I would like now to introduce you to my mother, Lady Honoria Dedlock, née Barbary.
Lady Dedlock is the wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock. She is a great beauty, but a silent and bored-seeming woman, whose frozen demeanour masks a tragic secret, namely having given birth to me, while unmarried. As she travels with Sir Leicester, from London to Chesney Wold, to Paris, and back again, in seeming pursuit of endless amusement, she is never happy, never able to rest content in her own being.
Though she lives in luxury, the shame and distress of her situation continually pursue her. Did she marry Sir Leicester because her heart was broken, or to hide her shame? It is unclear, especially to me. I know she loved me, and I know she loved my father, Captain Hawdon. Like Jo, she does not survive the novel, dying on the steps of the graveyard where my father is buried.
Lady Dedlock’s story, in which the relentless lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn, discovers that she has a secret (though he takes some time to discover what that secret is), and in which she discovers that Captain Hawdon has died, and that I am alive, is a central story in the plot that connects with me. She is a familiar figure in Victorian literature, the fallen woman, a woman with a past, whose past catches up with her. She dies, reunited, so to speak, with my father, at the gate of his gravesite.
Describing Lady Dedlock.
Lady Honoria Dedlock’s names are symbolic, to some degree. Honoria, of course, is ironic, in that in our time, having a child out of wedlock is considered shameful. (I would point out that there is many a married couple in Bleak House, and in Mr Dickens’s other work, that observes the letter of the law, but lacks passion, courage, or truth. But I am possibly not an impartial observer on this matter.) The name Dedlock, I believe, symbolizes that she is trapped, trapped in marriage to a man she does not love (in this I feel she is most unfortunate), and trapped by propriety to live a lie.
Mr Dickens describes Lady Dedlock in varying ways: at first, she is frozen, bored, inhuman; later, she is almost a wild creature.
How Alexander wept when he had no more worlds to conquer, everybody knows—or has some reason to know by this time, the matter having been rather frequently mentioned. My Lady Dedlock, having conquered HER world, fell not into the melting, but rather into the freezing, mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity, an equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction, are the trophies of her victory. She is perfectly well-bred. If she could be translated to heaven to-morrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture.She has beauty still, and if it be not in its heyday, it is not yet in its autumn. She has a fine face—originally of a character that would be rather called very pretty than handsome, but improved into classicality by the acquired expression of her fashionable state. Her figure is elegant and has the effect of being tall. Not that she is so, but that Bleak House: Chapter II, ‘In Fashion’
5 things you need to know about Lady Honoria Dedlock
- One of the great beauties of the British Aristocracy
- Born Honoria Barbury, engaged to Captain Hawdon (dec.), but married to Sir Leicester Dedlock
- Has a secret sorrow
- Bears a mysterious resemblance to Esther Summerson
- Hides someone’s handkerchief in her cabinet
Lady Dedlock as a type of character, and representing specific issues.
As a fallen woman, Lady Dedlock is a familiar figure in Victorian fiction. This is, as you doubtless know, an era in which contraception is almost non-existent, and accordingly the price of virtue is high. Mr Dickens was sympathetic to fallen women, especially those poor souls who had fallen into prostitution. With Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, he founded and supported Urania Cottage, a home for the rehabilitation of fallen women.
Lady Dedlock, I believe, reveals some of the complexities surrounding fallen women. Where other fallen women are seduced, or violated, she seems simply to have been in love with a man who (I regret to say) seems to have been weak, or feckless, or emotionally unable to see things through. Mr Dickens does not seem to judge her, and for that I thank him. Society, however, will judge her, particularly the wealthy society that fawns upon Sir Leicester. (There is strong irony in this hypocrisy, and Mr Dickens cannot bear a hypocrite.)
Where the throng is thickest, where the lights are brightest, where all the senses are ministered to with the greatest delicacy and refinement, Lady Dedlock is. From the shining heights she has scaled and taken, she is never absent. Though the belief she of old reposed in herself as one able to reserve whatsoever she would under her mantle of pride is beaten down, though she has no assurance that what she is to those around her she will remain another day, it is not in her nature when envious eyes are looking on to yield or to droop. They say of her that she has lately grown more handsome and more haughty. Bleak House, Chapter XLVIII, ‘Closing In.’
Mr Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester’s solicitor, pursues Lady Dedlock’s secret with a relentlessness that is difficult to understand. Is he antagonistic to her? Or does he simply follow his legal obligation to seek out any information that may affect Sir Leicester’s place in society? In reviewing the events of Bleak House, I have often wondered this.
Lady Dedlock’s role in Bleak House.
Lady Dedlock is a tragic heroine, to some degree: a mysterious woman with a secret, a woman in jeopardy, a doomed lover, and a fallen woman. She is my long lost mother, and though I am only briefly united with her, finding her lays some of my own feelings of loss and abandonment to rest.
I looked at her, but I could not see her, I could not hear her, I could not draw my breath. The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me. But when she caught me to her breast, kissed me, wept over me, compassionated me, and called me back to myself; when she fell down on her knees and cried to me, Bleak House, Chapter XXXVI, ‘Chesney Wold.’
If Bleak House is the story of my discovery of my identity, and my eventual happy union, then Lady Dedlock is an important player (I certainly view her thus!).
If Bleak House is a satire of society, of the wealthy classes’ neglect and exploitation of those classes below them, then Lady Dedlock is an anomaly. Does she participate in that neglect? Or does her marriage into them, from the middle classes below, absolve her of participation in that neglect? Does she marry Sir Leicester opportunistically—seeking a home and status denied to her in her previous life? Is her face her fortune or her curse? Ironically, perhaps, Sir Leicester loves her so much he is prepared to forgive all her sins (though we may not think there is much to forgive). Mr Tulkinghorn was wrong to pursue her. Her end, I am sure you will agree, is tragic. When she dies, however, society closes ranks against her, barely acknowledging that she existed.
There is a hush upon Chesney Wold in these altered days, as there is upon a portion of the family history. The story goes that Sir Leicester paid some who could have spoken out to hold their peace; but it is a lame story, feebly whispering and creeping about, and any brighter spark of life it shows soon dies away. It is known for certain that the handsome Lady Dedlock lies in the mausoleum in the park, where the trees arch darkly overhead, and the owl is heard at night making the woods ring; but whence she was brought home to be laid among the echoes of that solitary place, or how she died, is all mystery. Some of her old friends, principally to be found among the peachy-cheeked charmers with the skeleton throats, did once occasionally say, as they toyed in a ghastly manner with large fans—like charmers reduced to flirting with grim death, after losing all their other beaux—did once occasionally say, when the world assembled together, that they wondered the ashes of the Dedlocks, entombed in the mausoleum, never rose against the profanation of her company. But the dead-and-gone Dedlocks take it very calmly and have never been known to object. Bleak House, Chapter LXVI, ‘Down in Lincolnshire.’