Consequential Ground: The Foot Passengers of Bleak House
This is an expanded version of a lecture given at the Birkbeck College Dickens Day, to mark the (near) 150th anniversary of Dickens’s Bleak House, September 30, 2000.
It has appeared in Turkish, trans. Mehmet H. Dogan, as ‘Kasvetli Ev’in Yayalari’, in the journal Kitap-Lik, 49 (2001), pp. 171-80.
All references to Bleak House are to the Penguin edition, ed. Norman Page (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971)
Dickens’s world often presents itself as world of elementary actions and reactions, of social and psychological processes rendered, at times remorselessly in terms of fundamental physical processes, of the vicissitudes of matter, and the secret life of substances, of objects in motion, impelled by material forces, undergoing processes of collision, fusion and dissolution. I recall speaking, in earlier contributions to this series of celebratory Dickens Days, of the comic kinetics of The Old Curiosity Shop and the thermodynamics of A Christmas Carol. Here I will be speaking of the actions of walking, and the constellation of other forms of passage and carriage, deportment and transportation, which accompany, amplify and inflect this simple activity.
Foot passengers appear early in Bleak House, in fact in the very first paragraph, which hinges between the Chancellor, who is sitting in Lincoln’s Inn (the term is metaphorical but is here literalised), and those who orbit clumsily and stumblingly about the black sun of the law.
Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill temper. and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
It is a wonderful extended metaphor, which accumulates and compounds itself in just the way it evokes, adding itself on and folding itself in to the process of involuntary accretion that is its subject. At the same time as it merges with its subject, the metaphor also carries us, and itself somewhat away from it, as all metaphors, if only etymologically, are pledged to carry us away: the slippery mud slides off into money. Metaphor is nothing but, and no less than, carriage, passage, bearing. Here what the metaphor vehiculates, or sets sliding, is an action of passage itself, and the most ordinary and literal sort of passage at that: foot passage is what the passage starts, and then departs from. But we have not yet got the bottom of this metaphor. There is another subject, lying as it were before or beneath the action of walking, namely the mud, and other waste products which it approximates, through and over which this passage must take place. A compound is a mingling of substances or elements, as well as the formation of a new, more complex thing. In compound interest, the process of variable accretion may be complex, but the outcome is not. It is just more money, more more. Similarly, the compounding or complication of the idea of mud with the metaphor of compound interest in this passage threatens to fall back on itself, as it simply returns us to the more-of-the-same: more mud, more money, more law, more metaphor. The play on compounding and interest recurs at least once later on in the novel, when Esther tells us that, looking down at the Ghost’s Walk, ‘the old legend in the Dedlock family…mingled with the view and gave it something of a mysterious interest’ (561).
More interest accrues to this metaphorical mud pie later in the novel, in the description of the walk undertaken by Tulkinghorn and Snagsby from Cook’s Court to Krook’s shop, the latter walking deferentially in the gutter:
It is quite dark now, and the gas-lamps have acquired their full effect. Jostling against clerks going to post the day’s letters, and against counsel and attorneys going home to dinner, and against plaintiffs and defendants, and suitors of all sorts, and against the general crowd, in whose way the forensic wisdom of ages has interposed a million of obstacles to the transaction of the commonest business of life – diving through law and equity, and through that kindred mystery, the street mud, which is made of nobody knows what, and collects about us nobody knows whence or how: we only knowing in general that when there is too much of it, we find it necessary to shovel it away. (186)
Mud accumulates, not just from slipping and sliding but also from colliding (Bleak House is indeed what Finnegans Wake would later call itself – a ‘collideorscape’.) The mud comes about from walking, and walking over where others have walked, where generations have trod, have trod. Mud means filth, meaninglessness, chaos, indistinction, in other words what there is before meaning sets in; but it also, and I will be guessing, primarily, means intersection, over-walking, walking in others’ footsteps.The mud which provides the grounding, through and against which the simple action of walking or foot passage starts forth and stands out, is a product of and yes, a metaphor for walking, or walking in the city. Mud is the material form of walking. Losing your footing at the places where others have lost theirs will be as endemic in this novel as bumping into other people.
