Reading & Writing Bleak House

The Magnanimous Mr. Guppy

Apr 29, 2012 by Elizabeth M Tallmadge in Phiz 

Scanned by  George P. Landow 

For some reason I couldn't get the image on the blog but here is the link.  

I found Phiz’s illustration of Magnanimous conduct of Mr Guppy on page 969 quite amusing. He is again taking a chance at proposing to Ester. Guppy is sitting on a chair with his legs spread out supposedly seemingly to try to stand on one knee. Guppy’s face is very comical and so is his mother the women behind him. It looks very clownish to me. This passage in the novel is another scene where Dickens brings humor to the gloominess of Bleak House.  

These humors scenes appear to be like little breaks in the more central stories of the novel. This is a side story that doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet I do think it is interesting that Mr. Jarndyce answers for Ester as Guppy’s mother replies in a way he can’t. Here Guppy exclaims. “ ‘my wish is to be magnanimous. I do not consider that in making this offer to Miss Summerson, I am by any means throwing myself away;’ ” (970). The fact that he uses the word “magnanimous” will certainly not win Ester over as it means to be forgiving towards a rival. Guppy doesn’t have the guts to stand up against Esters rejection given by her Guardian so that his mother has to. Here we might think of Guppy’s as a mama’s boy as she is the one to stand up for him. Also, unlike other motherly characters in the novel she actually is trying to help her son and take his interests a little to seriously. 

Lady Dedlock's Final Place

Apr 23, 2012 by Allison J Gran in Phiz


Image via Victorian Web 

I think this image by Phiz is particularly striking and interesting not only to look at, but also to consider and to question why he drew it as he does. If we look at the accompanying text, the space of the mausoleum is one of darkness and death, exemplified by the dead trees looming above in Phiz's sketch. However, it is interesting to note to little spot of life he places in the bottom of the image with the appearence of the ferns, as if there is still hope for new life to come. This is, of course, inarguably refuted by the impending darkness of the image, but I couldn't help but notice the possibility of it, particularly as it is placed directly in the front of the image and thus inescapable from the view of the reader.

I also couldn't help but make the connection between Sir Leicester and the trees keeping watch over the location. The bent stature of the trees reminds me distinctly of his bent and invalid body going past, as if there is some part of him which still refuses to give her up. There is, of course, no way to know if this was at all in Phiz's mind when he drew this, but it would be interesting to consider the possibility. 


Turveydrop's Ego

Mar 19, 2012 by Lucy S Arnerich-Hatch in Phiz


 Scanned by Philip V. Allingham

In this last reading, the older Mr. Turveydrop had some odd ideas which intrigued me. These ideas are pretty well captured in Phiz's illustration of him giving consent for his son to marry Miss Jellyby.

When Esther first arrives at the studio to offer moral support for the young couple, he says he's "using our little arts to polish, polish!" the little girls who come to him (376). However, in the same paragraph, he praises women ("the sex") as wonderful creatures who deign to appear to lower beings such as himself. These little girls somehow honor Turveydrop with their presence while he's teaching them how to inspire that feeling in men. We can see in the illustration that Turveydrop has a folding screen placed behind him that has been painted with various scenes of men bowing down to stiff-backed females. In reality, though, Turveydrop is the one sitting pretty, surrounded by his own portraits and evidence of his vanity. Caddy kneels on the floor, and poor Esther is almost out of the picture entirely. Turveydrop presides over them like an English Buddha, reaching out benevolently. These images seem to contradict each other, but I think Turveydrop is enamored of himself. He fancies that he is responsible for the elegance of the women he teaches, and since he values them so highly, he is also a being of great importance. This raises him above all others without him really having to do anything.

Is this sexism? His praise is reminiscent of sexism, because of his stress on women's elegance and nothing else, and we can see he treats them not exactly as equals in Phiz's drawing. If we take Phiz's narrative to be part of the canon, that is. But does he reduce the female gender to inflate his own ego, or is it a reduction of other people in general? Dickens and Phiz make him a ridiculous figure, but are they satirizing everything he thinks about women as well? I've been wondering how Dickens sees Esther since he painted her as the dowdy maid everyone goes to for advice, and since every ridiculous/stupid character seems to love her. Then again, everyone loves her. Anyway, understanding the moments with the idiots is key to understanding what Dickens wants us to think, but I'm getting mixed messages here.

