Daughter of Water - Esther Summerson
Of Dickens' numerous novels, only three of them are written in the first person. Two of these see young men recounting their growth from boy to man – David Copperfield and Great Expectations. The third was something daring and unlikely for Dickens: the personal thoughts and reflections of a female narrator - granted she shares this duty with the author himself, who narrates almost exactly half the book in an omniscient voice very similar to his own. Where Esther is diffident and deferential, the Dickensian narrator is sarcastic, grandiose, declamatory. She is his foil, a charge she executes so wholly it has led many to question her reality – a delicate question often politely averted when speaking of Dickens' female characters.
Esther is unique for Dickens in a number of ways. She is his only female narrator – Dickens never entered the internal worlds of his characters, especially if they were female – and as such, she is one of the few female characters in Dickens to be employed as an artist, albeit obliquely. And while Dickens featured women writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell in his periodicals, he believed women fundamentally unfit to be writers. This could go some way in explaining why Esther's prose is so clotted and inhibited, if it weren't otherwise intended to show the inner workings of a child who has been denied love and as a result believes herself unworthy of being loved. Having never been given love outwardly, she can only intuit love within and nurse it carefully where she may. Moreover, without a clear definition of love, everything she sees and feels remains imprecisely defined. And yet she is no fool. Nor is she a push-over – when the absurd Mr. Guppy proposes to her she decidedly rebukes him and his ridiculous suggestion out of hand. This kind of resoluteness is another unusual quality in a Dickens heroine, usually reserved for the Rosa Dartles and Betsey Trotwoods. Another is the way Dickens carefully charts Esther's budding maturity.
Abandoned as a child and raised by a judgmental woman she calls her “godmother” - a cruel twist on the fairy tale trope – Esther has had her very being made shameful. As her godmother tells her: “Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.” With the sexual connotations of Esther's conception only intuitively grasped by the child, she further asserts the girl was not born in “common sinfulness and wrath” like other children but is “set apart”. To Esther's Original Sin, then, is added another. When the godmother dies while reading to Esther the Bible story of the woman taken in adultery, the girl goes out to the garden and buries her doll – the totem and physical repository of a young girl's instinctual love, expressed maternally. A “doll” is also a prostitute, the “garden” Eden, and so in this one ritual action Esther inters her mother, her godmother, her childhood, her own desires, and all prospect for motherhood. In short, she buries her self. Bleak House becomes, aside from everything else, the journey of Esther back to her self.
In one sense, Esther is another example of Dickens' predilection for sexless heroines with an unnatural attachment to older men. Often the cause of this dynamic is a trauma and/or an abusive upbringing. The claim some critics have made that Esther's femaleness is irrelevant misses then a crucial point: an illegitimate girl child has an inherited slur against her sexual purity, sexuality, and sex which never adheres to a boy child, such as David Copperfield or Pip. In Little Dorrit and Little Nell an uncomfortable paternalism pervades, echoing a suspect proclivity in the Victorian Era itself. In Esther, however, Dickens attempts to depict this proclivity for the child abuse it is - if with more subtlety than he depicted schools, labour conditions, or debtors' prisons - by unlocking this dynamic from the inside.
Just as Lady Dedlock internalized society's judgment and, carrying out its sentence, married a man twice her age, so her rejected daughter Esther looks to follow suit by entering into a sexless wedlock with her father-figure, John Jarndyce. This chain of self-confinement is broken when the truth of Esther's origin surfaces and Lady Dedlock breaks free from her gilded cage. While Esther cannot herself break anything - passively siding true to form with Inspector Bucket's public patriarchy and Jarndyce's private one - it is Dickens himself who forces her hand, stage-managing a complex psychological misdirection. As befitting a father, the generous Jarndyce hands over his daughter/fiancé to Dr. Allan Woodcourt, the man she has both given her heart to yet is compelled to hold at arm's length. The white faded flowers she keeps as a secret remembrance of him are as though sprouted from the doll she planted as a girl in her godmother's garden. Ada meanwhile, her wayward Richard dead, takes Esther's place as Jarndyce's ward just as Esther had taken hers. And in a final act of transfiguration, Jarndyce rewards Esther with a replica Bleak House, to make her own, and to make her home.
One thing Dickens shared with Shakespeare is when in either author's work the unaccountable happens, something akin to a Freudian slip is seen wherein the metaphysical mechanics of the writer's craft is momentarily glimpsed. In a lesser writer this kind of fault line often causes the complete collapse of the entire literary edifice; in Shakespeare and repeatedly in Dickens as well this fissure acts as a sleight of hand, a metaphysical misdirection akin to mesmerism, a disturbed soil in which are sown magic seeds. That Esther, a child deprived of love, would be capable of taking what little she had and nurturing it such that more is given until she has an abundance is a literary contrivance, a device that Dickens might show how only love is the balm to this world. Outside of fiction, a child so denied love becomes an adult unable to love themselves or others, and so often ends up being unlovable. While the character of Esther threatens to be this to the reader - in part by being the exact opposite of everything the Omniscient Narrator and Dickens himself is: overly self-confident, hyperbolic, persuasive, unapologetic - Esther's capacity for love may in the end be testament to the power and expansiveness of the capacity for love she had in herself all along.
A note on the names : The many derogatory nicknames Esther both has applied to her and applies to herself are more of the author's sleight of hand, especially if we remember Esther herself is sometime author. They are names in a suit she has been ordered to don. These drab titles may also take on suggestive association, as does what turns out to be Esther's true surname: Hawdon, from haw - to stammer, near homophone for whored-on and garden (French: hort). Dickens may also be having similar fun with the multiple allusions inherent in the surname of Esther's husband, Woodcourt - wood: homophone of would and slang for the erect male member; court: from heart (French: cour) meaning to woo, and of course court: the administrative house - bleak or otherwise - of law.
Shorthand : Perspicacious - cautious but frank - sincere to a fault - proverbial provocation to growth - deep capacity for understanding - unexpected insight from an over-looked quarter - awkwardly painstaking - infuriating discretion - liable to self-deception - smells of over-pruning - an improbable diffidence - possible martyr complex - yet uncanny of foresight - profound appreciation of beauty - in the end, lacking the temperament to be an artist.