It is not surprising to find that, in a novel in which there is so much churning of things underfoot into the condition of mud, that characters should experience the apprehension of being trodden over. Boythorn declares that he is ‘ “not the man to be walked over, by all the Sir Dedlocks, dead or alive, locked or unlocked” ‘ (171). Lady Dedlock feels herself to be under Tulkinghorn’s foot (633). Mr. Turveydrop complains that ‘ “It is much in these times…to experience that deportment is not wholly trodden under foot by mechanics” ‘ (381). Lady Dedlock’s final prostration near the grave of her lover may remind us that, according to Jo’s account, his body has had to be stamped down in its shallow grave (278). The operation of being shaken up is equivalent to Grandfather to being trodden down for Grandfather Smallweed, for we learn that it produces from him ‘enforced sounds like a paviour’s rammer’ (428).
If the condition of being a ‘foot passenger’ signifies motility without motion, without full responsibility or decision or conviction or direction, there is another form of walking in the novel, a counterfactual walking ideal. The action and decision and near-at-hand purposiveness that are such dominating ideals in Dickens’s own life (Dickens was a champion walker even for an age of prodigious pedestrians) and apparently so lacking in the England of Bleak House, are embodied in the act of walking. It seems to be the principal purpose of Mrs Bagnet to exemplify this ideal. We are given a long description of her ‘walking trim’, consisting of grey cloth coat, umbrella and basket, in which gear we are to believe that she has made her way home doggedly and, it is strongly implied, on foot, from various stations of the Empire. It is this paragon of purposive walking that we see when Mrs Bagnet sets of for Lincolnshire, skirts pinned up for the enterprise, in search of Trooper George’s mother:
‘Never you mind for me, miss. I’m a soldier’s wife, and accustomed to travel my own way’…And she actually set off while we three stood looking at one another lost in amazement. She actually trudged away in her grey cloak at a sturdy pace, and turned the corner and was gone. (767-8)
Mr. Bucket pursues Lady Dedlock in a carriage, but spends much of the time on foot, going to and fro in the night: ‘He promises Sir Leicester, ‘ “Don’t you be afraid of my turning out of my way, right or left…till I have found what I go in search of.’ (820) Walking is the visible enactment of responsible, clear-eyed engagement with the near-at-hand, and is therefore the opposite of the long-sighted ‘Borioboolan business’ of Mrs Jellyby and the other social reformers in the novel who cannot see what lies under their noses or, so to speak, feel what lies so palpably under their feet.
Walking appears in the light of an unexpectedly intricate compromise between a condition of absolute prostration in which one is so close to the ground – like the brickmaker stretched out at full length in his hut when Mrs Pardiggle makes her visit – as to be indistinguishable from it, and a more abstract or ghostly condition in which one has lost all contact with the ground. To walk is to hold in balance earth and air. The extremes of becoming bestially stuck in the mud or of becoming fecklessly airborne are accordingly dramatised throughout the novel. For much of the novel, Lady Dedlock seems to inhabit the latter region, and to walk or take her passage in a spectral, weightless way: ‘If she could be translated to Heaven to-morrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture’, we read. She shares this mode of footless passage with Mr. Tulkinghorn, who telekinetically ‘transfers himself’ (639) from place to place, has a Turkey carpet in his apartment which ‘muffles the floor where he sits’ (182) and, for all his eighteenth-century display of calf, ‘walks noiselessly’ (631), wherever he goes.
Grandfather Smallweed offers repeated opportunities to dramatise the dichotomy of the earthy and the aerial. He is a grotesque epitome of the failure of locomotion, and concomitant distortion of the balance between mind and limbs. Mr. Bucket remarks sardonically that his wits have been ‘sharpened…by the loss of the use of his limbs, which occasions all of his animation to rise up into his head’ (791). His coupling with his wife is seen as a pairing of stasis and pseudo-flight, or conditions of foot and mouth, as when George and Bagnet come upon him ‘with his feet in the drawer of his chair as if it were a paper foot-bath, and Mrs Smallweed obscured with the cushion like a bird that is not to sing’ (535).
