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Novel to Film | At the Jellybys

Novel | Screenplay | Film


The Novel

At the Jellybys
From Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Chapter IV, Telescopic Philanthropy

We were to pass the night, Mr. Kenge told us when we arrived in his room, at Mrs.Jellyby's; and then he turned to me and said he took it for granted I knew who Mrs.Jellyby was.

"I really don't, sir," I returned. "Perhaps Mr. Carstone--or Miss Clare--"

But no, they knew nothing whatever about Mrs.Jellyby. "In-deed! Mrs.Jellyby," said Mr. Kenge, standing with his back to the fire and casting his eyes over the dusty hearth-rug as if it were Mrs.Jellyby's biography, "is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa, with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry--AND the natives--and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population. Mr. Jarndyce, who is desirous to aid any work that is considered likely to be a good work and who is much sought after by philanthropists, has, I believe, a very high opinion of Mrs.Jellyby."

Mr. Kenge, adjusting his cravat, then looked at us.

"And Mr. Jellyby, sir?" suggested Richard.

"Ah! Mr. Jellyby," said Mr. Kenge, "is--a--I don't know that I can describe him to you better than by saying that he is the husband of Mrs.Jellyby."

"A nonentity, sir?" said Richard with a droll look.

"I don't say that," returned Mr. Kenge gravely. "I can't say that, indeed, for I know nothing whatever OF Mr. Jellyby. I never, to my knowledge, had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Jellyby. He may be a very superior man, but he is, so to speak, merged--merged--in the more shining qualities of his wife." Mr. Kenge proceeded to tell us that as the road to Bleak House would have been very long, dark, and tedious on such an evening, and as we had been travelling already, Mr. Jarndyce had himself proposed this arrangement. A carriage would be at Mrs.Jellyby's to convey us out of town early in the forenoon of to-morrow.

He then rang a little bell, and the young gentleman came in. Addressing him by the name of Guppy, Mr. Kenge inquired whether Miss Summerson's boxes and the rest of the baggage had been "sent round." Mr. Guppy said yes, they had been sent round, and a coach was waiting to take us round too as soon as we pleased.

"Then it only remains," said Mr. Kenge, shaking hands with us, "for me to express my lively satisfaction in (good day, Miss Clare!) the arrangement this day concluded and my (GOOD-bye to you, Miss Summerson!) lively hope that it will conduce to the happiness, the (glad to have had the honour of making your acquaintance, Mr. Carstone!) welfare, the advantage in all points of view, of all concerned! Guppy, see the party safely there."

"Where IS 'there,' Mr. Guppy?" said Richard as we went downstairs.

"No distance," said Mr. Guppy; "round in Thavies Inn, you know."

"I can't say I know where it is, for I come from Winchester and am strange in London."

"Only round the corner," said Mr. Guppy. "We just twist up Chancery Lane, and cut along Holborn, and there we are in four minutes' time, as near as a toucher. This is about a London particular NOW, ain't it, miss?" He seemed quite delighted with it on my account.

"The fog is very dense indeed!" said I.

"Not that it affects you, though, I'm sure," said Mr. Guppy, putting up the steps. "On the contrary, it seems to do you good, miss, judging from your appearance."

I knew he meant well in paying me this compliment, so I laughed at myself for blushing at it when he had shut the door and got upon the box; and we all three laughed and chatted about our inexperience and the strangeness of London until we turned up under an archway to our destination--a narrow street of high houses like an oblong cistern to hold the fog. There was a confused little crowd of people, principally children, gathered about the house at which we stopped, which had a tarnished brass plate on the door with the inscription JELLYBY.

"Don't be frightened!" said Mr. Guppy, looking in at the coach- window. "One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!"

"Oh, poor child," said I; "let me out, if you please!"

"Pray be careful of yourself, miss. The young Jellybys are always up to something," said Mr. Guppy.

I made my way to the poor child, who was one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw, and found him very hot and frightened and crying loudly, fixed by the neck between two iron railings, while a milkman and a beadle, with the kindest intentions possible, were endeavouring to drag him back by the legs, under a general impression that his skull was compressible by those means. As I found (after pacifying him) that he was a little boy with a naturally large head, I thought that perhaps where his head could go, his body could follow, and mentioned that the best mode of extrication might be to push him forward. This was so favourably received by the milkman and beadle that he would immediately have been pushed into the area if I had not held his pinafore while Richard and Mr. Guppy ran down through the kitchen to catch him when he should be released. At last he was happily got down without any accident, and then he began to beat Mr. Guppy with a hoop-stick in quite a frantic manner.

