I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever.
These words, which form the first sentence of chapter 3, “A Progress,” are the first words of Esther’s narrative, the first we hear of her voice. There are two remarkable elements to this quotation. First, Esther seems to be aware that she is telling this story in tandem with someone else. She says that these pages will be “my portion,” suggesting that she knows that the tale is not entirely hers. Although Esther never refers to the third-person narrator with whom she shares the telling of Bleak House, she is aware of him, and she goes on to tell her story with the understanding that someone else will flesh out the names, places, and events that she refers to from her limited, first-person perspective.
Esther says she knows she is “not clever,” but this assertion alerts us to the fact that she is indeed clever and will tell the story in a skillful way. Even though the beginning of her narration does seem to lack the finesse and dramatic touches that characterize her later chapters, her claim to be “not clever” quickly shows itself to be false. Esther has an intuitive, compassionate way of interacting with the world, and as we get to know her, we see that, at times, she knows more than she lets on. This quotation, rather than telling us that our narrator isn’t smart, tells us that our narrator perhaps isn’t fully reliable. We can trust Esther to tell the full story, but, as we will see as the novel progresses, she will tell us the story on her own terms, deciding for herself what to reveal and when to reveal it.