If one strain of imagery encourages us to see everybody in the toils of Chancery as being like Miss Flite’s snared or flightless birds, another aims to make us aware of the dangers of losing one’s ground, of being unable to see what lies at one’s feet. The airy mode of walking without setting foot is enacted in the novel by the sounds of steps. The Dedlocks’ two houses, Chesney Wold and the house in London, are full of the sounds of walking, detached from its purpose. When Lady Dedlock swoons at the sight of Hawdon’s writing, and is carried to her chamber, the movement is signalled by sound alone and especially the sound of feet: ‘bells ring, feet shuffle and patter’ (62). The skimming nature of Skimpole’s relationship to life is made clear not only in his name but also in Esther’s description of his conversational improvisations – ‘He pursued this fancy with the lightest foot over a variety of ground, and made us all merry’ (144). The flighty Miss Flite, whose name reminds us that Chancery involves an unbearable lightness of being as well as a frightening aptness for collapse, shares a telescopic perspective with Mrs Jellyby, for she lives at the top of Krook’s house, a situation which affords her a view of Lincoln’s Inn.
Indeed, it is striking just how many of the places of occupation in Bleak House are actually upstairs. Captain Hawdon lives and dies in an upstairs room in the same building as Miss Flite. The drawing room in Chesney Wold is an upstairs room, from which one looks down over the Ghost’s Walk of the south terrace, and Tulkinghorn inhabits a first-floor apartment. Hawdon’s death and inquest both take place in upstairs rooms, and the stairs leading up to the court of Chancery are given emphasis. The Neckett children are first discovered locked in at the top of a staircase inhabited also by Mr. Gridley. The predicament of living on top of one another is an apt correlative to the walking in each others’ path that is forced upon the jostled foot passengers of the city. One of the sinister things about Bleak House is the muddling complexity of the stairs that lead up and down from room to room, without reference to an obvious ground plan. Chadband’s oily oratory piles up ‘verbose flights of stairs’ (318), just as, later, Krook in his greasily distributed state will find stairs no obstacle. Stairs are also to the fore in Mrs Jellyby’s chaotic London house, though one is more apt to tumble down them than ascend them.
The alternatives of flight and lowliness – swiftly summarised in Charley’s phrase ‘tramping high and low’ (483) and in Snagsby’s bathetic answer to Chadband’s aerated rhetoric ‘ “Why can we not fly my friends?” – “No wings” ‘ (318) – may even encode the relations between the two narratives in the novel. Esther’s narrative must toil painfully across large and encumbered kinds of terrain; but it is nevertheless able to build through time. The impersonal narration can range freely and at will across space, moving with the swiftness of flight or thought from place to place – ‘we may pass from the one scene to the other, as the crow flies’ (55), it says, introducing a metaphor that will later be made over to Mr Tulkinghorn (183). But, for all its powers of pervasion and adjacency (like Bucket, it is able to be, as Jo puts it ‘ “in all manner of places, all at wunst” ‘ (690), it seems to be unable to build or progress incrementally through time, or to make, what Jo calls ‘consequential ground’ (278). All it can do is, endlessly, to resume, like the case in Chancery.
The novel begins early the work of collating different modes of ineffectual motion, of goings-on that never get anywhere. In contrast to the image of a decisive and irreversible passage over the ground and forward in time, are the tracks of the treadmill, the spiralling stair and of the jack-in-the box, reversible, recursive kinds of movement that go back and forth, up and down, churning itineraries which do no more than turn over on themselves. Jarndyce and Jarndyce does not progress, but simply continues starting and stopping. In Vholes’s favourite locution, ‘putting one’s shoulder to the wheel’, there is the strong sense that the suit is more of a mill or roundabout than a conveyance. Hortense is in fact threatened by Tulkinghorn with the treadmill (645), a penal mechanism that mirrors the condition of those bound to the wheel of Chancery. Taking her into custody, Bucket warns Hortense that, if she tries to escape ‘ “I shall link your feet together at the ankles” ‘ (796). The great unintelligible ‘tee-totum’, that starts up every day around Jo (275), is concentric with the ‘fashionable circles’ that move around the Dedlocks and the interminable orbiting of the Jarndyce suit and its suitors about its own cost and hunger. Jarndyce speaks of those involved in the suit as ‘ “Waltzing ourselves off to dusty death” ‘ (145) The waltzing rewrites the ‘petty pace’ with which life crawls towards death in Macbeth’s speech as the medieval dance of death; but the rewriting also preserves and perhaps reawakens what it overwrites. The footmen at Chesney Wold appear ‘walking backward’, as though to ensure that they do not ‘receive any impress from the moving age’ (211), like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, only receding into the past rather than the future.