Nobody had appeared belonging to the house except a person in pattens, who had been poking at the child from below with a broom; I don't know with what object, and I don't think she did. I therefore supposed that Mrs.Jellyby was not at home, and was quite surprised when the person appeared in the passage without the pattens, and going up to the back room on the first floor before Ada and me, announced us as, "Them two young ladies, Missis Jellyby!" We passed several more children on the way up, whom it was difficult to avoid treading on in the dark; and as we came into Mrs.Jellyby's presence, one of the poor little things fell downstairs--down a whole flight (as it sounded to me), with a great noise.

Mrs.Jellyby, whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces as the dear child's head recorded its passage with a bump on every stair--Richard afterwards said he counted seven, besides one for the landing--received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if--I am quoting Richard again--they could see nothing nearer than Africa!

"I am very glad indeed," said Mrs.Jellyby in an agreeable voice, "to have the pleasure of receiving you. I have a great respect for Mr. Jarndyce, and no one in whom he is interested can be an object of indifference to me."

We expressed our acknowledgments and sat down behind the door, where there was a lame invalid of a sofa. Mrs.Jellyby had very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it. The shawl in which she had been loosely muffled dropped onto her chair when she advanced to us; and as she turned to resume her seat, we could not help noticing that her dress didn't nearly meet up the back and that the open space was railed across with a lattice-work of stay-lace--like a summer-house.

The room, which was strewn with papers and nearly filled by a great writing-table covered with similar litter, was, I must say, not only very untidy but very dirty. We were obliged to take notice of that with our sense of sight, even while, with our sense of hearing, we followed the poor child who had tumbled downstairs: I think into the back kitchen, where somebody seemed to stifle him.

But what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking though by no means plain girl at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. And from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place.

"You find me, my dears," said Mrs.Jellyby, snuffing the two great office candles in tin candlesticks, which made the room taste strongly of hot tallow (the fire had gone out, and there was nothing in the grate but ashes, a bundle of wood, and a poker), "you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time. It involves me in correspondence with public bodies and with private individuals anxious for the welfare of their species all over the country. I am happy to say it is advancing. We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger."

As Ada said nothing, but looked at me, I said it must be very gratifying.

"It IS gratifying," said Mrs.Jellyby. "It involves the devotion of all my energies, such as they are; but that is nothing, so that it succeeds; and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that YOU never turned your thoughts to Africa."

This application of the subject was really so unexpected to me that I was quite at a loss how to receive it. I hinted that the climate--

"The finest climate in the world!" said Mrs.Jellyby.

"Indeed, ma'am?"

"Certainly. With precaution," said Mrs.Jellyby. "You may go into Holborn, without precaution, and be run over. You may go into Holborn, with precaution, and never be run over. Just so with Africa."

I said, "No doubt." I meant as to Holborn.

"If you would like," said Mrs.Jellyby, putting a number of papers towards us, "to look over some remarks on that head, and on the general subject, which have been extensively circulated, while I finish a letter I am now dictating to my eldest daughter, who is my amanuensis--"

The girl at the table left off biting her pen and made a return to our recognition, which was half bashful and half sulky.

"--I shall then have finished for the present," proceeded Mrs.Jellyby with a sweet smile, "though my work is never done. Where are you, Caddy?"

"'Presents her compliments to Mr. Swallow, and begs--'" said Caddy.

"'And begs,'" said Mrs.Jellyby, dictating, "'to inform him, in reference to his letter of inquiry on the African project--' No, Peepy! Not on my account!"

Peepy (so self-named) was the unfortunate child who had fallen downstairs, who now interrupted the correspondence by presenting himself, with a strip of plaster on his forehead, to exhibit his wounded knees, in which Ada and I did not know which to pity most-- the bruises or the dirt. Mrs.Jellyby merely added, with the serene composure with which she said everything, "Go along, you naughty Peepy!" and fixed her fine eyes on Africa again.

However, as she at once proceeded with her dictation, and as I interrupted nothing by doing it, I ventured quietly to stop poor Peepy as he was going out and to take him up to nurse. He looked very much astonished at it and at Ada's kissing him, but soon fell fast asleep in my arms, sobbing at longer and longer intervals, until he was quiet. I was so occupied with Peepy that I lost the letter in detail, though I derived such a general impression from it of the momentous importance of Africa, and the utter insignificance of all other places and things, that I felt quite ashamed to have thought so little about it.

