Saturday, 19 July 2014

Crime and Bleak House

Charles Dickens' fictional novel Bleak House was originally published in serials. It explores both social and legal crimes, appearing to set them up in conflict with one another. This allows him to pose the question to the reader: which type of crime is worse? Do we see (spoilers, but it was written quite a while ago) Esther's bastardization as a result of Lady Dedlock's youthful sexual liberty as something inherently more immoral than Mr Tulkinghorn's murder? My answer is no. Dickens is known for his exposés of the physically and metaphorically filthy state of London in the nineteenth century. This novel appears to occupy a similar strand of argument, which means that it examines the implication of social crimes upon legal ones. Thus, Lady Dedlock's sexual activity cannot be viewed in a light which puts all other plot strands to darkness: all other crimes are in some way involved with it, to the extent that Mr Tulkinghorn's murder could even be said to be caused by it. 
Lady Dedlock's sexual crime, by which she decides to engage in premarital sexual intercourse with Captain Hawdon, is also a domestic crime. This crime is inextricably linked to the haughty mask of secrecy which controls Lady Dedlock's domestic life. Although at first it appears that her aristocratic snobbery allows her to occupy this position of aloofness, it is eventually revealed that it is crippling shame which induces this facade. She maintains this cool exterior by flitting from place to place, refusing to fully engage herself in her life. Lady Dedlock continues to live in this manner for a number of years until Mr Tulkinghorn invades her domestic sphere with a vicious sting of truth: her past. Tulkinghorn's revelation to Lady Dedlock of his knowledge of her youthful sexual affair is central to the criminal strand of the novel's plot. Once this invasion has occurred, the social order which the reader experiences at the beginning of the novel can never be restored. Thus, this indicates that the theme of this Victorian fictionalisation of crime is the secrecy of the home's problematical relationship with the public sphere. Indeed, Lady Dedlock is not initially aware of the long-lasting consequences of her affair: Esther, her daughter, is alive! Once this is revealed, her life becomes fraught with tension. Lady Dedlock is no longer able to feel "at home" in her stately mansion because her sexual "crime" has made her unworthy of such a high social position. 
Furthermore, questions surrounding Mr Tulkinghorn's murder are at first seemingly unanswerable because of the number of enemies he has made by collecting peoples' domestic secrets. Indeed, his own secrecy is involved in the seemingly impossible nature of the inquest as nobody knows to whom he was attending on the evening of his murder. Mr Tulkinghorn's death, in parallel to his life, is shrouded in mystery. His death, and life for that matter, is, moreover, at the heart of all of the criminal strands of the complicated plot of Bleak House. He represented the watchful eyes of the public social sphere upon Lady Dedlock's life. His invasion of the secrecy of her home led to his murder. In addition, the death brings a number of minor criminal figures out from the shadows of crime-ridden London. Mr Smallweed, Hortense and Mr George are all characters with questionable moral qualms, and all have committed some crime, whether it be legal or moral, in the novel. In this way, Mr Tulkinghorn's murder ironically results in the invasion of the secrecy of his home by representatives of the public sphere.
Moreover, there is an interesting link between women and crime in the text as it is Hortense and Lady Dedlock who arguably commit the greatest crimes. In Victorian culture, women were expected to occupy the domestic sphere: this provides another (albeit tenuous) link between domestic life and the fictionalisation of crime. Hortense is a maid, which means that her role in society is to invade the secrecy of the home. She occupies a peripheral position in the house as she is both integral to its pragmatical functioning and unnecessary to the family emotionally. Hortense's lack of understanding of the position which she occupies is revealed in her childish indignance at losing her place as Lady Dedlock's favoured female companion. Hortense's vengeful plan which she enacts as a result of this is incredibly detailed and cunning. This shows that if the secrets of the house are revealed to the public sphere, serious crimes can abound in Victorian London. Moreover, Horetense's plot to frame Lady Dedlock would have been successful had she not been residing with Mrs Bucket - the detective's wife - at that period of time. A crime can therefore only be successful is it remains hidden from other members of a household. 
Furthermore, Mrs Pardiggle's unmannerly invasion of the brickmakers' homes reveals the presence of domestic abuse to both the naive wards of Jarndyce and the reader. The black eye which Liz sports and her husband's drunk, aggressive behaviour are designed to imply that he beats her. Had Mrs Pardiggle not have entered the house, this awareness would not have been made public in the novel. Indeed, Liz and her friend Jenny, a fellow brickmaker's wife, suffer from a great deal of physical and emotional abuse from their husbands to the extent that they are made penniless, voiceless and powerless to do anything about it. 
What are your thoughts about crime in Bleak House?

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