“"I had confident expectations that things would come round and be all square," says Mr. Jobling with some vagueness of expression and perhaps of meaning too. "But I was disappointed. They never did. […] Then what's a fellow to do? I have been keeping out of the way and living cheap down about the market-gardens, but what's the use of living cheap when you have got no money? You might as well live dear."” (Ch.20)
Strange reasoning, that. But could you really say that no person in real life thinks the way Mr Jobling does?
Richard Carstone, cousin of Ada Clare and one of the young people in Mr Jarndyce’s house, also has weird reasoning. When Mr Jarndyce discovers that Richard has given 10 pounds to pay off Mr Skimpole’s debt, and gives him back 10 pounds, he spends it thoughtlessly as though he gained that amount of money.
“"My prudent Mother Hubbard, why not?" he said to me when he wanted, without the least consideration, to bestow five pounds on the brickmaker. "I made ten pounds, clear, out of Coavinses' business."
"How was that?" said I.
"Why, I got rid of ten pounds which I was quite content to get rid of and never expected to see any more. You don't deny that?"
"No," said I.
"Very well! Then I came into possession of ten pounds—"
"The same ten pounds," I hinted.
"That has nothing to do with it!" returned Richard. "I have got ten pounds more than I expected to have, and consequently I can afford to spend it without being particular."” (Ch.9)
And that’s how Richard always justifies his careless spending.
If there’s an award for the one with the weirdest, most incredible and fanciful reasoning, it would naturally go to Mr Skimpole, the cheerful middle-aged man who acts like a child and shakes off all responsibilities and neglects his own family. He thinks others should be grateful to him for giving them the luxury of generosity. He washes his hands off the money difficulty and makes it become Richard’s and Esther’s, without embarrassment. He philosophises about bees and identifies with the drone:
“He had no objection to honey, he said (and I should think he had not, for he seemed to like it), but he protested against the overweening assumptions of bees. He didn't at all see why the busy bee should be proposed as a model to him; he supposed the bee liked to make honey, or he wouldn't do it—nobody asked him. It was not necessary for the bee to make such a merit of his tastes. If every confectioner went buzzing about the world banging against everything that came in his way and egotistically calling upon everybody to take notice that he was going to his work and must not be interrupted, the world would be quite an unsupportable place. Then, after all, it was a ridiculous position to be smoked out of your fortune with brimstone as soon as you had made it. You would have a very mean opinion of a Manchester man if he spun cotton for no other purpose. He must say he thought a drone the embodiment of a pleasanter and wiser idea. The drone said unaffectedly, "You will excuse me; I really cannot attend to the shop! I find myself in a world in which there is so much to see and so short a time to see it in that I must take the liberty of looking about me and begging to be provided for by somebody who doesn't want to look about him." This appeared to Mr. Skimpole to be the drone philosophy, and he thought it a very good philosophy, always supposing the drone to be willing to be on good terms with the bee, which, so far as he knew, the easy fellow always was, if the consequential creature would only let him, and not be so conceited about his honey!” (Ch.8)
When he sees the family of his debt collector Neckett, he says:
“… he had been giving employment to a most deserving man, that he had been a benefactor to Coavinses, that he had actually been enabling Coavinses to bring up these charming children in this agreeable way, developing these social virtues!” (Ch.15)
And when his furniture is taken away:
“His furniture had been all cleared off, it appeared, by the person who took possession of it on his blue-eyed daughter's birthday, but he seemed quite relieved to think that it was gone. Chairs and table, he said, were wearisome objects; they were monotonous ideas, they had no variety of expression, they looked you out of countenance, and you looked them out of countenance. How pleasant, then, to be bound to no particular chairs and tables, but to sport like a butterfly among all the furniture on hire, and to flit from rosewood to mahogany, and from mahogany to walnut, and from this shape to that, as the humour took one!
"The oddity of the thing is," said Mr. Skimpole with a quickened sense of the ludicrous, "that my chairs and tables were not paid for, and yet my landlord walks off with them as composedly as possible. Now, that seems droll! There is something grotesque in it. The chair and table merchant never engaged to pay my landlord my rent. Why should my landlord quarrel with him? […] His reasoning seems defective!"” (Ch.18)
In Bleak House, if Dickens conveys some characters with a few brushstrokes, a few striking images, and some characters with a unique, recognisable voice or way of talking (such as Mr Boythorn, whose fury of superlatives goes off like blank cannons and hurts nothing), he largely characterises Mr Skimpole by his “logic” and his strange way of looking at the world. If we look at Mr Skimpole with a cool eye, this is a man who acts like a child, or pretends to be a child; this is a man who does nothing productive and happily lets others pay for his expenses or clear off his debts; this is a man who takes advantage of other people’s kindness and cares about nothing but himself and his own pleasure; this is a man who neglects his own wife and children; this is a man who wants to send sick Jo out on the streets; and so on and so forth. He is an odious character—Esther isn’t sure he is as artless as he seems.
