The Queer Narrative of Esther Summerson
In the eighth chapter of Bleak House, the narrator, Esther Summerson, looks on as two impoverished women console one another following the death of one’s child. In the midst of the scene, Esther notes, “I thought it very touching to see these two women…so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another; how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives” (Dickens, 134-5). Interestingly, female intimacy in Bleak House is one of the few themes that seem to transcend Victorian England’s rigid class divide. The exchange of mutual solidarity in chapter eight echoes the novel’s numerous other expressions of love between women; in fact, the events of Bleak House can be read as in many ways characterized by the actions and relationships of the novel’s queer-coded female characters.
In Saint Foucault: Towards A Gay Hagiography, gender and queer theorist David M. Halperin argues that: “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers…Queer demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative” (Halperin, 62). Queerness, then, is defined in this essay as a mode of being characterized by interpersonal relationships (social, romantic, or sexual) that challenge, subvert, or otherwise exist in opposition to structures of heteronormativity. That is not to say, however, that the homoromantic subtext of Bleak House was intentionally created as a political device; on the contrary, a queered reading of Bleak House exists partially to counter the inadequacy of exclusively reading texts through a lens of compulsory heterosexuality. In other words, this essay seeks to avoid reducing its queered textual reading to an overtly political statement, and endeavors instead to consider, in light of the extensiveness and violence of heteronormative socialization in western culture, that it is perhaps more militant, more political, and ultimately less sensible to insist upon reading the female relationships of Bleak House in an explicitly heterosexual light.
The latent homoeroticism of Bleak House is manifested most notably in the characterization of Esther Summerson, who states early on in her narrative, “my comprehension is quickened when my affection is” (Dickens, 29). Esther demonstrates latent homoerotic desire both physically and through her gaze: each form is communicated verbally through the medium of the narrative, and so can be read and examined within the language of the text. Esther’s intense emotional attachments to the women of Bleak House, and specifically to the primary object of her affections, Ada Clare, are frequently accompanied by restrained but passionate acts of physicality. In chapter 13, for instance, when Ada tearfully confesses to Esther her love for Richard, Esther writes, “It was so pretty to have her clinging to me in that way, hiding her face; and to know that she was not crying in sorrow, but in a little glow of joy, and pride, and hope; that I would not help her just yet” (Dickens, 209). Esther deliberately withholds her prior knowledge of Ada’s infatuation with Richard in this scene: deferring Ada’s contentment and drawing out her naiveté in a teasing, latently sexual manner. In doing so, Esther is also able to prolong one of the most notably physical moments of the novel: as Ada cries, blushes, laughs, and holds Esther around the neck, demonstrating the “bashful simplicity” that Esther proclaims, “would have won my heart if she had not won it long before” (Dickens, 210).
Esther’s language in such passages is not merely affectionate, but in some senses deeply romantic; and indeed, when Ada goes to live with Richard, Esther’s physical reaction mirrors that of a woman abandoned by her lover. “It almost seemed to me that I had lost my Ada forever,” she writes, “I was so lonely and so blank without her…I walked up and down in a dim corner sobbing and crying” (Dickens, 789). Esther even goes so far as to listen for Ada and Richard outside the door of their home, writing, “I put my lips to the hearse-like panel of the door as a kiss for my dear and came quietly down again…”(Dickens, 790). The panels of the door that Esther kisses, which physically separate Esther from the object of her affections, are described as “hearse-like,” as though the loss of Ada as a companion, confidant, and partner, constitutes, for Esther, a sort of death of the self. In this way, Esther’s infatuation with Ada is clearly communicated through the language of Esther’s body: her reactions extend well beyond the parameters of ordinary platonic affection, and physically echo a passion most often associated with romantic love.
In addition to these physical acts of intimacy that permeate the novel, Esther’s narrative also contains multiples instances of the homoromantic gaze: ways of looking that can be construed as indicative of sexual or romantic desire. Esther’s drawn-out, exalting descriptions of Ada, her “pretty pet” with “such rich golden hair, such soft blue eyes, and such a bright, innocent, trusting face!” (Dickens, 44), stand in stark contrast to her brief, furtive mentions of Allan Woodcourt later in the novel. In other words, Esther’s retroactive verbalization of her own gaze is naturally inclined towards the women of the text. Similarly, the latent homoeroticism of spectatorship in Bleak House, is evident not only in Esther’s way of seeing, but also in Esther’s varied responses to her occasional positioning as the object of another’s viewing. Recounting Mr. Guppy’s fixation upon her, Esther asserts, “I really cannot express how uneasy this made me… to know that that absurd figure was always gazing at me…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. I seemed able to do nothing naturally” (Dickens, 203). This violent, intrusive impact of the heterosexual male gaze upon Esther’s body is juxtaposed in chapter 36 by the ecstatic experience of being looked upon by Ada in the aftermath of Esther’s life-threatening illness. The scene begins with Esther “trembling” in the garden, a traditionally feminine and romantic space invoking fertility and sensuality, as she awaits Ada’s arrival and anticipates allowing her “love” to gaze upon her disfigured face for the first time (Dickens, 588). Esther’s reluctance to allow Ada to see her scarred visage carries its own connotations of intimacy: for although Esther claims repeatedly that she simply does not wish to upset her “pretty pet,” the visceral fear with which she reacts to being looked upon seems slightly irrational in its magnitude. Although Esther’s descriptions of Ada always included a deeply physical component, Ada has never, to the reader’s knowledge, verbally reciprocated this degree of attention towards Esther’s appearance. It is therefore likely that Esther’s fear is rooted in something deeper, more sensual; namely, a latent desire for Ada to see her as physically attractive. But when Ada finally does see Esther, the scene is not one of discomfort, but of catharsis: instead of expressing the revulsion and disdain that characterized her reaction to Mr. Guppy’s invasive gaze, Esther now writes, overjoyed, “O how happy I was, down upon the floor, with my sweet beautiful girl down upon the floor too, holding my scarred face to her lovely cheek, bathing it with tears and kisses…”(Dickens, 588).
