Earnestness or Death: The Tragedy of Richard Carstone in Bleak House (1852-53)

by Mark Wallace

The idea of earnestness was a key one in Victorian times. Thomas Carlyle was perhaps the prime ideologue of earnestness:

It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not sport for a man; man’s life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive! (On Heroes, Lecture 1)

So, life is earnest. Reality is stern. If we try to conceive with this means in terms of the practice of living, we can find a good example in Dickens’ Bleak House. Dickens was, of course, a great admirer of Carlyle: “I would go at all times farther to see Carlyle than any man alive“, he said. In the 1850s, in particular, Dickens was all about Carlyle: 1854’s Hard Times was inscribed to the great Sage, and 1859’s A Tale of Two Cities used Carlyle’s French Revolution as its main historical source. Bleak House, too, is a Carlylean exercise in documenting the condition of England. We don’t have to look far in this book for the influence of Carlyle, but here we will concentrate on the concept of earnestness and its relevance to the character of Richard Carstone.

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Richard is a character whose trajectory and fate have always troubled me somewhat. He is, along with (part of) the novel’s narrator Esther Summerson and Ada Clare (who becomes Richard’s fiance early in the novel), a ward of the benevolently patriarchal John Jarndyce. Richard is first introduced by Esther thus:

He was a handsome youth with an ingenuous face and a most engaging laugh […]. [H]e stood by us, in the light of the fire, talking gaily, like a light-hearted boy. (Bleak House, Ch. 3 [Oxford, 1999, p. 39])

This is evidently intended to predispose us in Richard’s favour. Richard’s appearance announces him as ingenuous, engaging and (in the older sense of the word) gay. This announcing of character through appearance is a common device in Dickens, and to do it in such positive terms tends to imply a hero or at least helper character. Surpisingly, though, Richard – though not a villain in a conventional sense – will function as an obstacle of sorts to the protagonist, Esther, a disturber of the domestic tranquillity in the Jarndyce household. Richard is actually an antagonist, though a somewhat sympathetic one.

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Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House (2005)

The trouble for Richard starts when he moves in with his guardian, John Jarndyce. Richard is 19 at this point, and Jarndyce immediately starts casting around for a career for the young man. He does this in an odd way, not by speaking to Richard directly, but by conspiring with his other ward, Esther:

“However,” said Mr. Jarndyce, “to return to our gossip. Here’s Rick, a fine young fellow full of promise. What’s to be done with him?”

Oh, my goodness, the idea of asking my advice on such a point!

“Here he is, Esther,” said Mr. Jarndyce, comfortably putting his hands into his pockets and stretching out his legs. “He must have a profession; he must make some choice for himself […].”

“Perhaps it would be best, first of all,” said I, “to ask Mr. Richard what he inclines to himself.”

“Exactly so,” he returned. “That’s what I mean! You know, just accustom yourself to talk it over, with your tact and in your quiet way, with him and Ada, and see what you all make of it. We are sure to come at the heart of the matter by your means, little woman.” (Ch. 8 [p. 111])

This is a curious passage: Richard is now figured by Jarndyce as a man, in that the time has come for him to undertake a profession; and as a child, in that his course is in the hands of others, and he is not privy to the discussions about his own prospects. Secrecy is a pivotal theme in Bleak House, and here Jarndyce initiates a secretive manipulation of Richard’s life and prospects. It seems, perhaps, that Jarndyce is using the excuse of Richard’s prospects to get close to Esther, to establish an intimate bond of conspiracy and secrecy between them.

That is a fateful discussion between Jarndyce and Esther, for it problematizes Richard’s career before it has even begun, and thereafter Richard is a bewildered figure at the centre of various schemes for his professional advancement. It soon becomes clear that Richard has no clear preference regarding a profession – no earnest attachment to any particular field. He just hasn’t given it much thought. This is a major problem for Jarndyce and Esther, and becomes a central plot point through the novel:

We held many consultations about what Richard was to be, first without Mr. Jarndyce, as he had requested, and afterwards with him, but it was a long time before we seemed to make progress. Richard said he was ready for anything. When Mr. Jarndyce doubted whether he might not already be too old to enter the Navy, Richard said he had thought of that, and perhaps he was. When Mr. Jarndyce asked him what he thought of the Army, Richard said he had thought of that, too, and it wasn’t a bad idea. When Mr. Jarndyce advised him to try and decide within himself whether his old preference for the sea was an ordinary boyish inclination or a strong impulse, Richard answered, Well he really HAD tried very often, and he couldn’t make out.

“How much of this indecision of character,” Mr. Jarndyce said to me, “is chargeable on that incomprehensible heap of uncertainty and procrastination on which he has been thrown from his birth, I don’t pretend to say; but that Chancery, among its other sins, is responsible for some of it, I can plainly see[…].” (Ch. 13 [pp. 179-180])

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Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce in the BBC Bleak House

In the above extract, conversations with Richard about his career take place, as well as conversations between Jarndyce and Esther about Richard. These later feature complicated and searching explanations for Richard’s “indecision of character”.

