Bleak House is a long, long book with several subplots and different sections that can be clearly told apart according to their atmosphere and characters. So much so that, although as a whole it has the features of the XIXth century realistic novel, with its social worries and minutely depicted world, we can find inside it a mystery novel and a ghost tale playing their part as important pieces in the general machinery. The mystery novel (it would more properly be called a “novella”) has Mr. Bucket as the main character. It also has a definite end and a clear beginning. By the way, what a wonderful work that of Dickens’ giving life to such a memorable detective, even though it’s no more and no less than a secondary character. As for the ghost story, it’s diluted in the main plot current, giving hints of it’s presence now and then, suggesting, underlining, announcing certain facts. We could even call it an intermittent, recurring apparition. I’m not talking of Mrs. Rouncewell’s narration, the legend of the Dedlock family (a tale inside the tale) which accounts for the steps to be heard on the Ghost’s Walk on melancholic, gloomy days. What I mean is that from the onset point of this narration which Mrs. Rouncewell conveys to the visitors at the mansion, especially to Mr. Guppy (who is especially interested), the role played by The Ghost’s Walk alongside the novel can be read as a genre narrative (a ghost tale, of course), though its presence in the realistic frame of the novel has an explanation more according to its rationale: it certainly is a metaphorical projection of the characters’ forebodings, an expression of their fears, anguish and other feelings. This, anyway, doesn’t cancel the possibility of the ghost story, putting it only in the subgenre where stories of these kind have two explanations, one natural and the other one supernatural, without one of them sweeping away the other.
The love for the mysterious and macabre, the importance of spiritism as a social phenomenon in Dickens’ time, its cultural influence, sprout in Bleak House as the (probable, maybe) supernatural portent that comes back again and again, stronger and more distinctly as certain outcome is getting nearer. This is the ghost tale that we can extract without too much hindrance from the body of the novel. Its title, of course, would be the same of chapter VII: The Ghost’s Walk. But all the mentions, descriptions and forebodings which apply to it don’t constitute a narrative on their own. They need much of what is told about some if not all of the characters to have sense and even be complete as a story. The fate of Lady Dedlock is of the most importance here, but she is not the one that hears the ghost steps in her hours of anguish. She doesn’t need to, for, after all, she knows better than the rest what is approaching.
ALL APPARITIONS OF THE GHOST’S WALK IN CHARLES DICKENS’ BLEAK HOUSE
1. The view from my Lady Dedlock’s own windows is alternately a lead-coloured view and a view in Indian ink. The vases on the stone terrace in the foreground catch the rain all day; and the heavy drops fall — drip, drip, drip — upon the broad flagged pavement, called from old time the Ghost’s Walk, all night.
2… while Esther wakes, it is still wet weather down at the place in Lincolnshire. The rain is ever falling — drip, drip, drip — by day and night upon the broad flagged terrace-pavement, the Ghost’s Walk.
3. All things have an end, even houses that people take infinite pains to see and are tired of before they begin to see them. He has come to the end of the sight, and the fresh village beauty to the end of her description; which is always this: “The terrace below is much admired. It is called, from an old story in the family, the Ghost’s Walk.” “No?” says Mr. Guppy, greedily curious. “What’s the story, miss? Is it anything about a picture?” “Pray tell us the story,” says Watt in a half whisper. “I don’t know it, sir.” Rosa is shyer than ever. “It is not related to visitors; it is almost forgotten,” says the housekeeper, advancing. “It has never been more than a family anecdote.”
4. It is now dusk. Mrs. Rouncewell can trust to the discretion of her two young hearers and may tell THEM how the terrace came to have that ghostly name. She seats herself in a large chair by the fast-darkening window and tells them: “In the wicked days, my dears, of King Charles the First — I mean, of course, in the wicked days of the rebels who leagued themselves against that excellent king — Sir Morbury Dedlock was the owner of Chesney Wold. Whether there was any account of a ghost in the family before those days, I can’t say. I should think it very likely indeed.” Mrs. Rouncewell holds this opinion because she considers that a family of such antiquity and importance has a right to a ghost. She regards a ghost as one of the privileges of the upper classes, a genteel distinction to which the common people have no claim. “Sir Morbury Dedlock,” says Mrs. Rouncewell, “was, I have no occasion to say, on the side of the blessed martyr. But it IS supposed that his Lady, who had none of the family blood in her veins, favoured the bad cause. It is said that she had relations among King Charles’s enemies, that she was in correspondence with them, and that she gave them information. When any of the country gentlemen who followed his Majesty’s cause met here, it is said that my Lady was always nearer to the door of their council-room than they supposed. Do you hear a sound like a footstep passing along the terrace, Watt?” Rosa draws nearer to the housekeeper. “I hear the rain-drip on the stones,” replies the young man, “and I hear a curious echo — I suppose an echo — which is very like a halting step.” The housekeeper gravely nods and continues: “Partly on account of this division between them, and partly on other accounts, Sir Morbury and his Lady led a troubled life. She was a lady of a haughty temper. They were not well suited to each other in age or character, and they had no children to moderate between them. After her