Thursday, October 20, 2011

Period Drama Heroines #8: Esther Summerson

A little note: In order to write about Esther Summerson, it is necessary for me to describe key plot points in her story. If you have not read or watched Bleak House, you may wish to skip this post, because it will contain A LOT of spoilers.

"True beauty comes from within." It's a phrased so overused as to become cliche; perhaps that's why it's the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Esther Summerson, the heroine of Charles Dickens' Bleak House.

I was recently browsing the archives of Miss Laurie's delightful blog Old-Fashioned Charm, when I chanced upon these verses written by one of my (and Jane Austen's!) favorite poets, William Cowper. Again, Esther's lovely face popped into my mind.

Sweet stream that winds through yonder glade,
Apt emblem of a virtuous maid -
Silent and chaste she steals along,
Far from the world's gay busy throng;
With gentle, yet prevailing force
Intent upon her destined course;
Graceful and useful all she does,
Blessing and bless'd where'ere she goes,
Pure-bosom'd as that wat'ry glass,
And Heav'n reflected in her face.

~William Cowper

Esther Summerson grew up knowing little more than harshness and hardship. Throughout her childhood she was told that she was her mother's disgrace, that she was good for nothing. And yet she never allowed her aunt's cruel words to tear her down. Esther's sweetness shone through no matter what.
When Esther goes to become a companion to Ada Clare, one of her first observations about Ada is that she is beautiful. Esther candidly admits that she herself is not. (I would beg to differ, but we'll get to that in more detail later.) Though some girls might resent a position such as Esther's, serving a young lady who is "superior" (I use the term loosely) in class and appearance, Esther really doesn't know the meaning of the word "resent".

Naturally, Esther isn't perfect (if she were, I probably wouldn't like her). She has an overwhelmingly strong sense of justice and can take a great dislike to people she feels are unworthy. A certain scheming, conniving, sponging, self-centered idiot by the name of Harold Skimpole, for instance. Esther handles him brilliantly, letting him know exactly what she thinks of him without ever once stooping to his level. Bravo, Esther!

Esther also possesses a great deal of tact. She isn't at all interested in Mr. Guppy's hilariously awkward declarations of love, yet she doesn't push him aside or belittle him--she kindly but firmly tells him that she cannot marry him. Esther would never intentionally hurt another person's feelings.

When she contracts smallpox, her face becomes terribly scarred. At first she doesn't want to let anyone see her, because she's afraid of offending them, not because her vanity has been hurt.

Because Esther thinks so little of herself, you see.

The inner turmoil Esther undergoes when she SPOILER ALERT finally meets her mother and cannot tell anyone END OF SPOILER reminds me of Elinor Dashwood's similar experience. Both handled the situation in a remarkable manner, never letting on how upset they were.

And if that business weren't enough, Esther has still more problems with the romance in her life. She finds herself in love with Alan Woodcourt, but after her illness is convinced that he can never love someone who is so changed. She accepts Mr. Jarndyce's proposal with a sense of gratitude, but then Alan returns from his time at sea and the music becomes thunderous! (Well, not really. But in my head, when I was reading the book, it did.)

Alan proposes to Esther (he's a true gentleman, not to be swayed by a few scars), but she remains loyal to Mr. Jarndyce and gently refuses Alan. This is Esther's best scene and the epitome of her self-sacrificial personality--please tell me I wasn't the only one crying when this happened (even though I'd already read the book....).

(I couldn't find a clip of Alan's proposal alone--Esther's Best Scene goes from 2:07 to 3:48, with a bit of the wedding at the end. I'd recommend you watch the whole thing. :))

And yet Esther's happiness isn't sacrificed, because Mr. Jarndyce (dear man!) makes a sacrifice too. (I'm using that word too much...) Esther and Alan lived happily ever after, and there are few heroines who more richly deserve an ending such as Esther's. As I said before, Esther's true beauty shines from within. Outwardly, she is rather plain, but inwardly, she is loveliness itself--and that loveliness manifests itself in her countenance.

That's true beauty. That's Esther. She's the kind of lady that I want to be.

All pictures except for the second, third and sixth (which are from Google Images) are from


Melody said...

I love Esther. :) Although I always feel sorry for Mr. Jarndyce. He was so nice!!

Miss Dashwood said...

Awww, I know... when my mom finished watching the movie, she kept insisting that Esther should have married Mr. Jarndyce. :)

Melody said...

Haha, one of my sisters and I were saying that too. :P Except he was rather old. But since he was never married, and since it was "back then"....

Mr. Woodcourt was okay though. ha

ktjl92 said...

I have Bleak House waiting for me in my Netflix queue so I'll have to come back and read this one later!

Wendy H said...

I watched Bleak House via Netflix. Yes, I loved her character. She was so likable. Genuine.

Actually the whole production kept me spellbound. I watched it over several consecutive days as I had time, it was so engrossing.