Summary of Chapter XL: National and Domestic
It is election time in England, and feelings run high. Towards the end of this particular election, Sir Leicester gathers his guests and innumerable cousins at Chesney Wold, where they all comment on how the country is going down, but at least there is no fear for Sir Leicester and the two other seats that belong to him. Cousin Volumnia flatters Sir Leicester and reassures him he has won. Mr. Tulkinghorn arrives with the information that the vote supported the opposition party of Mr. Rouncewell and his son. Sir Leicester is doubly angry, that he lost, and that Mr. Rouncewell campaigned against him. His son is the one who wants to marry Rosa, the maid.
Lady Dedlock has not been well since her meeting with Esther and has kept apart from the company. Now, in front of the assembled guests Tulkinghorn tortures Lady Dedlock by telling her story in a disguised form as someone else’s. He hints that she will not be able to keep her maid once the scandal is out, and Rosa’s life will be ruined, for the Rouncewells will not want her back.
Commentary on Chapter XL
This chapter is called “National and Domestic” and ties together the Dedlock story and the story of England. The upper classes are losing power. Rouncewell’s party represents reform, and Sir Leicester represents the conservative force. When the upstarts win, Sir Leicester observes, “the floodgates of society are burst open, and the waters have . . . obliterated the landmarks of the framework of the cohesion by which things are held together” (p. 433).
Sir Leicester is used to treating his pocket boroughs as “retail orders” (p. 430) that will be made up according to his wishes. The reform party is abolishing such abuses. Unlike the Honourable Bob Stables, the Dedlock cousin who wants a government post with no work, the Rouncewells of the country want to be active in government, making big changes. Sir Leicester rightly perceives that times are different, and his ancient name no longer protects him.
In Dickens’s symbolic style, he begins the chapter setting the theme of the downfall of the Dedlocks, with the setting sun, creating shadow over the great portraits in the hall, especially Lady Dedlock’s portrait. The full cruelty of Tulkinghorn is revealed in his mental torture of Lady Dedlock. He plays his cards to the whole room, letting her know she is in his power. He also threatens her favorite, Rosa, who has become a surrogate daughter to replace Esther.