Money and Literacy in the Smallweed Family

Mar 10, 2012 by Rachel Berlage in Phiz

Image from Victorian Web, scanned by George P. Landow



The titular characters from chapter 22, “The Smallweed Family,” offer an interesting commentary on money, literacy, and family life. Grandfather Smallweed is an unpleasant man, to say the least, who worships “Compond Interest,” (285). He is exceedingly bitter towards his family, who are also unpleasant. From Phiz’s image, I get the feeling that his shoulders are slumped due not just to age but also to his unpleasant nature, possibly stemming from his job as a creditor. I think it’s possible that the unpleasant nature of his job has hardened him, and has also lead to some warped ideas about money.

            The other members of his family seem to have inherited his bad attitude, such as Judy. She is interesting because she grew up without the normal childhood experience. The mention that “Judy never owned a doll” (287) is an interesting contrast to Esther—one of the first things we learn in Esther’s narration is that she used to use her doll as a confidante. It seems that one of the reasons she is so horrible (we see her in the Phiz image yelling at their maid, Charley) is her unfortunate childhood.

            Mr. George, a debtor, says: “I was a thundering bad son… and never was a credit to any body,” (293*). The language of finance is everywhere in this chapter, however, it is generally used in negative terms, such as the use of “credit” here. Additionally, Grandfather Smallweed states, “we have never been readers in our family. It don’t pay,” also calling reading “idleness” and “folly,” (294). The connection between literacy and the desire to acquire money are shown to be at odds here—and the incorrect English that Grandfather Smallweed uses drives the point home.  


Mr. Guppy's Desolation

Feb 20, 2012 by Emma F Loy-Santelli in Phiz

Image source: The Victorian Web, George P. Landow 

In Chapter 13, Esther’s Narrative, Dickens brings us back to the matter of Mr. Guppy, and his desire to marry Esther. She says “…it was at the theatre that I began to be made uncomfortable again, by Mr. Guppy. I was sitting in front of the box one night… when, happening to look down into the pit, I saw Mr. Guppy, with his hair flattened down upon his head, and woe depicted in his face, looking up at me. I felt, all through the performance, that he never looked at the actors, but constantly looked at me, and always with a carefully prepared expression of the deepest misery and the profoundest dejection” (202). This particular scene is one that Phiz chose to illustrate.

            In Phiz’s drawing, Esther can clearly be identified, sitting in the front and middle of the theatre’s central box. She is seated between Richard and Ada, both of whom are clearly watching the performance in front of them. However, it is difficult to discern whether Esther’s gaze is being directed toward the stage or toward Mr. Guppy, who is shown standing below her, to the left. He is leaning against the wall with his arms folded, and is staring up at Esther. He is immediately noticeable because his clothes are much darker than those of the people around him, and because he is the only person in the theatre who is not seated. His mouth is open and his eyes are wide; an expression that indicates both sadness and awe. While it is unclear whether or not Esther has noticed him yet, everything about Mr. Guppy’s posture indicates that he is completely focused on her.

            This is one instance in which Phiz’s artwork alters the perception that the reader receives of one of the characters. Esther’s narration on the subject of Mr. Guppy betrays nothing but irritation toward him. Mr. Guppy’s presence at the theatre “…quite spoiled my pleasure for that night, because it was so very embarrassing and so very ridiculous. …I really cannot express how uneasy this made me. If he would only have brushed up his hair, or turned up his collar, it would have been bad enough; but to know that that absurd figure was always gazing at me, and always in that demonstrative state of despondency, put such a constraint upon me that I did not like to laugh at the play, or to cry at it, or to move, or to speak” (202-203). Esther continues by describing Mr. Guppy’s habit of standing outside the house at night. With only this account to go on, the reader would immediately develop a sense of Mr. Guppy as a pathetic, irritating individual who seems to be developing a worrying obsession with Esther. However, Phiz’s illustration does not entirely support this characterization. In the drawing, Mr. Guppy appears as a sad young man who stares helplessly up at Esther, who may or may not even be aware of his presence. He is presented less as someone to be despised and more as someone to be pitied. We are shown the intensity of his emotions, and therefore get more of a sense of his point of view than we do from Esther’s narration.