Nobody seems to come and go in and to the Court of Chancery; rather they rise and fall, on the spot, in the form of Mr. Tangle’s eighteen learned friends who ‘bob up like eighteen hammers in a pianoforte, make eighteen bows, and drop into their eighteen places of obscurity’ (54). Their movement is echoed by those of Mr. Tangle himself, who is alternatively ‘crushed’ and, within the space of a few lines, ‘on his legs again’, and by the mysterious informant ‘with a terrific bass voice’, who ‘arises, fully inflated, in the back settlements of the fog’, delivers his sepulchral message about and then ‘drops’. (54) The movement recurs in the anxious movements of Mr Jobling on what will turn out to have been the night of Krook’s death, ‘down and up, and down and up’ between his room and the street (499), and in Grandfather Smallweed, who, deprived of the means of personal locomotion, is restricted to a recurrent movement of collapse and retumescence, as he alternately shakes himself to pieces and is shaken up, back into shape. Actually, his collapses are a series of small explosions, the aftershocks of Krook’s literal explosion, and premonition of the self-consuming explosion of the Jarndyce suit. (If walking holds earth and air in vital tension, then explosion perhaps represents the catastrophic collapse into dead equivalence of earth and air, as the atomised fragments of the explosion first rise and then fall.
These modes of reversible movement or passage take many forms through the novel. When the young wards in Chancery are in the countryside together advancing on St Albans, and see wagons going towards the London they have left behind, Richard remarks cheerily that ‘ “The whole road has been reminding me of my namesake Whittington,” said Richard’ (110). Richard will indeed turn again, in the hope that the roads currently paved with mire and shit can be induced to turn to gold, but will end turning and turning in the wheel of Chancery. His optimistic view of the prospects of turning back is also one of the first of many premonitions of Lady Dedlock’s final path, first outwards from the city to the country, and then, back into the heart of darkness (Dickens is careful to specify that she even takes the route North, up the Archway road, taken by Dick Whittington, whose monument stands outside the Whittington hospital, just south of Highgate.) It is encoded in miniature in all the many pacings up and down – in the ‘uneasy walk’ of Jarndyce (490) whenever the east wind exerts its influence, by Mr Guppy, as he walks up and down gazing on the bricks that Esther has graced with her habitation, the pacings of Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock, and in the devious zig-zag of Mr Tulkinghorn, who takes his leave from Mr Snagsby with every appearance of heading straight on for Lincoln’s Inn, but instead ‘goes a short way, turns back, comes again’ to Krook’s shop (187). Although he has a capacity for arrow-straight progress to his goal, Bucket exhibits something of Tulkinghorn’s fondness for divagation in his movements with Mr Snagsby:
As they walk along, Mr Snagsby observes, as a novelty, that however quick their pace may be, his companion still seems in some undefinable manner to lurk and lounge; also, that whenever he is going to turn to the right or left, he pretends to have a fixed purpose in his mind of going straight ahead, and wheels off, sharply, at the very last moment. (363)
Walking, and the postures of motion, are important in this novel because they are so mined with the imminence of fall. Many of the characters in the novel might say, with the Body who speaks in Marvell’s ‘Dialogue Between the Body and Soul’ ‘Mine own precipice I go.’ Indeed, dropping seems to have had a hold upon Dickens’s imagination, from Oliver Twist onwards, where the constant fear of ‘the drop’ haunts Fagin’s underworld. Hanging is less of a threat in Bleak House than the threat of being laid low, by traumatic revelation – though there is one hanging, intriguingly (for my purposes anyway) run together with pedestrianism, in the bachelor friend of Tulkinghorn’s recalled for us in chapter 22, who
lived the same kind of life until he was seventy-five years old, and then, suddenly conceiving (as it is supposed) an impression that it was too monotonous, gave his gold watch to his hair-dresser one summer evening, and walked leisurely home to the Temple, and hanged himself. (359)
The drop is found in the fall of Esther’s godmother, who, uttering her dark and threatening admonition to Esther, suddenly falls down to the floor, her voice uttering its own stentorian alarm, for ‘her voice had sounded through the house, and been heard in the street’ (67). Sir Leicester Dedlock’s seizure seals the connection between losing one’s footing and losing one’s voice: at the moment at which one’s feet lose contact with the ground, one loses contact with one’s own voice. Boythorn is no danger of losing his footing or his voice, laughing grandiosely at the expectation among the congregation in the Chesney Wold church that they might ‘see me drop, scorched and withered, on the pavement under the Dedlock displeasure’. (299-300) In fact, it is to be Boythorn who attends Dedlock after his own sudden prostration.
