I have mentioned the strata of society. Let us now shoot through the layers from the very bottom of society to its very pinnacles.
We leave the noisome vapours of Tom-All-Alone’s and the London Slums for what we hope is the fresher air of Chesney Wold, the Lincolnshire Estate of Sir Leicester Dedlock. Though Sir Leicester has a house in London, we must leave the city to see the scale of his wealth and achievement.
Introducing Chesney Wold.
Chesney Wold is the Linconshire Estate of Sir Leicester Dedlock, from a family ‘as old as the hills and infinitely more respectable’.
Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks. He would on the whole admit nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park-fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families. (Bleak House, Chapter II, ‘In Fashion.’)
Built during the Renaissance, and passed through the generations to the present day, it is a large and grand country estate. With each successive generation, the Dedlocks have added to the house, so that it is in truth more of a castle than a house. It is located in Lincolnshire, some distance to the North of London.
As an Estate, Chesney Wold has many buildings, including the main house itself, a church or chapel, parkland, and farmland. A village is located near by. Tenant farmers pay rent to Sir Leicester. Much of Sir Leicester’s wealth will come from land ownership. Mr Jarndyce’s friend, Mr Boythorne, who has a house near Chesney Wold, resents the wealth and privilege of the Dedlock dynasty, and is in continual dispute with Sir Leicester over the right of way across his land.
Chesney Wold functions as a symbol of great wealth, power and privilege. It is inherited power—to become so privileged Sir Leicester has done nothing more than to be born into the Dedlock family. His beautiful wife, Lady Dedlock, has done nothing more than marry him to join him in such luxury. But for all its luxury and power, for all it represents the pinnacle of English society, Chesney Wold is not a happy place. Like Chancery, it is associated with imagery of stasis, as well as sterility and futility.
Location in England.
Chesney Wold is inspired by Rockingham Castle, located in Leicestershire. Leicestershire, like Lincoln, is North of London. Mr Dickens was friends with the family who owned the castle, and visited often. He was inspired by its size and scale, the variety of its rooms, and the antiquity of its history.
As a country house, estate, or ‘seat’ of the Dedlocks, Chesney Wold’s wealth, coming from real estate and land rents, and perhaps the income of an associated farm, is large. The house is so large it requires the management of a housekeeper, Mrs Rouncewell, and of course many servants. When Sir Leicester and his lady are in residence, and their extended family and social circle come to visit, the house echoes with talk and laughter; the parks and woodlands are full of people walking, hunting, fishing. But for the most part, it sits silent in the Lincolnshire rain, waiting for the next visit.
Sometimes, visitors come to Chesney Wold when the family is not in residence. They can be given a tour of parts of the house, as is Mr Guppy, the young lawyer, who visits it in Chapter VII, and is struck by the resemblance of Lady Dedlock’s portrait to myself (though I did not find out about this until much later.) Mr Guppy is overwhelmed by the size and scale of the buildings, and the sheer variety of the rooms.
As is usually the case with people who go over houses, Mr. Guppy and his friend are dead beat before they have well begun. They straggle about in wrong places, look at wrong things, don't care for the right things, gape when more rooms are opened, exhibit profound depression of spirits, and are clearly knocked up. In each successive chamber that they enter, Mrs. Rouncewell, who is as upright as the house itself, rests apart in a window-seat or other such nook and listens with stately approval to Rosa's exposition. Her grandson is so attentive to it that Rosa is shyer than ever—and prettier. Thus they pass on from room to room, raising the pictured Dedlocks for a few brief minutes as the young gardener admits the light, and reconsigning them to their graves as he shuts it out again. It appears to the afflicted Mr. Guppy and his inconsolable friend that there is no end to the Dedlocks, whose family greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves for seven hundred years. (Bleak House, Chapter VII, ‘The Ghost’s Walk.’)
Purpose and Nature of Chesney Wold
Indeed, the dominant attributes of the house are overwhelming. Large galleries, large drawing rooms, vast lands, are all built to demonstrate wealth and power, and occasionally to accommodate large numbers of guests, usually members of the extended Dedlock family, and all members, or hangers on, of upper class society. When Sir Leicester and his wife are in residence, his men of business, such as the lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn, visit to assist him in conducting his affairs. When they are in London, the house sits empty, (apart from the housekeeper, servants, and her family).
