“Bleak House” is one of the most famous works by the revered author Charles Dickens. Originally published in a serial format between March 1852 and September 1853, the book’s main plot is a satrization of the English judicial system and it’s popularity helped spark a reform movement that helped create a legal reform in the country in the 1870’s.
The book tells the story of a young woman named Esther, who is sent to live with a rich man and two other orphans because of a case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce where two conflicting wills are at play. The other orphans, a girl named Ada and a boy named Richard, are distant relations to John Jarndyce who takes all of the young people into his home, Bleak House.
Throughout the novel, Esther discovers the identity of her biological mother in Lady Dedlock, who had her illegitimately and has been hiding this secret for years. Many other subplots interconnect throughout the story, giving it the feel of a real English village.
“Bleak House” has been adapted several times, including a stage version in the late nineteenth century, a silent film in 1920 and three television adaptations for the BBC in 1959, 1985 and 2005.
The first two chapters of the book deal with the characters of Lady Dedlock and a lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The lawsuit, which is so old that no one really remembers how it began anymore, is brought to the Lord High Chancellor who rules that a girl and a boy should go to live with their uncle.
Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock returns home with her husband Sit Leicester Dedlock. The couples lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn updates them on the lawsuit. When Lady Dedlock sees the documents she asks who copied them as she likes the handwriting. Tulkinghorn is unsure but says that he can find out. Lady Dedlock suddenly feels ill and goes to her room.
In chapter three, the narration is taken over by Esther Summerson who is going to live with a new guardian named Mr. Jarndyce. Ester has been raised thus far by her godmother Miss Barbary who recently died. Esther does not know who her parents are, but shortly after Miss Barbary died, a strange man named Kenge arrived and told Esther that her godmother was actually her aunt. Esther is told that she is somehow involved with the lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce and this is why she is going to live with Mr. Jarndyce. She will be comfortable there but expected to stay on the grounds under Mr. Jarndyce’s discretion.
For the next six years, Esther stays at an estate called Greenleaf with a maid named Miss Donny. When Esther is twenty, she hears from Kenge again who tells her that she is going to be placed in a new home. Esther is brought to Kenge’s office where she meets a young girl named Ada Clare and a young man named Richard Carstone. Ada and Richard are distant cousins, and all three are to be taken to Bleak House to live with Mr. Jarndyce. Esther and the others stay overnight at the house of a family called Jellyby which is chaotic and filled with dirty children.
The next day, they are taken to Bleak House and given a letter each from Jarndyce, welcoming them to his home. When they reach the house, Jarndyce is waiting for them outside and greets them merrily. Esther realizes that she has seen Jarndyce once before in a stagecoach. Jarndyce asks them to say what they really thought of the Jellyby house, and Ada points out that Esther was very helpful with the children and made herself useful. Jarndyce worries about the wind coming from the east and is relieved when Richard tells him that it is coming from the north.
Bleak House is made up of a maze of rooms that are easy to get lost in. Still the young people like the house. Jarndyce tells them that they have a visitor for dinner. He says that this person is a child but not really a child and that he has many children but doesn’t care for them. The man turns out to be Harold Skimpole, a very childlike man who has no concept of time or money. Everyone likes Skimpole as he is very enchanting and free willed.
However, before the evening is over Skimpole is arrested for debt while he and Richard are walking in the town. Richard sends for Esther who brings money for bail. When Jarndyce hears of this he is mortified that they paid for it. He says that Skimpole is somewhat of a moocher who relies on others to pay his debts.
Jarndyce complains about the wind once more before suddenly forgiving Skimpole and claiming that his childish tendencies are part of his charm. Meanwhile at Lady Dedlock’s estate, Chesney Wold, the housekeeper Mrs. Rouncewell is visited by a man called Mr. Guppy who claims to know Mr. Tulkinghorn. Mr. Guppy seems to recognize a picture of Lady Dedlock handing over the fireplace. When he notices the terrace of the house, Mrs. Rouncewell tells him that it is called Ghost Walk after one of the family’s old legends.
Later, Mrs. Rouncewell tells the Ghost Walk story to two younger members of the staff. The story goes that one of the older Sir Dedlocks had a wife that betrayed him by giving up information to King Charles opposition. She claimed that she hated her husband because one of his relatives killed her brother. One night she and her husband got into an altercation, and she never healed, wasting away in bed. She could no longer walk on the terrace and after collapsing there one day she announced that she would die there and haunt it until the house was in disgrace. But Mrs. Rouncewell says that although footsteps have been heard on the terrace, the house has never fallen into disgrace.