The prostration that threatens so many characters in Bleak House has its source in the story of the Ghost’s Walk, told by Mrs Rouncewell. We learn that the wife of an ancestor of Sir Leicester, who is of the Parliamentary party in the Civil War, is discovered by her husband in the act of laming his horse, and herself lamed in the ensuing struggle between them. Her repeated, halting walk up and down the south terrace ends only with her sudden collapse, and refusal to be helped by her husband, declaring ‘ “I will die here where I have walked. And I will walk here, though I am in my grave” ‘ (141).
Echoes of the ghost’s walk are found in the many examples of limping or impeded progress in Bleak House. Jo shuffles and smears his way along in the same fashion as the crippled Phil, who ‘has a curious way of limping round the gallery with his shoulder against the wall, and tacking off at objects he wants to lay hold of, instead of going straight to them, which has left a smear all round the four walls, conventionally called “Phil’s mark.” ‘ (357-8). Both Grandfather Smallweed and the gout-ridden Sir Leicester suffer from incapacity of the lower extremities. Limping, which Lévi-Strauss has read as the mark of a struggle in the body of Oedipus between the contrary claims of the earth and human kinship, is the equivalent of the disfigurement in this novel. Limping, like tripping over and stumbling – during the summer vacation, blind men are tripped up by their thirsty dogs drawn to pumps and buckets (314), and Tulkinghorn trips over Krook’s cat. It is associated with the toiling impediments and snail’s-pace of Chancery. The opposite of this creeping, hobbled gaits might appear to be the corseted uprightness on show in Mr Turveydrop’s deportment, but it is really just as crippled. (‘ “I’d deport him!” says the unnamed lady who introduces Turveydrop to Esther. “Transport him would be better!” ‘ (244). But the memory of the political will embodied in the first Lady Dedlock’s game iambs pounded out on the stones of the Ghost’s Walk means that limping is also associated with powers of decision and passionate persistence. If scarring and limping are both the signs or residues of sin, Dickens nevertheless seems to be of one mind with the Freud who ends his finest work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with the words ‘it is no sin to limp’.
Our relationship to our own feet and to other peoples’ feet is curious. In one sense, nothing is further from us than our feet. The process of growing into adult identity, as Alice seems to recognise in the sudden growth she undergoes at the beginning of Wonderland, seems to involve a cooling of relations between head and foot (‘Goodbye feet’, Alice trills in her extravagantly protracted condition, and starts to imagine how she will send her right foot presents at Christmas.) Our heads look up and about us, our feet are blind, tactile and nose-like. And yet, as Freud and others have noted, this very condition of abasement, combined with the extreme sensitivity of the foot, especially the foot-sole, establishes a mainline between the foot and the centre of self, making of the foot an object of sublimation, fascination and sometimes appalled desire.
The central myth of Bleak House concerns a ghost that walks, or rather a walking that has itself become ghostly, by being separated from a body. Why, after all, do ghosts walk? Partly it is because walking asserts ownership and tenure of a place, in a way that sitting or running or flying does not. Ghosts who haunt places, and nearly all do, seem to dramatise questions and doubts of ownership and legitimacy. They became a necessary prerequisite of ancestral houses just at the time that country-house visiting was at its height, in the mid-nineteenth century. There is a Punch cartoon which embodies this tension between the visitor and the ghostly incumbent very neatly. A keen young rambler kitted out in breeches and backpack has come across the family ghost in a country house. ‘I say’ the zestful visitor enquires, ‘do you hike?’ ‘No’, the ghost is replying, with all the dignified disdain it can muster. ‘I walk’.