What is striking in the treatment of this plot thread is how Esther immediately and unquestioningly brings herself over to Jarndyce’s side. From the first moment on, she subscribes entirely to the notion that Richard must immediately choose a career and be resolute in following it up. She accepts Jarndyce’s dramatic problematization of Richard’s lack of earnestness, and reflects all Jarndyce’s opinions and assumptions back to him, and together they come to adverse judgements on Richard’s character. Esther’s speed to reach these judgements is all the more surprising given that she is Richard’s close friend, and before Jarndyce suggests it, she has no doubts about Richard’s character, but likes him very much (or so she says). It all suggests an excessive obedience to paternalistic authority, and a wish to be on the side of power, even when it means sacrificing her own friends.

Richard chooses a career in medicine and undertakes an apprenticeship. But his master’s first report, given informally, is as follows:

He is of such a very easy disposition that probably he would never think it worth-while to mention how he really feels, but he feels languid about the profession. He has not that positive interest in it which makes it his vocation. (Ch. 17 [p. 246])

Richard is guilty of no particular act or omission, but the adjective languid is an extremely loaded one. Languidity is the opposite of earnestness, and is semantically and phonetically rather close to laziness. Shortly afterwards, Esther converses with Richard and she extracts from him the confession that his work is “monotonous” (Ch. 17 [p. 248]). She also tells him that his master has noted his lack of enthusiasm and Richard expresses surprise that he has been a source of disappointment. The upshot of it is that Richard, encouraged by Esther, gives up medicine and decides to go in for law.

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in the BBC Bleak House.

It needs to be emphasized here that it is through the intervention of Esther that Richard leaves his post. Until their conversation, he has no intention of doing so, believing that “[i]t’ll do as well as anything else” (ibid). So Esther is the direct cause of Richard’s failure in medicine. Esther and Jarndyce’s worries about Richard have a self-fulfilling force, and have now created the difficulties they anticipated.

In encouraging him to change careers, Esther is motivated by the following reflection:

Consider how important it is to you both, and what a point of honour it is towards your cousin, that you, Richard, should be quite in earnest without any reservation. I think we had better talk about this, really, Ada. It will be too late very soon. (ibid).

So Richard must leave his post because he is not sufficiently in earnest about it; and his being in earnest is a point of honour with his cousin (i.e. Jarndyce). This is a high standard indeed: not only must he perform his work duties competently, he must do them earnestly, and any less dishonours his cousin. So his position as ward of Jarndyce has made Richard’s duties far more complex. The idea of honouring Jarndyce is now assumed to be central to his choices, abstract as that idea is.

It’s worth noting also that Richard’s reflection on the monotony of medical work is rejected by Esther:

“Then,” pursued Richard, “it’s monotonous, and to-day is too like yesterday, and to-morrow is too like to-day.”

“But I am afraid,” said I, “this is an objection to all kinds of application—to life itself, except under some very uncommon circumstances.” (ibid).

So Esther does not accept that Richard should find less monotonous work, but insists that he do his necessarily monotonous work more earnestly. There is a great deal of complacency from Esther here; and an unearned sense of her own wisdom and superiority in terms of life experience. She is Richard’s age, and has led a more sheltered existence. Yet her closeness to Jarndyce grants her an authority over him. Richard accepts her arguments meekly and without apparent rancour.  From this point on, with his own desires so roundly ignored, and the added pressure of working for the honour of his overbearing guardian Jarndyce, it is inevitable that Richard will find it impossible to settle into his work.

Upon undertaking his new career, Richard soon gets into debt, and on finding this out Jarndyce forces a break in the engagement between Richard and Ada (another ward of Jarndyce). In Inside Bleak House (Duckworth, 2005), John Sutherland questions this deviation from the “habitual good nature” of Jarndyce, noting that “[a]t this stage, Richard is by no means a lost cause (no more than Pip, for example, in Great Expectations, in the period before Magwitch’s return” (p. 145). I suggest, however, that it is less a deviation than the natural development of Jarndyce’s proprietorial and overbearingly authoritarian attitude towards Richard, and that there is no “good nature” evident in Jarndyce’s treatment of Richard at any point. He is motivated, rather, by two things: he enjoys flexing his power over Richard; and he is invested in getting close to Esther via earnest and intense discussions about Richard. His insistence that Richard evince earnest devotion to a respectable profession is also rather hypocritical in that he himself does not work at all and seems never to have done so.

Things get no better for Richard as the novel progresses. But why go over the whole sorry saga? The young man was ill served by those closest to him. With friends like Esther, who needs enemies? With benefactors like Jarndyce, who needs malefactors? By sticking to the Victorian party line about earnestness, they were able to destroy Richard’s prospects and peace of mind, and make him think it was all his fault. Earnestness has rarely been less attractive than when coming from these characters. Bleak House is a book that one has to admire in many respects, but sometimes it is a hard book to like. Esther’s excessive modesty has often been noted – Charlotte Bronte called her a “weak and twaddling” character – but her relations with Richard show her to be worse than that. Esther is a hypocrite whose assumptions of moral superiority disguise her cringing and self-serving adherence to the bullying dictats of Jarndyce. A pair of sanctimonious and pettily power-hungry hypocrites, perhaps their marriage would have been a good match after all!

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