The next day at Bleak House, Esther wakes and joins Jarndyce in a room that he calls the Growlery, where he goes when the wind is blowing from the east or when he is in a bad mood. They talk about the lawsuit, and he tells her that it has gone on so long that the money that it was supposed to have bequeathed has now been spent on the case. The case involves two conflicting wills from a man named Tom Jarndyce who was the current Jarndyce’s uncle. Bleak House used to belong to Tom. Esther begins to suspect that Richard and Ada are falling in love. Richard is determined to find a profession and tries out many different ones in the quest.
An old friend of Jarndyce’s named Lawrence Boythorn visits the house. Boythorn is always accompanied by his pet bird that sits on his head. Later that evening, Jarndyce tells Esther that Boythorn has never been married because a woman broke his heart many years before.
The following day, Mr. Guppy arrives to see Boythorn. Esther is delighted to see Mr. Guppy as she knows him from Kenge’s office. She asks him to have lunch with her, during which Guppy tells her that he is in love with and wants to marry her. Esther is shocked and refuses him. He tells her that it does not change his feelings and that she should get in touch with him if she changes her mind before he leaves.
Mr. Tulkinghorn goes to the office of a man named Mr. Snagsby to ask who wrote the documents from the Jarndyce case. Snagsby says that they were written by a man called Nemo. Tulkinghorn purses Nemo until he is told that the man lives above a shop owned by Mr. Krook. Tulkinghorn finds a man lying on a bed in the apartment that is said to be Nemo’s, but the man does not wake up. Nemo seems to be dead. A doctor is called who tells them that Nemo bought opium from him and overdosed.
An inquisition is formed over the death and taken to court the next day. The only person who seems to know anything about the death is a homeless boy named Jo who says that Nemo had previously given him a home and money. Sir and Lady Dedlock arrive home from Paris and receive a letter from Tulkinghorn saying that he has something he needs to speak with them about.
Tulkinghorn arrives two weeks later and tells Lady Dedlock about Nemo. He tells her that no one seemed to know the man or anything about him. Richard decides to pursue a medical career and is given an in with Mr. Kenge’s cousin, Mr. Badger who is a doctor. Mr. Guppy follows Esther around the city, making her uncomfortable.
One night, Ada confesses to Esther that she and Richard are in love. Richard tells her the same, later and Esther feels that they are truly in love. Jarndyce tells Esther that he approves of the match, but wants Richard to get settled in his career first. Esther remarks on the young surgeon that attended their last dinner party and how she found him nice. Esther visits Krook’s shop with friends and hears some vague details about the death of the tenant upstairs. Esther meets the surgeon from the night before again while she is in town and discovers that his name is Woodcourt. Ada teases her about having a crush on Woodcourt. Skimpole visits again, bringing Boythorn with him. Skimpole’s house has been taken from him. Jarndyce agrees to look into the situation and inquires about a debt collector named Neckett who has died.
The homeless boy, Jo is approached by a strange woman who asks if he has heard about Nemo’s death. She seems to try to get Jo to recognize that the dead man looked like him and then asks him to show her all of the places he can think of that relate to the death. Jo does so, and the woman gives him a gold coin before hurrying away.
Lady Dedlock goes to several parties while the footsteps on the Ghost Walk grow louder than ever. Mr. Badger tells Esther that he does not think that Richard is cut out for the medical field. Richard confirms that he isn’t that interested in medicine and has considered studying law under Mr. Kenge.
One night when Esther cannot sleep, she stumbles across Jarndyce who tells her that he thinks she should know more about her history. He tells her that he got a letter from a woman saying that she had been raising a young orphan and that she worried that if she died the girl would have nowhere to go. Jarndyce wrote back agreeing to take the girl as a ward if the woman died, but he had to agree never to see the woman and to appoint an agent to work between them. That was how Jarndyce appointed Mr. Kenge.
The child was Esther, and she tells him that she is happy to live with him and sees him as a father. This comment troubles Jarndyce but Esther does not know why. Mr. Woodcourt leaves town to go on a long trip overseas, and Esther is sad to see him go. Esther receives flowers from a mysterious source and assumes that they are from Woodcourt. Esther, Ada, and Jarndyce go to visit Boythorn’s house which is located right next to Lady Dedlock’s. Boythorn and Sir Leicester seem to have a feud going on. While in church, Esther sees Lady Dedlock and has an odd feeling as though she is looking in a mirror.
A week later, Ada, Esther and Jarndyce are caught by the rain when walking and take shelter in a lodge. Lady Dedlock is also in the lodge. She introduces herself to the gang and Mr. Jarndyce introduces Esther as his ward. Lady Dedlock asks him if he knew her sister and then says that she had a falling out with her.