favourite brother, a young gentleman, was killed in the civil wars (by Sir Morbury’s near kinsman), her feeling was so violent that she hated the race into which she had married. When the Dedlocks were about to ride out from Wold in the king’s cause, she is supposed to have more than once stolen down into the stables in the dead of night and lamed their horses; and the story is that once at such an hour, her husband saw her gliding down the stairs and followed her into the stall where his own favourite horse stood. There he seized her by the wrist, and in a struggle or in a fall or through the horse being frightened and lashing out, she was lamed in the hip and from that hour began to pine away.” The housekeeper has dropped her voice to a little more than a whisper. “She had been a lady of a handsome figure and a noble carriage. She never complained of the change; she never spoke to any one of being crippled or of being in pain, but day by day she tried to walk upon the terrace, and with the help of the stone balustrade, went up and down, up and down, up and down, in sun and shadow, with greater difficulty every day. At last, one afternoon her husband (to whom she had never, on any persuasion, opened her lips since that night), standing at the great south window, saw her drop upon the pavement. He hastened down to raise her, but she repulsed him as he bent over her, and looking at him fixedly and coldly, said, ‘I will die here where I have walked. And I will walk here, though I am in my grave. I will walk here until the pride of this house is humbled. And when calamity or when disgrace is coming to it, let the Dedlocks listen for my step!’” Watt looks at Rosa. Rosa in the deepening gloom looks down upon the ground, half frightened and half shy. “There and then she died. And from those days,” says Mrs. Rouncewell, “the name has come down — the Ghost’s Walk. If the tread is an echo, it is an echo that is only heard after dark, and is often unheard for a long while together. But it comes back from time to time; and so sure as there is sickness or death in the family, it will be heard then.” “And disgrace, grandmother—” says Watt. “Disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold,” returns the housekeeper.
5. Through the same cold sunlight, colder as the day declines, and through the same sharp wind, sharper as the separate shadows of bare trees gloom together in the woods, and as the Ghost’s Walk, touched at the western corner by a pile of fire in the sky, resigns itself to coming night, they drive into the park. The rooks, swinging in their lofty houses in the elm-tree avenue, seem to discuss the question of the occupancy of the carriage as it passes underneath, some agreeing that Sir Leicester and my Lady are come down, some arguing with malcontents who won’t admit it, now all consenting to consider the question disposed of, now all breaking out again in violent debate, incited by one obstinate and drowsy bird who will persist in putting in a last contradictory croak. Leaving them to swing and caw, the travelling chariot rolls on to the house, where fires gleam warmly through some of the windows, though not through so many as to give an inhabited expression to the darkening mass of front. But the brilliant and distinguished circle will soon do that.
6. At length, one afternoon a little before sunset, when the bright groups of figures which have for the last hour or two enlivened the Ghost’s Walk are all dispersed and only Sir Leicester and my Lady remain upon the terrace, Mr. Tulkinghorn appears. He comes towards them at his usual methodical pace, which is never quickened, never slackened. He wears his usual expressionless mask — if it be a mask — and carries family secrets in every limb of his body and every crease of his dress. Whether his whole soul is devoted to the great or whether he yields them nothing beyond the services he sells is his personal secret. He keeps it, as he keeps the secrets of his clients; he is his own client in that matter, and will never betray himself.
7. She drops a piece of money in his hand without touching it, and shuddering as their hands approach. “Now,” she adds, “show me the spot again!”
Jo thrusts the handle of his broom between the bars of the gate, and with his utmost power of elaboration, points it out. At length, looking aside to see if he has made himself intelligible, he finds that he is alone. His first proceeding is to hold the piece of money to the gas-light and to be overpowered at finding that it is yellow — gold. His next is to give it a one-sided bite at the edge as a test of its quality. His next, to put it in his mouth for safety and to sweep the step and passage with great care. His job done, he sets off for Tom-all-Alone’s, stopping in the light of innumerable gas-lamps to produce the piece of gold and give it another one-sided bite as a reassurance of its being genuine.
The Mercury in powder is in no want of society to-night, for my Lady goes to a grand dinner and three or four balls. Sir Leicester is fidgety down at Chesney Wold, with no better company than the gout; he complains to Mrs. Rouncewell that the rain makes such a monotonous pattering on the terrace that he can’t read the paper even by the fireside in his own snug dressing-room. “Sir Leicester would have done better to try the other side of the house, my dear,” says Mrs. Rouncewell to Rosa. “His dressing-room is on my Lady’s side. And in all these years I never heard the step upon the Ghost’s Walk more distinct than it is to-night!”
8. Such the guests in the long drawing-room at Chesney Wold this dismal night when the step on the Ghost’s Walk (inaudible here, however) might be the step of a deceased cousin shut out in the cold. It is near bed-time. Bedroom fires blaze brightly all over the house, raising ghosts of grim furniture on wall and ceiling.
9. When my Lady goes to her boudoir, she sits down thoughtfully by the fire, and inattentive to the Ghost’s Walk, looks at Rosa, writing in an inner room. Presently my Lady calls her.