Therefore my Lady Dedlock has come away from the place in Lincolnshire and has left it to the rain, and the crows, and the rabbits, and the deer, and the partridges and pheasants. The pictures of the Dedlocks past and gone have seemed to vanish into the damp walls in mere lowness of spirits, as the housekeeper has passed along the old rooms shutting up the shutters. And when they will next come forth again, the fashionable intelligence—which, like the fiend, is omniscient of the past and present, but not the future—cannot yet undertake to say. (Bleak House, Chapter II, ‘In Fashion.’)
If the purpose of Tom-All-Alone’s seems to be to accommodate as many poor rags of humanity as is possible in cramped and unsanitary conditions, then, I sometimes wonder, what is the purpose of Chesney Wold, with its acres of land, its empty and echoing rooms, its history of wealth and privilege? It seems merely to be a symbol of wealth, rather than a symbol of life.
When Sir Leicester and his lady are in residence, and the house is full of visitors from the polite world, chatting, laughing, dancing, dining, hunting, fishing, shooting, walking, gossiping, I wonder, too, what sort of life it accommodates? Does any of this activity help the world at large? Does it assist anyone in Tom-All-Alone’s in finding work, or comfort? Mr Dickens would indicate not. Indeed, Chesney Wold has much in common with Chancery. Though it lacks fog, it also lacks purpose, except to reinforce its own power.
When first I saw Chesney Wold, it was from a distance, on an excursion during a visit to Mr Boythorne’s house. I was favourably impressed by its appearance.
It was a picturesque old house in a fine park richly wooded. Among the trees and not far from the residence he pointed out the spire of the little church of which he had spoken. Oh, the solemn woods over which the light and shadow travelled swiftly, as if heavenly wings were sweeping on benignant errands through the summer air; the smooth green slopes, the glittering water, the garden where the flowers were so symmetrically arranged in clusters of the richest colours, how beautiful they looked! The house, with gable and chimney, and tower, and turret, and dark doorway, and broad terrace-walk, twining among the balustrades of which, and lying heaped upon the vases, there was one great flush of roses, seemed scarcely real in its light solidity and in the serene and peaceful hush that rested on all around it. To Ada and to me, that above all appeared the pervading influence. On everything, house, garden, terrace, green slopes, water, old oaks, fern, moss, woods again, and far away across the openings in the prospect to the distance lying wide before us with a purple bloom upon it, there seemed to be such undisturbed repose. (Bleak House, Chapter XVIII, ‘Lady Dedlock.’)
Mr Dickens describes Chesney Wold a little differently, and so well, I will leave it to him to do so!
And I provide here some images from the illustrations of Bleak House, by Phiz, which indicate the scale of the house. But they also indicate the loneliness of the house. I do not envy Sir Leicester Dedlock his acres of land, his portraits and galleries. In short, Chesney Wold, despite its wealth, is not a happy house, is not a house where love is to be found in great measure.
Function in the Novel
In the world of Bleak House, Chesney Wold stands for the static ordering of society. In short, it is at the top of the British class system. There are very few in England who are higher or mightier than Sir Leicester! As a landowner, he has sway over much of the country. As a peer, he sits in Parliament, in the House of Lords. As one of the ‘great county families,’ he is assured that the world should run as he and his like would order it.
In short, Sir Leicester is one of the ruling classes, who might change things if they saw fit. Mr Dickens does not believe they do see fit, and indeed he sees in their continuation of society as it is ordered to suit them, the seeds of stasis, decay, and ruin.
Chesney Wold, then, alone in the rain, or reflecting the empty mirth of Sir Leicester’s selfish visitors, symbolises the continuation of the British class system. Mr Dickens himself was a radical (and indeed, as essentially a self-made man, who could be surprised at his impatience with the calm superiority of those who inherit their wealth). His depiction of Chesney Wold is designed to criticise the out-modedness of the aristocracy, their lack of interest in improving the systems of England, their lack of interest in the poor, or sanitation, or reform.
Yet interestingly enough, despite this dull, outmoded stasis, Chesney Wold is not entirely impregnable to change. Watt Rouncewell, the son of Mrs Rouncewell the housekeeper, is a successful engineer and factory manufacturer, in the industrial revolution which challenges the wealth of the landowners.
It is an interesting thought!