A carriage arrives for Lady Dedlock carrying her french maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. Hortense is forced to walk in the rain after Lady Dedlock gets into the carriage. Jo is brought by a police officer to tell Mr. Guppy and Mr. Snagsby about the lady who offered him a gold coin to tell her about Nemo’s death. The two men are interested and begin to ask him questions.
Mr. Snagsby tells Mr. Tulkinghorn about the woman that questioned Jo. Also, there is a detective named Mr. Bucket who is investigating Nemo’s death. He tells Snagsby to take him to Jo and says that Nemo may have had some property which the woman who questioned Jo may have been after. Jo is brought back to Tulkinghorn’s office and immediately says that a lady standing in the office is the lady that he spoke to. But soon he realizes that though she is dressed similarly, she has a different voice and different hands. The woman is the maid, Hortense who is there to speak to Tulkinghorn about finding a new job. Bucket thinks that Jo saw someone wearing Hortense’s clothes.
Esther and the others leave Boythorn’s home without bumping into Lady Dedlock again. Esther feels that Lady Dedlock doesn’t like her for some reason. However, Hortense told Esther that she thought she was wonderful. She said that she was quitting her job as Dedlock’s maid and wants Esther to hire her as a maid. Esther informs her that she doesn’t keep a maid. Richard decides that he isn’t interested in law anymore and wants to join the army. He is worried because he has gone into more debt and may never pay it off so that he can marry Ada.
Richard tells Jarndyce that he is planning on joining the army. He says that he is confident that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit will work out in his favor and he can pay of his debts that way. This angers Jarndyce who tells Richard and Ada that they have to break off their courtship as Richard is leaving for a post in Ireland. He says that they can revisit the idea in the future and the two hesitantly agree.
Guppy visits Lady Dedlock in secret and asks her if she knows Esther. Lady Dedlock admits that she met her that fall and Guppy asks if Esther reminded her of any of her family members. Lady Dedlock denies this. Guppy insinuates that he sees a resemblance between Dedlock and Esther and that he first noticed it when he saw her portrait in her house. Guppy announces that he intends to prove that Esther is part of Dedlock’s family and mentions Esther’s aunt/godmother, Miss Barbary.
This shocks Dedlock who admits that she once knew a Miss Barbary but that she was not related to her. Miss Barbary did tell Esther that her real last name is Hawdon. Lady Dedlock is shocked but covers it and denies ever having heard the name. Guppy says that the lodger that was found dead, Mr. Nemo’s real name was Hawdon. He also tells her about the strange woman who talked to Jo. He says that the woman had many rings on her hands and notes that Lady Dedlock wears many rings. Guppy says that Hawdon had some letters that he intends to pour over and if the letters mention her he will bring them to her.
After he leaves, Lady Dedlock falls to her knees in despair. She realizes that Esther is her daughter, a child that she was told died after birth by her sister. Esther and a friend go to tend to a sick boy in town that turns out to be Jo. When Jo sees Esther, he assumes that she is Lady Dedlock and tells her that he is too weak to lead her around again. Esther takes Jo with her back to Bleak House to tend to him, but by the next morning, he is gone, having left in the night. Esther contracts smallpox and becomes very ill, going blind temporarily.
Guppy is sidelined by witnessing Krook’s death which turns out to be a case of spontaneous human combustion. He is made to give a statement to the police and afterward goes back to trying to find the letters. Unfortunately, he cannot find them and tells Lady Dedlock that he thinks they were destroyed when Krook died.
Esther recovers from her illness but is now scarred on her face for life. She takes this news well, saying that she will be fine. Jarndyce is happy to see her well, despite her changed face. He tells her that the relationship between he and Richard has only gotten worse. Richard now suspects him of lying about the lawsuit. Esther is told that a woman in a veil had come into town looking for her. She also discovers that Woodcourt was in a shipwreck but that he survived and saved the lives of some others. Esther is relieved that Woodcourt is gone now that her face is changed.
Esther and the others go to visit Boythorn again. One day, Esther bumps into Lady Dedlock in the woods who confesses that she is her mother. She cries and begs Esther’s forgiveness before saying that she has to continue to keep their relationship a secret for her husband’s sake. She worries that Tulkinghorn may discover the secret and tell everyone. Lady Dedlock gives Esther a letter but the contents of the letter are not related.
Richard returns on leave and tells Esther that he and Jarndyce are no longer friends. He says that he is only focused on the lawsuit and Esther suspects that he no longer loves Ada. However, Ada is still hopelessly in love with Richard. Esther visits Mr. Guppy who reminds her that she encouraged him to find out more about her background. She asks him to stop his investigation now and Mr. Guppy agrees to do so.