"Six o'clock!" said Mrs.Jellyby. "And our dinner hour is nominally (for we dine at all hours) five! Caddy, show Miss Clare and Miss Summerson their rooms. You will like to make some change, perhaps? You will excuse me, I know, being so much occupied. Oh, that very bad child! Pray put him down, Miss Summerson!"

I begged permission to retain him, truly saying that he was not at all troublesome, and carried him upstairs and laid him on my bed. Ada and I had two upper rooms with a door of communication between. They were excessively bare and disorderly, and the curtain to my window was fastened up with a fork.

"You would like some hot water, wouldn't you?" said Miss Jellyby, looking round for a jug with a handle to it, but looking in vain.

"If it is not being troublesome," said we.

"Oh, it's not the trouble," returned Miss Jellyby; "the question is, if there IS any."


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The Screenplay

At the Jellybys
From the screenplay by Andrew Davies

Young Boy (V.O.): groans/howls

Ext. Street - Evening

Carriage travels towards -
FX: Young Boy: Continues
Guppy jumps from it -


Guppy: Oh. (Mumbles)

- it stops -
Intercut with young boy with his head stuck in railings -
Guppy steps to carriage door, opens it -
Esther and Ada seated inside.


Esther: Mr Guppy, whatever's the matter?

Guppy: Oh, don't be frightened, Miss. One of the young Jellybys has been and got his head through the area railings.

Esther climbs from carriage.

Esther: Oh, poor child.

Guppy steps around railing to young boy -

Guppy: Oh, never fear. I'll pull him out, Miss Summerson.

Guppy: (Cont) Oh. Move. 'Ere y'are.

Pulls young boy
Young Boy: howls
Guppy steps back -


Guppy: (Cont) Oh ... no go. I'll try again.

Young Boy: Continues

Guppy pulls young boy
Esther hurries around railing, stops him.


Esther: Mr, Mr Guppy! Mr Guppy. Would it not be better to push? Where his head will go, perhaps the rest of him will follow.

Guppy: Excellent thought, Miss Summerson.

Guppy steps around railing -
Esther crouches by young boy -
Pushes him.


Esther: Gently, don't be frightened. Er, wriggle your shoulder a little bit sideways.

Guppy pulls him -
Young Boy: continues


Esther: (Cont) There, that's it.

- frees him.

Guppy: There, we got him

FX: laughter

Esther and Ada turn.
Door: opens
Mrs. Jellyby steps from house.


Mrs. Jellyby: Ah, Miss Clare. Miss Summerson. Mr Carstone. Do, please, come inside.

Laughter: continues

Mrs. Jellyby, Esther Ada and Richard enter house -
Guppy steps to door -
Door closes in his face - end on Guppy.

FX: music

Int. Jellyby House Hallway - Evening

Children on stairs -
Mrs. Jellyby leads Esther, Ada and Richard to drawing room.


Mrs. Jellyby: This way, my dears. You find me, as usual, very busy. My Africa project employs my whole time.

Young children hurry past.

Esther looks down stairs -
FX: child: whimpers
Intercut with young boy lying at foot of stairs.

Mrs. Jellyby steps to drawing room.


Mrs. Jellyby: (Cont) We hope by this time next year to have two hundred families cultivating coffee, and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Ghia.

Int. Jellyby House Drawing Room Evening

Mrs. Jellyby enters - Esther, Ada and Richard follow -
Intercut with Caddy seated at table.


Mrs. Jellyby: Great work, great work. My husband, Mr Jellyby, does not appear to be here. But here is my eldest daughter Caddy - my amanuensis. Do please s, sit while I, er ...

(To Caddy) Where were we, Caddy?

Ada and Esther sit.

Mrs. Jellyby: (Cont) - I'm sure your thoughts have often turned to Africa, Miss Summerson. The finest climate in the world.

(To Caddy) Caddy?

Caddy: (Reads) Mrs. Jellyby presents her compliments to Mrs. Swallow

Peepy enters.

Peepy: Ma.

Mrs. Jellyby gestures.
Peepy steps to Esther -
She picks him up, places him on her lap -
Caddy writes -


Mrs. Jellyby: Now what is it? No, Peepy, not on any account. Mama is busy.

(Pause - Dictates) You, Mrs. Swallow, I know, share my deeply held conviction about Africa, the essential Brotherhood of Humanity, and it is with this understanding...

Caddy stops.

Caddy: I can't keep up, Ma. Go slower.

Mrs. Jellyby reacts.
FX: children: chatter


Mrs. Jellyby: (Dictates - Slowly) And it is with this understanding ...

End on Caddy - Writes.


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The Film

At the Jellybys
From the film, as directed by Justin Chadwick

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