            While many of Phiz’s illustrations in Bleak House assist in strengthening the reader’s mental image of a character and transferring Dickens’s story into a physical form, the picture entitled “Mr. Guppy’s Desolation” is one instance in which Phiz actually presents a different perspective on a character than the one created by the narrative. He creates a different angle from which the reader can examine both Mr. Guppy and Esther.


Mrs. Badger's Many Husbands

Feb 19, 2012 by Hannah R Weinberg in Phiz

 Source: Victorian Web, George P. Landow


 In previous readings in Bleak House, Dickens has been quite hard on the independent woman. Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle function in a more masculine, assertive way, but at the cost of any feminine charm. For all of their accomplishments, Dickens does not portray these women in a particularly flattering light. Which makes the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Badger so interesting, because their life is defined by what she has done.

Both of them celebrate her past, in the same way that Sir Leicester’s ancestors are celebrated at Chesney Wold. Mrs. Badger is the one who the authority and prestige of this family comes from. Phiz’s sketch, the Family Portraits at Mr. Bayham Badger’s emphasizes this idea. The paintings of Mrs. Badger’s former husband’s appear to be staring at the people in the room. In this representation, the men are participating in what is going on around them, which is not so odd when one considers that they are such a vital part of both Mr. and Mrs. Badger’s identity. They are kept alive by the Badger’s dependence upon them, just as people now seem to keep their relatives alive to heighten their own prestige. One would think that the Kennedys would not be viewed as American Royalty if people forgot about Camelot.

However, the prestige is not the most important aspect of this sketch, it is that Mrs. Badger is the source of it. Through her marriages Mrs. Badger has created prestige for herself and her newest husband. While this prestige is not to the same level of the Kennedys, or the Deadlocks. She has somehow achieved this by herself, without appearing as morally lacking as either Mrs. Jellyby or Mrs. Pardiggle. At this point in the text it does not seem very clear as to why Mrs. Badger gets rewarded for her actions while the other women are described in ways, which portray them as quite lacking. However their differing types of power will surely be brought up again.


Mr. Guppy Proposes

Feb 11, 2012 by Angela Sickler in Phiz

Image Credit: George P. Landow

In “Signs and Tokens,” Mr. Guppy unexpectedly proposes to Esther.  Esther refuses him, but some time afterwards, she finds herself sobbing alone in her room, writing, “I…felt as if an old chord had been more coarsely touched than it ever had been since the days of the dear old doll, long buried in the garden” (154).  It is natural that she should refuse, because they have only met once before and hardly know each other.  But why is she so upset by the encounter?  And does she even know herself what “chord” Mr. Guppy touched?    

In Phiz’s illustration, Mr. Guppy is shown with legs widespread and one knee on the ground as he gazes adoringly at an oblivious Esther, with an almost saccharine upturn of his lips.  He appears to be pulling aside his coat to press his hand to his heart, to emphasize the sincerity of his devotion.  Esther is bent over her desk, clearly uninterested and unmoved by Mr. Guppy’s theatrical gestures and fancy outfit, including a shiny suit, a ruffled waistcoat, and a flower in his buttonhole.  The theatricality of Mr. Guppy is juxtaposed with Esther’s quiet concentration on her letters.  Since Esther seems so unmoved, why does she begin sobbing afterwards?    

Esther was neglected and ill-treated as a child because of her illegitimacy and she is probably still haunted by it.  Her aunt told her, “Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it.  You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath.  You are set apart” (30-1) Perhaps Esther feels she does not deserve to be married, to live the happy, common life that Mr. Guppy suggests— with an adoring husband who makes two pound a-week, a mother-in-law with “an easy disposition,” and an “airy” house in Penton Place, Pentonville (150).  She feels she cannot have a life like this because is not common and does not deserve it.  Although she does not wish to have that life with Mr. Guppy, his proposal and effusions of love still remind her of what she could have.


