By Laura Schiller
Based on: Bleak House
Copyright: Charles Dickens/BBC
Esther Summerson used to daydream about her mother as a child. In her dreams, her mother was a magnificent lady, who had been separated from her by someone else's cruelty or carelessness, but never by her own choice. In her dreams, they would embrace and cry for joy at finding each other again, and never let anything come between them.
How ironic that her dream came true … in all respects but one.
Her friendship with Ada, sincere as it is, has more than a touch of envy in it. Sometimes (especially when thinking of a certain handsome surgeon) she feels that she would do anything to be like Ada: lovely, golden-haired, accomplished. Cherished and beloved all her life, first by her parents, later by Richard. To look into the mirror and find her own pockmarked face transformed into the smooth, rosy glow of her friend's.
Ada satisfies a need in her which she can hardly acknowledge, even to herself: the need to draw as close to anything beautiful as she can, in the hope that it will reflect on her and make her, if not what she once was, at least tolerable to her own eyes.
Calling Ada "darling", teasing her about Richard, advising her like an elder sister, and generally being the best friend she can, is Esther's way of doing penance for such selfish emotions. And if Ada senses this in the intense, almost desperate affection of her chosen sister, she has enough of women's intuition not to speak of it.
What she despises most about Harold Skimpole is not their differences, but the things they have in common. She understands him perfectly when he calls himself a child; when he pretends to be too innocent to understand the greater world. It is a defense she has often used herself, to avoid being seen as cynical or ungrateful for her too-sharp observations. She can see that Skimpole preys on the generosity of Mr. Jarndyce instead of making himself useful somewhere else. In her darkest hours, she feels no better than a parasite herself.
It takes a firm self-reproach, a brisk rattle of her housekeeping keys and as much work as Mr. Jarndyce will let her do, to banish that nightmare. It takes even more than that to restrain herself from throwing Skimpole out on his ear.
She has loved Allan Woodcourt from the moment she first saw him with Miss Flite. His cheerful courtesy to that eccentric old lady, her absolute trust in him as a physician and a friend, showed her everything she needed to know.
She has been searching for him, without knowing it, all her life.
Mr. Jarndyce is a wise and warm-hearted man, but his idea of charity consists mainly of giving money to anyone who asks for it. As a result, he is besieged by the likes of Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle and Mr. Skimpole, who quite possibly do more harm than good. Esther respects him with all her heart, but there is something missing in him, and meeting Mr. Woodcourt opened her eyes.
She loves him for getting his hands dirty, for making light of his poverty, for being as comfortable in Krook's Rag and Bottle Shop as around the Badgers' dining table; for making a frail madwoman feel like a princess and lending dignity to a crossing-sweeper's death. She loves him for not only saving lives (the shipwreck survivors; Caddy's baby), but bringing rest and healing wherever he goes.
This is who she wants to be – who she already is, if she could only see it. This is the reason why, common sense and even duty to the contrary, her heart beats a little faster every time she sees the flowers he gave her.
She holds on to every kind word ever said to her. She hoards them as Mr. Tulkinghorn does his clients' secrets, or Mr. Smallweed his money. After fourteen years of coldness and contempt from Miss Barbary, she is so hungry for affection, and so unworthy of it in her own eyes, that she hardly knows how to react to Mr. Jarndyce, Ada and the rest. Like a pile of chocolates to a starving man, their kindness makes her queasy, and she stumbles between modesty, pride and self-loathing like Miss Flite among her birds.
Only when she learns her own worth will she finally restore her balance.