Ada, Esther and Lady Dedlock

Front to back, Ada, Esther and Lady Dedlock.

The weather had been all the week extremely sultry, but the storm broke so suddenly—upon us, at least, in that sheltered spot—that before we reached the outskirts of the wood the thunder and lightning were frequent and the rain came plunging through the leaves as if every drop were a great leaden bead. As it was not a time for standing among trees, we ran out of the wood, and up and down the moss-grown steps which crossed the plantation-fence like two broad-staved ladders placed back to back, and made for a keeper’s lodge which was close at hand. We had often noticed the dark beauty of this lodge standing in a deep twilight of trees, and how the ivy clustered over it, and how there was a steep hollow near, where we had once seen the keeper’s dog dive down into the fern as if it were water. 

    The lodge was so dark within, now the sky was overcast, that we only clearly saw the man who came to the door when we took shelter there and put two chairs for Ada and me. The lattice-windows were all thrown open, and we sat just within the doorway watching the storm. It was grand to see how the wind awoke, and bent the trees, and drove the rain before it like a cloud of smoke; and to hear the solemn thunder and to see the lightning; and while thinking with awe of the tremendous powers by which our little lives are encompassed, to consider how beneficent they are and how upon the smallest flower and leaf there was already a freshness poured from all this seeming rage which seemed to make creation new again. 

    “Is it not dangerous to sit in so exposed a place?” 

    “Oh, no, Esther dear!” said Ada quietly. 

    Ada said it to me, but I had not spoken. 

    The beating of my heart came back again. I had never heard the voice, as I had never seen the face, but it affected me in the same strange way. Again, in a moment, there arose before my mind innumerable pictures of myself. 

    Lady Dedlock had taken shelter in the lodge before our arrival there and had come out of the gloom within. She stood behind my chair with her hand upon it. I saw her with her hand close to my shoulder when I turned my head. 

    “I have frightened you?” she said. 

    No. It was not fright. Why should I be frightened!

Sketches and comments

Dickens’ setup for this image, the description of the rainstorm, the mysterious isolation of the keeper’s lodge, and the shadowy meeting, made it irresistible to me. In addition, the roles of the female characters in this book are rich and varied. It was a great opportunity to put to use my extensive research on period costume. These women are from three distinct social classes, and it was important to differentiate them through their wardrobes.

The relationship of Esther and Lady Dedlock is one of the central secrets of the story of BLEAK HOUSE, and this is their first meeting. As you can gather from the excerpt, Esther has some undefined anxiety about this chance encounter.

I wanted to make that feeling central to the image. Dickens tells us that the windows are flung wide, and the deep shadows, the whipping rain, the beaten trees, and the thunder and lightning set the scene.

I struggled with the lightning. As a cartoonist at heart, lightning is one of those things that it’s easy to dash off as a mannerism. But here it had to be more. How to use the raging elements of nature to reflect the interior tension of the scene?

I finally determined how to draw the lightning, and the sapling, to relate to the theme of the illustration.

This is one of those things that I can spend days thinking about. The short video here shows how I finally (and rightly!) came to realize that Lady Dedlock is the lightning, tearing into Esther’s comfortable existence, and Esther, possessing inner strength that she doesn’t realize, is the sapling beaten, but strengthened, by the storm.

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Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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