How would we think about Charles Dickens’s many great novels if we allowed the characters in them to be our guides through their labyrinth of ideas, images, stories, themes, and issues? What would they decide was essential? How would they tell it? What would they think about their roles in the novel? What would they think of what the scholars say about them?
Esther’s Narrative is a project that attempts to answer those questions, using the voice of one of Dickens’s most intriguing (and frustrating) characters: Esther Summerson.
A sweet, but diffident young woman, loved by all those who meet her, Esther is the partial narrator of the 1852 bestseller, Bleak House. At the heart of her narrative is the story of how she is united with her lost mother. The other parts of the novel, told by a satirical third-person narrator, depict the connections and interconnections of British life, sweepingly indicting the failures of Parliament, the legal system, the charity system, and the sanitation system, all of which neglect the welfare of those in need. Esther’s sweetness contrasts with the verve of the satirical narrator, providing an emotional core to the novel.
Yet Esther infuriates critics and readers alike with her gentle style, and her modest approach to telling her story. It is our surmise that Esther is not as diffident as all that: indeed, she is a perceptive and careful teacher, with plenty of insights of her own. She is the best person to act as a guide through the places, characters, themes, and contexts of Bleak House.
Esther’s Narrative is an online pedagogical experiment in critical and creative practice. It is currently in pilot mode. Its goal is to allow students to participate, to extend their critical and creative skills by performing and instructing. It aims to provide a comprehensive repository of information and analysis about Bleak House, and to curate resources of use to the budding Dickensian.
Esther’s Narrative was designed and written by Elizabeth Hale, Senior Lecturer in English and Writing at the University of New England. The project was funded through a Senior Teaching Fellowship at the University of New England’s Teaching and Learning Support. Research and writing assistance came from Alex Greenhalgh and Yvonne Griggs. Online pedagogical advice came from Peter Holford and Greg Winslett. Technical and design expertise was provided by Iain McKay, Johl Sue and Ivan Thornton.