out to be Lady Dedlock's illegitimate daughter), for the most part, the omniscient voice continues to narrate the story of Lady Dedlock's fall from grace, her descent into the wretched masses, and eventual death on the street, while Esther tells her own process of accumulating friends and fortune, history and household. Compartmentalized in this way, Dickens's distinctive narrative strategy here calls attention to the divide between these two characters, which functions on several levels. On the one hand, Lady Dedlock's structural isolation from her daughter, her inability to deal with a past which lies outside the bounds of decorum, develops into the novel's chief personal tragedy. On the other hand, Lady Dedlock's fall, when juxtaposed in this way to Esther's rise, figures the enormous gap which distinguishes the individual, subjectivized character, capable of reflection and agency, from the urban, impoverished masses, voiceless and without history; a dichotomy which Dickens's divided narrative suggests is not only ultimately unresolvable, but one which cannot even be approached from a single, coherent narrative perspective.
My primary concern here is not Dickens's narrative strategies, however, but rather the pictorial strategies of his collaborating illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne, or "Phiz." The question arises as to whether Browne was concerned with the same thematic issues as Dickens, and if so, whether it was possible for him as a visual artist, to deal with these issues in the same way. Of course, the strategy of alternating omniscient and subjective viewpoints is not possible in quite the same manner for an illustrator as it is for a writer, but one becomes curious as to whether Browne attempted to make use of some sort of analogous technique, or whether he was simply required to make do without it, and if so, how this might have affected his thematic content. These are broad questions, and deserve to be answered with reference to Browne's illustrations as a whole, an undertaking for which there is little space at present. What I will attempt to do is look at a few significant plates from Bleak House, with the aim of generating some material for future discussion.
In regard to these issues, the very title-page of the novel is already promising. Opposite on the left, the frontispiece depicts a dark, mysterious mansion, surrounded by twisted plant growth and an ominous cloud of birds. No human figures are to be seen, and the perspective of the viewer seems to be somewhere out in the wilderness, the mansion itself looming in the distance. Strangely, Bleak House, (which the list of illustrations tells us is here depicted), turns out to be not such a gloomy place after all, but rather, the location where Esther finds a home, and quite happily develops her close relationships with Richard, Ada, Mr. Jarndyce, and other inhabitants. Across from the frontispiece we have the title-page proper, where, in the foreground, stands a rather tattered looking young man, resting on a broom and glancing towards a larger figure whose back is turned out at us. Having read the novel, one thinks of Jo here, a comparatively minor character who, like Esther at the outset, has lost his name and identity, but more like Lady Dedlock, is unsuccessful at recovering them — he eventually dies of the same fever which scars Esther's face. However, the figure here is hardly a distinctive one, not even to the point that we can be sure of his identity, and thus rather like Jo the character, functions metonymically for the working poor of London as a whole. In the background on the left, a group of similarly ragged figures is just visible gathering together, while on the right, we see a doorway with a dog in front of it, and the faint profile of a man within. Obviously this is some sort of scene of daily life for the common people of London, and it stands in great contrast to the frontispiece opposing it. Already, before even beginning to read the novel itself, we have some indication that this is a text about two very different groups of characters, stretched over two sets of locations so radically differentiated as to amount almost to a generic discontinuity.
If we turn to the illustrations of the novel itself with Dickens's divided narrative technique in mind, we'll soon note that early on in the novel Phiz seems greatly to favor scenes from Esther's narration to those of the omniscient chapters. In fact it is only with the tenth illustration after the title-page that he departs from Esther completely, and this plate is a significant one, "Consecrated Ground" from Chapter 16. Here Jo, marked once more by the broomstick he carries rather than anything distinctive about his person, gestures for a disguised Lady Dedlock towards the resting place of Esther's father. Certainly this belongs to the group of darker plates in the series, with its grizzly depiction of the overgrown, almost seething burial ground, which the title ironically reminds us is blessed. One satirical element is present in the figure seen drinking through a window on the left, but even this serves to remind us of the squalid living conditions of the urban poor, and the ever-present vice of alcoholism. Jo's face is more clearly visible here than on the title-page, but Lady Dedlock's is tightly covered. It is interesting to note how Browne associates Lady Dedlock here and the Jo of the title-page with his depictions of Esther, in which her face is either fully covered or seen in profile. Contagion, disfigurement, poverty, disgrace, secrecy and the pitiful are all associated in this way with the disappearance of subjective identity, the obscuring of the individual countenance being analogous, perhaps, to the confusion of personal names which mars the plot proper, and to the unexplainable jumble of property rights and legal claims which makes court cases like the ever-present of "Jarndyce and Jarndyce" so dangerously insoluble.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Bradbury & Evans. Bouverie Street, 1853.
McLaughlin, Kevin, "Losing One's Place: Displacement and Domesticity in Dicken's Bleak House," MLN, 108 (1993): 875-890.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978. [e-text in Victorian Web.]
Last modified 7 December 2007