Bleak House: Chapter 21
Summary of Chapter XXI: The Smallweed Family
Grandfather Smallweed, the moneylender, lives with his senile wife at whom he curses and throws cushions, and twin grandchildren, Bart and Judy. Bart is the young protégé of Guppy at Kenge and Carboys, and Judy makes artificial flowers. Mr. Smallweed has made everyone worship “Compound Interest” (p. 219). There is no amusement in this household. Smallweed himself is nothing but a bag of clothes and needs to be shaken up frequently like an old pillow by Judy.
The little girl, Charley Neckett, is their housemaid, bullied by Judy. Mr. George, an old soldier, comes to borrow money, and Smallweed threatens him with selling his debt to “a friend in the city” if he is a day late with payment. George brings up the fact that they tricked his friend, Captain Hawdon. George runs a shooting gallery near Leicester Square.
Commentary on Chapter XXI
The Smallweed family represent the parasitic moneylenders of London. They are compared to spiders who spin webs to catch flies. Mr. George refers to this when he is afraid that Smallweed will sell his contract to his “friend in the city” if he is late in payment. He hints that Smallweed had trapped his friend, Captain Hawdon. This fact, like other clues dropped, will lead to the fate of the nameless Nemo.
The Smallweeds are grotesque “stunted” (p. 224) “old monkeys” (p. 219) that feed off the misery of others. They are part of the fringes of the whole legal system, and Mr. George is being dragged into the web. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be credit card scams, but this system was a bit more deadly, with constables like Mr. Neckett ready to arrest a debtor and throw him in prison. Once the debtor had signed the contract, he and his debt could be bought and sold, and he was no more than a slave.
In this unwholesome house, Charley is the only “wholesome” influence (p. 226), as Mr. George notices. Smallweed asks George if he was a good son, and he admits sadly he was not. This will make more sense when we learn that George’s last name is Rouncewell, the housekeeper of Chesney Wold’s onetime runaway son. The man is now fifty, but his mother still mourns his loss. Dickens weaves in all these half clues which become connected later, but it is easy to miss them in the wealth of characters and details.