Dickens and the Daughter of the House

By Hilary M. Schor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Bleak House and the dead mother's property

The specter of female inheritance walks a revolutionary path in Bleak House. The novel brings together the strands we have been tracing adultery, history, and writing; more explicitly, it takes up the plot of the portionless daughter, playing these larger questions through the bastard daughter's quest for her legacy. But Bleak House imagines a different form of inheritance. Here, inheritance is not the father's name, the father's word, or even the father's house; instead, it is the mother's, it is dispossessed and homeless, and it is the daughter's revenge. The questions of history and adultery that circulated throughout Hard Times andA Tale of Two Cities come home in this novel to what is truly a bleak house, emptying out the inheritance plot and the lines of property, to ask what is property; what is the role of the will; and what can the dispossesed, illegitimate daughter inherit? In Bleak House, the daughter stages her own revolution: her recapture of weapons of writing, which in this novel are the weapons of property. Bleak House is the novel the orphan daughter writes to reclaim her property; more than that, it is the autobiographical fiction the bastard daughter writes to ask, “who killed my mother?”

In Bleak House's split narration, however, Esther Summerson, the novel's bastard daughter, seems initially to stand apart from the work of the law plot — which in Bleak House seems to be the work of critique, for the novel constitutes English literature's most extended attack on the legal system that determines the inheritance of property. The novel is about, to the extent that any novel this long and this divided is about any one thing, a suit that is caught in Chancery, in the only equity court in the land. 1 The suit is about a will — or, to rdquoe John Jarndyce, who refuses to be an active suitor to it, it was about a will when it was about anything at all. In the present the will, as John Jarndyce puts it, is “a dead letter”: “through years and years, and lives and lives, everything goes on, constantly beginning over and over again, and nothing ever ends. And we can't get out of the suit on any terms, for we are made parties to it,

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