Mr. Tulkinghorn at Leisure

April 26, 2021

Dickens Project Director John Jordan is back again with a passage from 'Bleak House' regarding Mr. Tulkinghorn and his secretive demeanor. The main focus is on Mr. Tulkinghorn's indulgence in wine and the mythic allusions that are made in regards to him and Lady Dedlock. 



Hi, it’s John Jordan again, from the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz, with another of my favorite passages from Dickens as part of our video series, Dickens-to-Go.

The passage I want to share with you today comes from Bleak House. It’s in chapter 22, which is entitled “Mr. Bucket,” and it’s a brief description of the lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is the main villain of the novel. Tulkinghorn is the principal solicitor for Sir Leicester Dedlock and the aristocratic Dedlock family, and his main role is to guard the family’s secrets. He dresses always in black like some kind of crow or rook, and is an extremely secretive and mysterious figure. When we first meet him, in chapter 2, the narrator describes him as “surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences; of which he is known to be the silent depository.” Sir Leicester views him as a loyal retainer, whose silent presence and respectful demeanor make him, the narrator tells us,“as it were, the steward of the legal mysteries, the butler of the legal cellar, of the Dedlocks.”

We seldom get any insight into the mind of Mr. Tulkinghorn, but we know that he often hovers on the edge of scenes involving other people, listening and keeping a sharp eye on all they say and do. He takes a special interest in Sir Leicester’s wife, the beautiful Lady Dedlock, and as the result of a small mistake on her part early in the novel, he comes into possession of a secret about her past that he uses in order to blackmail her. Once he has the secret and lets her know that he has it, he does something very curious. He tells her that he will keep her secret in confidence, but that the condition of his silence is that she must continue acting exactly as she did before. She must not do anything to change her behavior. He does not pressure her for money or to exert influence over her husband for Tulkinghorn’s benefit. The motive behind his blackmail is unclear and remains a mystery.  

The passage I want to read is one of the rare moments in the book when we see Mr. Tulkinghorn alone and at leisure, so to speak. It is also a passage that gives us some insight into his motives and the deep game of emotional chess that he is playing with Lady Dedlock. Here is the passage:

"Mr. Tulkinghorn sits at one of the open windows, enjoying a bottle of old port. Though a hard-grained man, close, dry, and silent, he can enjoy old wine with the best. He has a priceless bin of port in some artful cellar under the Fields, which is one of his many secrets. When he dines alone in chambers, as he has dined to-day, and has his bit of fish and his steak or chicken brought in from the coffee-house, he descends with a candle to the echoing regions below the deserted mansion, and, heralded by a remote reverberation of thundering doors, comes gravely back, encircled by an earthy atmosphere and carrying a bottle from which he pours a radiant nectar, two score and ten years old, that blushes in the glass to find itself so famous, and fills the whole room with the fragrance of southern grapes."


                                              --Bleak House, chapter 22

The first thing to be said about this passage is that the writing is simply gorgeous—sensuous, even sensual, in its appeal at once to sight, sound, taste, and smell. The passage rivals Keats in its ability to arouse the reader’s visceral response. It is also an unusual passage in other respects. We don’t usually think of Tulkinghorn as a hedonist, but here we find him in his own domain, alone, relaxed, and indulging in a pleasure that he particularly enjoys. 

The narrator’s mention of the Fields is of course a local reference to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where the lawyer’s London offices are located; but the reference also suggests a mythic region, and Tulkinghorn’s descent into the realm beneath them suggests that he is the Greek god Hades, the god of death and Lord of the underworld, and that the bottle of fine wine he brings “gravely” back with him from the echoing regions below is a figure for his young bride Persephone, whom he imprisons in the darkness for half of the year before bringing her back up into the natural world to begin the annual cycle of renewal and fertility. 

The allusion to this mythic pattern provides insight into Tulkinghorn’s motives with respect to Lady Dedlock. His goal is not finally to expose her, but to capture and hold her under his sway and then to bring her up at his leisure, radiant, blushing, and fragrant, to sip and torture with the patient cruelty of a connoisseur. Tulkinghorn is a sadist, who hates women and delights in torturing them, especially if they are young and beautiful and proud. In the game of chess he plays with Lady Dedlock and Sir Leicester, he is the rook, a powerful player positioned on the edge of the board, but often an important figure at the end of a match. His aim is to capture the queen and put the king in check.

The passage as a whole is a brilliant instance of Dickens’s ability to combine evocative language and intricate layers of metaphor and myth in order to reveal hidden psychological motivations. In Bleak House, he is truly working at the height of his powers as a writer.

Well, that’s your Dickens-to-Go passage for today. Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll check back again soon for another episode in our series.




Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it. 

What are your favorite passages? We hope you will make a video too! Email Courtney Mahaney for video submission guidelines.