Tulkinghorn tells Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock a story about a woman who was once in love with a captain and gave birth to an illegitimate child. The captain then died and the woman’s secret was discovered because of a small mistake. Lady Dedlock sits very still while he tells the tale and Tulkinghorn asks for her forgiveness for bringing up something so uncouth.
Later, when they are alone, Tulkinghorn tells Dedlock that he had to inform her that he knew her secret but that only he knows it. Dedlock says that he is right and that she needs to leave town immediately. Tulkinghorn worries that she will kill herself. He worries that her disappearing with destroy her husband and reveal her secret. He suggests that she stay and continue to keep her secret and that he will tell her if he has to tell anyone.
Hortense waits around Tulkinghorn’s office, demanding to see him. Tulkinghorn talks with her and she declares that she has done what he wanted – meeting “the boy” and showing him the dress that Dedlock wore – and she angrily tells him that he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain and found her a new job. He tells her to stop harassing him and she leaves, furious.
Jarndyce discovers that Skimpole is unknowingly helping Richard with the lawsuit and asks him to stop. Esther decides to tell Jarndyce about her true parentage. He tells her that Boythorn’s heartbreaking lover was Lady Dedlock’s sister. Esther is overcome with guilt because she believes that her birth may have started a domino effect that ended in the heartbreak of Boythorn. Jarndyce comforts her and Esther are grateful. Jarndyce writes Esther a letter proposing to her and Esther agrees because she knows she should, although she still thinks of Mr. Woodcourt. Esther visits Richard who looks sickly and admits that he has left the army and only concentrates on the lawsuit now.
On her way back home, Esther happens to see Woodcourt getting off of a ship. He visits her, and she worries that he is disgusted by her scars. While tending to the poor, Woodcourt bumps into Jo who tells him what Esther did for him when he was ill. Jo admits that he did not run away from Bleak House that night but that someone took him away. He won’t name who. Woodcourt promises to keep him safe and discovers that the man was Inspector Bucket. Woodcourt hears the whole story about the lawsuit and assumes that Bucket took Jo to Tulkinghorn that night. He thinks that Tulkinghorn is a bad person.
Jo admits to Snagsby what happened and his illness soon worsens. Jo dies before long. Tulkinghorn is mysteriously killed in his office after arguing with Lady Dedlock. Esther begins seeing Woodcourt more often as she visits a sick friend. Esther and Ada visit Richard and Ada admits that she and Richard secretly married two months earlier. Ada decides to stay with Richard, and Esther leaves alone. Jarndyce is melancholy about the marriage, but Esther assures him that she will still live with him.
Woodcourt tells Esther that Tulkinghorn was murdered. A man has been arrested for the murder, by they don’t believe that he really did it. Esther speaks to the man, George, who tells her that a woman of a similar figure to her passed him on the stairs on the night of the murder. Bucket continues to investigate the murder, however, and begins to suspect that the real killer was Lady Dedlock. Bucket corners Sir Leicester and tells him about Dedlock hating Tulkinghorn because he found a former lover of hers and Hortense dressing as Dedlock to talk to Jo. Sir Leicester is horrified by the idea that his wife might be a killer.
The letters that Guppy was looking for finally come to light. They are between Hawdon and a lover named Honoria. The truth of Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate child is told to Bucket and Leicester. Bucket now believes that Hortense was the real killer and arrests her while she protests and curses at him. Hortense killed Tulkinghorn after he refused to get her another job. She then tried to frame Lady Dedlock by wearing her dress and veil again.
Lady Dedlock flees after learning that her secret is out, she leaves her husband only a letter. The devastation causes Sir Leicester to collapse and become ill. Bucket is called to find Lady Dedlock and eventually discovers that Esther is the illegitimate daughter. He goes to her to ask for her help in finding Dedlock. The pair roams the city looking for her. Bucket reveals to Esther that he took Jo away the night that he was ill because the boy had been telling too many people about meeting Hortense.
Eventually, they follow the trail to the burial ground where Hawdon was buried. There they find Lady Dedlock’s body, as she has killed herself. The sorrow overtakes Esther and she becomes ill for a while after. Woodcourt sees to her and stays in Bleak House to do so. Ada tells Esther that she knew what she was getting into with marrying Richard but that she hoped that she could change him. She is pregnant now and she is worried that Richard, who has also fallen ill, will die before the baby is born.
One night, Woodcourt confesses to Esther that he still loves her. She explains that she is engaged to Mr. Jarndyce but that she will always love him, too. She cries after he leaves but knows that she needs to move on.