Although love between women is positive in many of its homosocial and homoromantic manifestations, as female characters engage in acts of support and solidarity with the other women of the text, queerness in Bleak House does have its parameters. Mademoiselle Hortense, with her “imperfectly tamed” appearance (Dickens, 187) and open displays of animosity towards Rosa—the younger, more beautiful woman who occupies her mistress’s attentions—recalls the “depraved lesbian”: a horror trope as dated as the tale of the sexually ambiguous vampire Carmilla (Thomas, 28). According to Ardel Haefele-Thomas, racially, nationally, and sexually othered “monsters” found a particular site of observation in Victorian literature. “For a British audience struggling to uphold a unified British identity against the changing force of rapid imperial expansions and the constant influx of foreigners into London,” Thomas writes, “…Gothic monsters cause fear and panic because of their uncanny ability simultaneously to embody multiple subject positions” (Thomas, 4). It is unsurprising then, that Hortense is a Frenchwoman as well as a queer-coded character. Her fixation upon Lady Dedlock is characterized in large part by ambiguous acts of perverse devotion: most notably in the murder of Tulkinghorn. In this shockingly violent event, Hortense demonstrates “the rapture of that cruelty which yet is love” (Le Fanu, 9): for as Janet Lewison points out in her essay, Ambivalent Hierarchies of Intimacy in Bleak House, although Hortense frames Lady Dedlock, she also fulfills “the latent desire of her mistress to destroy the primary agent of Lady Dedlock’s unhappiness in the text” (Lewison, 35). Following her arrest, Hortense rages against Mrs. Bucket, exclaiming, “I would like to kiss her! …I would love to tear her limb from limb” (Dickens, 837). In this instance, implicated physicality between two women is depicted as intensely perverse: the “kiss” is a precursor to an act of extreme violence. Even Esther herself intuitively avoids a similar interaction earlier in the text: recoiling when Mademoiselle Hortense “presses against her” and begs Esther to “take [her]” as she is (Dickens, 368). Although the scene takes place in the context of Hortense asking Esther to hire her as a maid, her language carries invasive, deviant sexual connotations.
The specter of the lesbian-coded villainess, Mademoiselle Hortense, thereby forms the cautionary backdrop against which Esther and Ada construct and navigate their deeply affectionate relationship throughout Bleak House. Queer intimacies in Western literature are particularly relevant due to their simultaneous occupation of both the public and the private spheres: they are elements of the familial, the interpersonal, that become inevitably politicized through their natural subversion of heterosexual norms. The queer familial structure also constitutes a compromising of the conjugal imperative (as the audience sees in the relationship between Ada and Richard, marriage in Bleak House does not solve everything) and so generates tensions between the private lives of the characters, and the publicly established sexual and genre-based conventions of the times. Interestingly, this reading either compromises or compliments the reading that Professor Douglas-Fairhurst presented his lecture series “Victorian Fiction Circus” on October 17, wherein he argued for the status of the home in Victorian literature as a “mystical repository of values.” For the home in Bleak House is both a deeply personal and overtly political space: a characteristic that extends beyond expressions of subversive female desire, and encompasses the broader questions of love, money, and murder that permeate the text. Time and time again, the reader is compelled to critically reexamine the political values of Victorian London via Dickens’ varying depictions of home life, including philanthropy at the expense of domesticity, as embodied by Mrs. Jellyby, and forms of charity that dehumanize impoverished families by “taking possession of people” in a “mechanical way,” as demonstrated by Mrs. Pardiggle (Dickens, 133). In light of this, the academic relevance of queerness in Bleak House is contingent upon its provision of one possible answer to critical questions surrounding Bleak House’s status as “social commentary”: the novel itself, like the domestic spaces it describes and the queer characters it contains, occupies a liminal space between the political and the personal. For although the text contains political insights regarding corruption and the law in Victorian England, it cannot be reduced to mere commentary: it is a queer love story as well, and can compellingly be read as such.
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