Walking is repetitive, a sort of self-ghosting: a following in one’s own footsteps. But if walking makes you the double of yourself, it also binds you at every moment to the actual; it discloses the factitiousness that you are in your reversion from the facticity of the ground over which you move, against which, at every step, you reappear. Perhaps this is why ghosts are so often seen in passages or on staircases, places of passage which are also places of turning. Ghosts are well-known for their capacity to set at naught the paltry inconveniences of walls and locked doors, but are curiously bound to what lies underfoot. In Wadham College, where I was a student, the Old Library was said to be haunted by the pygmy figure of a ghost who was only visible from the knees upwards, because of her indifference to the new floor which had been constructed twelve inches higher than the original seventeenth-century one.
Bleak House insistently shows characters knowingly or unknowingly retracing the steps of others. We are told that, disguised as her own servant, both Lady Dedlock’s ‘air and step’ are ‘assumed’ (276). Lady Dedlock’s demand to be let down from her carriage so that she can walk a little alone (206) anticipates Hortense’s passionate barefoot trudge through the wet grass after she has been left behind by Lady Dedlock’s coach (278); while Hortense’s bare feet themselves recall Jo, as he leads Lady Dedlock disguised as Hortense ‘passing deftly with his bare feet, over the hard stones, and through the mud and mire’ (278). Skimpole’s faux-pastoral desire to be left alone ‘to walk among fallen leaves, and hear them rustle’ (126) is a sardonic improvement on these soiled feet. The ghostly multiplication effected in feet and footsteps is suggested in Lady Dedlock’s reflections on the Ghost’s Walk: ‘does she listen to the Ghost’s Walk, and think what step does it most resemble? A man’s? A woman’s? The pattering of a little child’s feet, ever coming on – on – on? (455). Esther’s strange walk around the unoccupied house at Chesney Wold, which leads her to walk up the south terrace herself seems about to complete this prophecy: ‘my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost’s Walk; that it was I, who was to bring calamity upon the stately house; and that my warning feet were haunting it even then’ (571).
The ghostliness of walking is emphasised by the importance of following in the novel. Miss Flite and Gridley and Richard Carstone and Krook, all follow the Jarndyce suit. (And what, after all, are ‘suitors’, etymologically other than ‘followers’?) Guppy stalks Esther, Lady Dedlock follows Jo through the streets to the burying ground, as Jo will later shuffle through the streets behind Allan Woodcourt, Geogre is kept ‘prowling and dangling’ and ‘loitering and dodging’ about Smallweed (699), Mrs Snagsby shadows her mild, hapless husband, sticking to him as closely as a shadow, or as the mud sticks to the pavement, and accumulating her suspicions at compound interest. Mrs Snagsby’s pursuit of her husband unwittingly doubles Tulkinghorn’s stalking of Lady Dedlock. Bucket, the arch-follower of the novel, at various times follows Jo, Esther, Trooper George and Lady Dedlock, and is imaged ‘walking on the leads at Chesney Wold, where erst the old man walked whose ghost is propitiated with a hundred guineas’ (769).
Following makes walking into a doubling or echoing pursuit. The echo-footfall equivalence in fact runs backwards and forwards in the novel. Not only is walking where others have walked like an echo, echoes themselves have a pedestrian quality. The tread heard in the Ghost’s Walk is an inference from an echo. In fact we first hear the sound of the Ghost’s walk without knowing that that it what it is, or will become: ‘The heavy drops fall, drip, drip, drip, upon the broad flagged pavement’ (55). Even the policeman, resuming his beat after delivering Jo over to the Snagsbys ‘makes the echoes of Cook’s Court perform slow music for him as he walks away on the shady side’ (322). The essence of walking is this insubstantiality, this quality of rhyming or repetition. To repeat the tread of the Ghost’s walk in one’s mortal walk is to be deported from oneself. Waiting together in Krook’s house, Guppy and Weevle, a.k.a. Jobling are exposed to the power of sound ghosting itself as footsteps:
One disagreeable result of whispering is, that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound – strange cracks and tickings, the rustling of garments that have no substance in them, and the tread of dreadful feet, that would leave no mark on the sea-sand or the winter snow. (507)
If walking is a kind of echoing quasi-utterance – like the unspoken wards ‘Don’t go home’, which Tulkinghorn fails to hear on his last journey, then walking also modulates into a sort of marking, tracing out another, wordless, form of writing in this most abundantly document-filled novel. When Tulkinghorn is walking upon the leads at Chesney Wold, Dickens hints that he may be thought of as ‘tracing out his destiny’ (631). At another point, the letter that Jarndyce persuades Esther to request from him itself seems to become a mode of foot passage, or its auditory equivalent in the labyrinthine spaces of Bleak House: ‘Charley went up the stairs and down the stairs, and along the passages – the zig-zag way about the old-fashioned house seemed very long in my listening ears that night – and so came back, along the passages, and down the stairs, and up the stairs, and brought the letter’ (666). Walking and talking are closely articulated in this novel, for example in the rhythm of Mr. Jarndyce’s agitated reflections on the chaos in the Jellyby household:
‘Rheumatism, sir?’ said Richard.