Esther and Jarndyce set a date for their wedding in a month. Another will from Jarndyce’s uncle is found, and it increases Richard and Ada’s share of the money. Jarndyce tells Esther that he bought Woodcourt a house in appreciation of all that he has done for them. Esther visits the house and is surprised to notice that it resembles Bleak House and is furnished to her liking. Jarndyce tells her that he always intended to marry her but that he suspects that she is unhappy in their engagement. Woodcourt has confessed his feelings for Esther to him, and Jarndyce has agreed to call of his and Esther’s engagement so that they can marry.
The new will finally ends the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit and the estate is completely gone because of all of the legal costs. Upon hearing this, Richard’s health takes a turn for the worst and dies. Sir Leicester remains very ill and Boythorn tries to tend to him.
In the last chapter, the book goes forward seven years after Esther marries Woodcourt. Ada has a healthy son and Esther has two daughters. Woodcourt is now a successful doctor and they added a Growlery to their house for Jarndyce. Esther no longer hates her scars as Woodcourt thinks that she is beautiful. The book ends in the middle of Esther’s sentence as she speculates about something that is never revealed.
Esther Summerson – the main character of the story. Esther is an orphan who is taken in by a kindly, rich man along with two other relatives of his. Esther is a very selfless and kind young woman who goes out of her way to help the other characters in the novel regularly. She takes the pain of others very personally, such as with Ada and Richard’s doomed fate, and is universally revered by the others. Everywhere Esther goes she seems to find friends.
Esther’s past is shadowed even to her. At the beginning of the tale, she only knows that she was raised by a woman claiming to be her godmother who later revealed herself to be her aunt. Over the course of the novel, Esther discovers that her biological mother is actually Lady Dedlock, whom she develops somewhat of a relationship with. Unfortunately the relationship is cut short when Dedlock commits suicide after her secret is found out. Esther takes the death of her mother very painfully and becomes ill with sorrow.
Esther’s relationship with Mr. Woodcourt is another aspect to her character. She shows her principled nature when she refuses Woodcourt’s offer of marriage even though she is in love with him because she is already engaged to Jarndyce. In the end, she marries Woodcourt and gets the happy ending that she deserves.
Mr. John Jarndyce – the man that takes Esther and the others in and the owner of Bleak House. Jarndyce is a very generous, loving man although he seems to suffer from some level of mental illness that causes him to occasionally scatter his thoughts. Jarndyce is, nonetheless a wonderful guardian who looks after the young people as if they were his own children. Jarndyce seems to worry about Richard, Ada, and Esther more than he worries about himself. He takes Richard’s single-minded pursuit of the Jarndyce case so personally that he stops speaking with the man, much to his own reluctance. Jarndyce offers to marry Esther when she is old enough to give her a good life and ensure that she is provided for. However, when he discovers the love between her and Woodcourt, he ends the engagement so that they can marry.
Lady Dedlock – Esther’s biological mother and the Lady of the estate of Chesney Wold. In her youth, Lady Dedlock fell in love with a captain and became pregnant with an illegitimate child who turned out to be Esther. Lady Dedlock was told by her sister that the child died shortly after it was born and kept the secret for twenty years. When she discovers Esther is still alive, Dedlock is plagued with guilt and fear that her secret will be revealed.
She is so guilty that she admits to Esther that she is her mother spontaneously but begs her not to tell anyone else and to stay away. When the secret eventually comes out, Dedlock is so ashamed that she flees from her home and commits suicide at the grave of her former beloved, Captain Hawdon.
Charles Dickens Biography
Charles Dickens (1812-70) was born in Portsmouth, England. He is one of the most popular writers in the history of literature. Dickens was pulled from school at a young age when his father was put in prison for debts. He was forced to take a job in a blacking warehouse, which influenced his writing later in life.
When his father left prison, Dickens returned to school, but was mostly self-taught. After finishing school, he became a legal clerk then went on to work as a reporter in the courts and parliament. In 1833 he began to publish humorous descriptive sketches of daily life in London under the pseudonym, Boz.
The series of articles, accompanied by artistic sketches became very popular and led to his publication of The Pickwick Papers. It also led to a new way of writing in London; the serial story. Dickens maintained his fame with a series of popular novels, editing magazines, and charitable work pressing for social reforms.
He also managed a theatrical company who performed for Queen Victoria, and did public readings of his works. But, success in business did not mean success in his home life. After an affair with a young actress and citing incompatibility with his wife, they separated in 1858 even though the marriage had produced 10 children. He suffered a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey five days later.