‘At last we came into the narrow streets of Deal: and very gloomy they were, upon a raw misty morning. The long flat beach, with its little irregular houses, wooden and brick, and its litter of capstans, and great boats, and sheds, and bare upright poles with tackle and blocks, and loose gravelly waste places overgrown with grass and weeds, wore as dull an appearance as any place I ever saw. the sea was heaving under a thick white fog; and nothing else was moving but a few early ropemakers, who, with the yarn twisted round their bodies, looked as if, tired of their present state of existence, they were spinning themselves into cordage.’ Bleak House (1852-53).
Bleak House is sometimes held up as Dickens’s most confusing novel, for more than one reason. In his lifetime there were persistent and wholly inaccurate rumours that it had been written in Broadstairs and the family’s holiday residence Fort House was accordingly known colloquially as Bleak House (although Jarndyce’s house is actually meant to be located in Hertfordshire). Neighbouring Dover, like Rochester, Folkestone and Canterbury, successfully capitalised on the fame of its literary associations, even though the inspiration for David’s idyllic seaside life is drawn from Broadstairs. It is doubly ironic that Deal, where an important scene in Bleak House really is set, is not strongly associated with Dickens in the same way. It is here that Esther Summerson travels by coach to visit a despairing Richard Carstone at his army barracks, only to hear that he has decided to give up his commission. Dickens himself showed a discernible lack of enthusiasm for both Deal and Dover, although his attraction to the coastline is obvious enough. In one of his few references, he comments that, ‘I went to Dover theatre on Friday night, which was a miserable spectacle. The pit is boarded over, and it is a drinking and smoking place … I walked to Deal and back that day, and on the previous day walked over the downs towards Canterbury in a gale of wind. It was better than still weather after all, being wonderfully fresh and free.’1
Perhaps more interesting is Esther’s close observation of the ropemakers, a reminder of Dickens’s own childhood experiences at Chatham Dockyard Dockyard.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Oxford: World’s Classics, 1998.
Letter of May 1856. ↩