10. Rosa softly withdraws; but still my Lady’s eyes are on the fire. In search of what? Of any hand that is no more, of any hand that never was, of any touch that might have magically changed her life? Or does she listen to the Ghost’s Walk and think what step does it most resemble? A man’s? A woman’s? The pattering of a little child’s feet, ever coming on — on — on? Some melancholy influence is upon her, or why should so proud a lady close the doors and sit alone upon the hearth so desolate?
11. I was resting at my favourite point after a long ramble, and Charley was gathering violets at a little distance from me. I had been looking at the Ghost’s Walk lying in a deep shade of masonry afar off and picturing to myself the female shape that was said to haunt it when I became aware of a figure approaching through the wood. The perspective was so long and so darkened by leaves, and the shadows of the branches on the ground made it so much more intricate to the eye, that at first I could not discern what figure it was. By little and little it revealed itself to be a woman’s — a lady’s — Lady Dedlock’s. She was alone and coming to where I sat with a much quicker step, I observed to my surprise, than was usual with her.
12. Thence the path wound underneath a gateway, and through a court-yard where the principal entrance was (I hurried quickly on), and by the stables where none but deep voices seemed to be, whether in the murmuring of the wind through the strong mass of ivy holding to a high red wall, or in the low complaining of the weathercock, or in the barking of the dogs, or in the slow striking of a clock. So, encountering presently a sweet smell of limes, whose rustling I could hear, I turned with the turning of the path to the south front, and there above me were the balustrades of the Ghost’s Walk and one lighted window that might be my mother’s.
13. The way was paved here, like the terrace overhead, and my footsteps from being noiseless made an echoing sound upon the flags. Stopping to look at nothing, but seeing all I did see as I went, I was passing quickly on, and in a few moments should have passed the lighted window, when my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost’s Walk, that it was I who was to bring calamity upon the stately house and that my warning feet were haunting it even then. Seized with an augmented terror of myself which turned me cold, I ran from myself and everything, retraced the way by which I had come, and never paused until I had gained the lodge-gate, and the park lay sullen and black behind me.
14. He would know it all the better if he saw the woman pacing her own rooms with her hair wildly thrown from her flung-back face, her hands clasped behind her head, her figure twisted as if by pain. He would think so all the more if he saw the woman thus hurrying up and down for hours, without fatigue, without intermission, followed by the faithful step upon the Ghost’s Walk. But he shuts out the now chilled air, draws the window-curtain, goes to bed, and falls asleep. And truly when the stars go out and the wan day peeps into the turret-chamber, finding him at his oldest, he looks as if the digger and the spade were both commissioned and would soon be digging.
15. What delusion can this be? What power does she suppose is in the person she petitions to avert this unjust suspicion, if it be unjust? Her Lady’s handsome eyes regard her with astonishment, almost with fear. “My Lady, I came away last night from Chesney Wold to find my son in my old age, and the step upon the Ghost’s Walk was so constant and so solemn that I never heard the like in all these years. Night after night, as it has fallen dark, the sound has echoed through your rooms, but last night it was awfullest. And as it fell dark last night, my Lady, I got this letter.” “What letter is it?”
16. “For I dread, George,” the old lady says to her son, who waits below to keep her company when she has a little leisure, “I dread, my dear, that my Lady will never more set foot within these walls.” “That’s a bad presentiment, mother.” “Nor yet within the walls of Chesney Wold, my dear.” “That’s worse. But why, mother?” “When I saw my Lady yesterday, George, she looked to me — and I may say at me too — as if the step on the Ghost’s Walk had almost walked her down.” “Come, come! You alarm yourself with old-story fears, mother.” “No I don’t, my dear. No I don’t. It’s going on for sixty year that I have been in this family, and I never had any fears for it before. But it’s breaking up, my dear; the great old Dedlock family is breaking up.” “I hope not, mother.” “I am thankful I have lived long enough to be with Sir Leicester in this illness and trouble, for I know I am not too old nor too useless to be a welcomer sight to him than anybody else in my place would be. But the step on the Ghost’s Walk will walk my Lady down, George; it has been many a day behind her, and now it will pass her and go on.” “Well, mother dear, I say again, I hope not.” “Ah, so do I, George,” the old lady returns, shaking her head and parting her folded hands. “But if my fears come true, and he has to know it, who will tell him!”
17. There is no improvement in the weather. From the portico, from the eaves, from the parapet, from every ledge and post and pillar, drips the thawed snow. It has crept, as if for shelter, into the lintels of the great door — under it, into the corners of the windows, into every chink and crevice of retreat, and there wastes and dies. It is falling still; upon the roof, upon the skylight, even through the skylight, and drip, drip, drip, with the regularity of the Ghost’s Walk, on the stone floor below.
Charles Dickens. Complete Works of Charles Dickens. Delphi Classics.
Read only if you don’t mind a spoiler
Haunting, Guilt and Destiny in Bleak House (LitCharts)