The Mechanization of Mrs. Pardiggle

Feb 10, 2012 by Hannah R Leffingwell in Phiz

Image Credit: George P. Landow

In “Covering a Multitude of Sins,” Mr. Jarndyce laments the bleakness of Bleak House under the auspices of its late master, describing its brains as having “been blown out... it was so shuttered and ruined” (119).   Soon after, he describes “a street of perishing blind houses, with their eyes stoned out (120).  Just as the bees at the beginning of the chapter take on human qualities, so too does Bleak House and its cohorts.  In contrast, Mrs. Pardiggle – with her “rapacious benevolence” (124) – becomes a charitable machine, mechanized to the point that she abandons basic human sentiments towards her children and becomes blind to the emotional plight of the poor.  Her children “expend the entire amount of their allowance in subscriptions, under my direction” (126).  As soon as Esther looks into the boys’ faces, it is clear that no charitable natures precipitate such financial generosity.  On top of the mechanization of her family, Mrs. Pardiggle also boasts an absolute inability to “tire” (127).  Throughout the time Esther spends with Mrs. Pardiggle, basic humanity disappears, covered over by a “multitude of sins,” so to speak – sins of character that seems as impossible to eradicate as the brute poverty she encounters. 

Looking at Phiz’s illustration, “The visit at the Brickmaker’s,” this mechanization becomes visually apparent.  Mrs. Pardiggle sits spewing out meaningless words with her boys arranged behind her.  With their top hats and their powerless countenances, the boys become mere gadgets in the larger financial and social outcomes of her enterprise.  The man lying on the floor reposes easily, looking up at Mrs. Pardiggle with a hardly disguised look of disgust.  He knows that she’s “going to poll-pry and question according to custom” (132), a mere sprocket in the larger machine that is England’s class system.  In the end, Mrs. Pardiggles “mechanical way of taking possession of people” (133) becomes representative of the industrialized society in which she lives, in which even Bleak House can show more human qualities than a human being.

The Lord Chancellor Copies From Memory: A Telling Illustration

Feb 03, 2012 by Bailly S Morse in Phiz

 Image provided by: George P. Landow

  This etching is capturing the moment in which Mr. Krook, the owner of the strange little shop where "everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold there" (67). The items in the store include ink bottles, rags, law papers, and other odds and ends. The particular moment that is happening in this picture is when Mr. Krook, who has been christened Chancellor because his store is falling apart and he sits in the middle of all this ruin, is writing on the wall of his store. Esther is asked by Mr. Krook if she can read what he's writing. He starts by writing a J, then continues to spell until he has written “JARNDYCE” and “BLEAK HOUSE” (76). He claims he scribes it from memory, having no writing skills. 

The most illuminated portion of the illustration is surprisingly not the image of Esther, but rather the letter J that Mr. Krook is inscribing, and the man himself who is ringed in light. This seems to single out Mr. Krook, an otherwise overlooked character, and makes the viewer consider him again. The setting really puts one in mind of the stuffy, bustling interior of a Victorian Era manor house, the way the furniture is sporadic and cluttered and the knickknacks are covering the surfaces of tables and covering the walls. It indicates the repressed, slightly suffocating nature of the society in that time period, and Phiz is providing commentary on the overall environment of London. 

Unlike Phiz' other work in this book, this particular illustration is dark and almost a little muddled. The interior is different from the neatly ordered and bright picture titled Coavinses, where paintings are straight on the walls and the lines are clean and clear. The Lord Chancellor copies from memory has hatched, dark strokes of the pen which put one in mind of a stormy, gloomy setting. This sets up a sense of foreboding, unsettling the reader, regarding the topic that Mr. Krook is writing about: the Jarndyce family and their estate. Will Bleak House and its owner prove to be as disturbing and strange as the mad Mr. Krook? The picture and the situation surrounding it certainly suggest there’s a possibility.