Summary of Chapter VIII: Covering a Multitude of Sins
Esther resumes the story about the beauty and order of Bleak House, with its roses and honeysuckle. Skimpole is at breakfast and explains his Drone philosophy: there are worker bees, and then the drone, who takes it easy.
Mr. Jarndyce calls Esther to his study, called the Growlery, where he goes when he is out of humor, when the wind is in the east, or he has to speak of serious things. Esther is so happy, she kisses his hand. He is embarrassed; then, he explains the Chancery suit to her.
It began with a will and how the trusts under the will should be administered. The legatees, however, are so miserable, it is as if they had committed a crime. It is so complicated, it has ruined many lives, like Tom Jarndyce, the original owner of Bleak House, called that because it contained his misery. John was Tom’s heir, and he made Bleak House beautiful again. The suit still owns property in London that is an eyesore like this Bleak House used to be (Tom-all-Alone’s, a slum). Bleak House itself was not in Chancery, but the owner was and was stamped out by the Great Seal.
Esther, however, presides over the cheerful house her cousin has made, and she is nicknamed Little Old Woman, Mother Hubbard, Dame Durden. When Mr. Jarndyce asks her if she has any questions of him about her origins, she says no. Esther and John Jarndyce discuss what profession Richard should take up.
Esther notes in passing that her guardian trusts her with decisions and that he regains his good humor in her presence. She has never been so loved or respected. In sorting through his mail, she comes across many requests for money from different committees. Among the “rapacious benevolence” of these, Mrs. Pardiggle is prominent. She forces Ada and Esther to accompany her and her five boys to the slums to “help” the poor. The boys are forced to give up their pocket money for charity and are not happy about it.
In a brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle lectures a poor family and leaves tracts for them to read. Esther is embarrassed, for the family is in dire straits with the father drunk and insulting, and the mother with a black eye. No one knows how to read, and furthermore, Esther discovers the woman is holding a dead baby. She covers it with her handkerchief, and they come back later with food and money.
Commentary on Chapter VIII
Besides continuing the satire on Skimpole’s “Drone philosophy” of doing nothing to support himself, Dickens criticizes the charity work of overzealous church people, like Mrs. Pardiggle. She is a Tractarian, part of the conservative High Church of England, who goes around giving tracts or statements about church doctrine to the poor, who cannot read. The absurdity of her charity work is obvious in the hypocrisy of making her boys give up pocket money for causes, and for preaching to the brickmaker’s family, who are starving and have a dead child. Ada and Esther feel “out of place,” and that Mrs. Pardiggle has “a mechanical way of taking possession of people” (p. 82). Ada and Esther give human sympathy and try to give some useful items like food. Yet, Esther points out the problem quite clearly: “there was an iron barrier” (p. 82) between them and the poor, and they didn’t know how it could be removed.
This reference to “the two nations” in England, the rich and the poor, brings up the extreme inequities of industrial Britain in the mid-Victorian period. Many reformers, inspired by the fiction of Dickens and other writers, were trying to create through a series of reform bills, greater relief to the lower classes. People like Mrs. Pardiggle obviously have no idea of how to help such people sunk in poverty and ignorance and only make the gap bigger.
The other important topic of the chapter is the Jarndyce case, and the problem of staying out of its tangles. Even Richard’s career is likely to have to be approved by “Wiglomeration,” or the lawyers, who have their fingers in every body’s business.