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August 8, 2009 4:17 PM   Subscribe

[Dickens-filter] Did John Jarndyce know that Esther was really Lady Dedlock's daughter? And if not, who did he think she was?

At the beginning of Bleak House, Esther Summerson is named as a ward of the court in Jarndyce and Jarndyce --- her "aunt" (Lady Dedlock's sister) has just died, and after some juggling, she's adopted by John Jarndyce, who takes her in as his daughter / sort of housekeeper / ward. Halfway through the novel, Esther discovers that she's the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock and rushes off to tell JJ, her guardian, the awesome truth. (I think it's news to him? I think, at least, he's surprised to hear it)

Which gets to the part I'm confused about. If Esther is a 'ward of the court,' and she's NOT identified as a direct descendent or claimant, what is her connection supposed to be? Why JJ decide to take her in, and what's her assumed relation to the case? (we get this, I think, for Richard and Ada, but I don't remember if we ever get an explanation for what Esther has to do with it). Her aunt, I think, had taken a different name, so it's not clear what the connection would have been to John Jarndyce in the first place, or why Esther would have been sent to him.

Or maybe I'm remembering that wrong.

This is not a homework question.
posted by puckish to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're remembering correctly. The chancery court interviews her after her aunt/guardian dies, and on behalf of JJ, make her a ward of Jarndyce. No other direct concern is mentioned, and she seems a little incurious under the circs. But it gives Guppy his chance to play detective, which is really more entertaining.

I'd have to go back, but my suspicion/recollection is that Dickens kind of fudged this one. Well, you know, problems are going to arise if you publish in installments and can't go back and re-write the story line.

But I would be happy to be proven wrong.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:46 PM on August 8, 2009

(Actually at JJ's request, makes her a ward)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:47 PM on August 8, 2009

Lady Dedlock is one of the putative beneficiaries in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, so presumably she and her sister Miss Barbery are both known to John Jarndyce, and perhaps related to him.

Certainly Jarndyce sends his attorney Kenge to Miss Barbery when Esther is 12, as she relates in chapter 3, and again after Miss Barbery's death, when Kenge says to Esther:

" are in a position to receive the renewal of an offer
which I was instructed to make to Miss Barbary some two years ago
and which, though rejected then, was understood to be renewable
under the lamentable circumstances that have since occurred. Now,
if I avow that I represent, in Jarndyce and Jarndyce and otherwise,
a highly humane, but at the same time singular, man, shall I
compromise myself by any stretch of my professional caution?"

I think Dickens just neglected to say exactly what Jarndyce's connection to Esther is. Since Jarndyce is Richard's and Ada's cousin "several times removed" to the point where Kenge "cannot elaborate the connection," and yet he takes them in as wards, it's already established that he has a hyperdeveloped sense of family responsibility, and thinks of all the orphan children related to Jarndyce and Jarndyce as his charges.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:46 PM on August 8, 2009

Also, Kenge knows that Miss Barbery is Esther's aunt ("Your aunt, by fact if not in law") so presumably he knows that Lady Dedlock is Esther's mother. And presumably, if Kenge knows, Jarndyce knows.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:05 PM on August 8, 2009

Jarndyce doesn't know, in fact. Esther finally tells him in chapter 43. He has just revealed to her that Boythorn was in love with Lady Dedlock's sister, and she tells him that that same woman raised her:

"0 Guardian, what have I done!" I cried, giving way to my grief; "what sorrow have I innocently caused! "

"You caused, Esther? "

"Yes, Guardian. Innocently, but most surely. That secluded sister is my first remembrance."

"No, no! " he cried, starting.

"Yes, Guardian, yes! And her sister is my mother!"
posted by thomas j wise at 7:09 PM on August 8, 2009

Nitpicking: Esther isn't a ward of the court, is she? Richard and Ada are, and Esther is employed as Ada's companion.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 9:50 PM on August 8, 2009

Sidhedevil is right, JJ had been keeping his eye on her. Remember when she left Miss Barbery's household after her death, she travelled by coach to her new school. There was a man in the coach who made some cryptic remark--she recognized him years later when she met JJ.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:04 AM on August 9, 2009

Jarndyce might not be obsessed with the Chancery case, but the way he manipulates the lead up to Esther's marriage, secretively, is creepy in the extreme. I think it's a disturbing conclusion to the novel's double narrative structure. Utterly fantastic book.
posted by woodway at 9:30 PM on August 10, 2009

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