‘I dare say it is, Rick. I believe it is. And so the little Jell – I had my doubts about ‘em – are in a – oh, Lord, yes, it’s easterly!’ said Mr Jarndyce.He had taken two or three undecided turns up and down while uttering these broken sentences. (114)
Right of Way
The world of Bleak House is one in which there can be no absolute rights of way, since any track that anyone might take will follow the course of some other’s track, or walk across the ground they have marked as their own. It seems fitting that the most engrossing legal issue of the novel should be shadowed by a dispute over a right of way, between Sir Leicester Dedlock and Laurence Boythorn. One of the most marvellous lessons of this novel is that the fiction of the personal ownership of land is one of the things that we hold most deeply in common. Boythorn gives Sir Leicester ownership of his right of way, not by leaving it alone, but by what this novel has revealed to be the sacred and insoluble act of trespass:
The truth is said to be, that when Sir Leicester came down to Lincolnshire for good, Mr Boythorn showed a manifest desire to abandon his right of way, and do whatever Sir Leicester would: which Sir Leicester, conceiving to be a condescension to his illness of misfortune, took in such high dudgeon, and was so magnificently aggrieved by, that Mr Boythorn found himself under the necessity of committing a flagrant trespass to restore his neighbour to himself. (928-9)
Trespass is from French trespasser, which is itself a compression of medieval Latin trans passare, meaning to pass or pace across. Sir Leicester is only the last of a number of characters for whom the only way of being given or given back to themselves is by discovering that their way lies through another’s ground, or in another’s wake.
The salience (literally, the leaping forth, or standing clear) of walking and the human comportment to the ground in Bleak House is in part a sign and effect of Dickens’s inability to trust the word, and his desire to make words over into the actions they palely denote. Seen from one angle, Dickens is a writer who appears not to be satisfied with the powers of the word to demonstrate, signify, interpret and to explain. More perhaps than any other writer of the nineteenth century he wants his words to become things or actions in themselves, rather than being the dubious souvenirs of these things. This makes him a melodramatic writer in a special sense: one who seeks to present a world impressed by the signs of itself, in which mere appearance is raised into apparition. Thinking about this talk earlier this week, I asked my son Sam what he thought the difference was between an appearance and an apparition, and he told me that an apparition is something that comes from nowhere. He was surely as right as he could be. Something that merely appears, takes its place in an already given world. An apparition summons out its own space, its own ground against which to figure, like the mud which comes from nobody knows where.
In one sense, all the coming and going of Bleak House, the restless movements to and fro, the setting out and making way, the collisions and compoundings, the marchings and pacings and blunderings and grubbings and stumblings and tumblings, upstairs, downstairs, in and out of Chancery, fashion and the city, the jostling and overlayering of foot passengers of all kinds, are no more than just themselves. They are just a kind of textual noise: the ordinary, incidental hurry of the phenomenal world, the world in which, to get through, as Beckett puts it, many times over, ‘you must come and go, come and go’. It is the ground of unmarked ordinariness, bleared and smeared with toil, against which literature offers to cut some kind of figure. On the other hand, Bleak House raises the ground, and the activities associated with it, the urgent attempts to make ground, to establish rights of way, to find connections, into the most pervasive and insistent kind of figuration, or apparition of the ordinary.