By giving Mr Skimpole a philosophy, and exaggerating his way of looking at the world and his reasoning, Dickens gives him a more vivid and colourful existence. Mr Skimpole, to me, is like a funhouse Oblonsky, with logic out of Wonderland.
2/ If Mr Skimpole is a Dickensian caricature (who is nevertheless more vivid and alive than many writers’ supposedly realistic characters), Richard Carstone isn’t. He changes throughout the novel.
At the beginning of Bleak House, Richard is a kind young man, cheerful and full of warmth. You can see why everyone including Esther likes him, you can see why Ada falls in love with him—at the beginning. Then gradually we see that he has some weakness, some carelessness in character; he has no sense of purpose and drifts from one thing to another, interested in each line of work for only a brief moment; at the same time, he’s still sympathetic as he’s fully aware of his shortcomings and fully aware that he’s disappointing everyone, from Ada to Esther and Mr Jarndyce.
But slowly he and the others drift apart, and the cracks in his relationship with Mr Jarndyce begin when Mr Jarndyce is forced to be firm with him.
“"So much the easier what I have to say, and so much the easier for us to agree," returned my guardian, his face irradiated by the gentleness and honour of his heart. "Ada, my bird, you should know that Rick has now chosen his profession for the last time. All that he has of certainty will be expended when he is fully equipped. He has exhausted his resources and is bound henceforward to the tree he has planted."
"Quite true that I have exhausted my present resources, and I am quite content to know it. But what I have of certainty, sir," said Richard, "is not all I have."
"Rick, Rick!" cried my guardian with a sudden terror in his manner, and in an altered voice, and putting up his hands as if he would have stopped his ears. "For the love of God, don't found a hope or expectation on the family curse! Whatever you do on this side the grave, never give one lingering glance towards the horrible phantom that has haunted us so many years. Better to borrow, better to beg, better to die!"” (Ch.29)
That is a significant moment, for two reasons. Firstly, Dickens makes it definite that the purposeless Richard now has a single purpose, which is to pursue Jarndyce v Jarndyce, and places all his bets on the inheritance he may or may not get. Secondly, the moment marks a change in his relationship with Mr Jarndyce, as an estrangement now arises between them, especially after Mr Jarndyce breaks the engagement between Richard and Ada—to protect Ada.
As Richard becomes more and more obsessed with Jarndyce v Jarndyce, he changes, he becomes tainted by the lawsuit.
Hear Miss Flite, the crazy little woman who keeps going to the court every day:
“"[…] I have seen many new faces come, unsuspicious, within the influence of the mace and seal in these many years. As my father's came there. As my brother's. As my sister's. As my own. I hear Conversation Kenge and the rest of them say to the new faces, 'Here's little Miss Flite. Oh, you are new here; and you must come and be presented to little Miss Flite!' Ve-ry good. Proud I am sure to have the honour! And we all laugh. But, Fitz Jarndyce, I know what will happen. I know, far better than they do, when the attraction has begun. I know the signs, my dear. I saw them begin in Gridley. And I saw them end. Fitz Jarndyce, my love," speaking low again, "I saw them beginning in our friend the ward in Jarndyce. Let some one hold him back. Or he'll be drawn to ruin."” (Ch.35)
(Fitz-Jarndyce is the nickname she uses for Esther, who is the narrator in this chapter).
Richard becomes bitter, full of suspicions and resentments, and because he doesn’t know better, concentrates all his negative feelings on Mr Jarndyce.
“Yet the time is so short since his depreciation began that as he saunters away, reluctant to leave the spot for some long months together, though he hates it, Richard himself may feel his own case as if it were a startling one. While his heart is heavy with corroding care, suspense, distrust, and doubt, it may have room for some sorrowful wonder when he recalls how different his first visit there, how different he, how different all the colours of his mind. But injustice breeds injustice; the fighting with shadows and being defeated by them necessitates the setting up of substances to combat; from the impalpable suit which no man alive can understand, the time for that being long gone by, it has become a gloomy relief to turn to the palpable figure of the friend who would have saved him from this ruin and make him his enemy. Richard has told Vholes the truth. Is he in a hardened or a softened mood, he still lays his injuries equally at that door; he was thwarted, in that quarter, of a set purpose, and that purpose could only originate in the one subject that is resolving his existence into itself; besides, it is a justification to him in his own eyes to have an embodied antagonist and oppressor.” (Ch.39)
That is a great passage. Richard has lost his sense, his reason. He has turned into Ahab, mad with a single obsession, and concentrating all his hatred on a single being. But it all starts from his carelessness about money, and his odd reasoning about money and spending.
Richard changes, whilst remaining recognisably himself. Who says Dickens can’t create realistic, lifelike characters?