Bleak House is the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. It is held to be one of Dickens's finest novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon. The story is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly, but depressive John Jarndyce, and the childish and disingenuous Harold Skimpole, as well as the likeable but imprudent Richard Carstone.
At the novel's core is long-running litigation in England's Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills, all of them seeking to bequeath money and land surrounding the Manor of Marr in South Yorkshire. The litigation, which already has consumed years and sixty to seventy thousand pounds sterling in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery. Dickens's assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce his copyright on his earlier books. His harsh characterisation of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave memorable form to pre-existing widespread frustration with the system. Though Chancery lawyers and judges criticized Dickens's portrait of Chancery as exaggerated and unmerited, his novel helped to spur an ongoing movement that culminated in enactment of the legal reform in the 1870s. In fact, Dickens was writing just as Chancery was reforming itself, with the Six Clerks and Masters mentioned in Chapter One abolished in 1842 and 1852 respectively: the need for further reform was being widely debated. These facts raise an issue as to when Bleak House is actually set. Technically it must be before 1842, and at least some of his readers at the time would have been aware of this. However, there is some question as to whether this timeframe is consistent with some of the themes of the novel. The great English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth (see below), set the action in 1827.
Sir Leicester Dedlock and Honoria, Lady Dedlock (his junior by more than 20 years) live at his estate of Chesney Wold. Unbeknownst to Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover, Captain Hawdon, before her marriage to Sir Leicester — and had a child by him, Esther Summerson. Lady Dedlock, believing her daughter to be dead, has chosen to live out her days 'bored to death' as a fashionable lady of the world.
Esther is raised by Miss Barbary, Lady Dedlock's spartan sister, who instills a sense of worthlessness in her that Esther will battle throughout the novel. Esther does not realize that Miss Barbary is her aunt, thinking of her only as her godmother. When Miss Barbary dies, the Chancery lawyer "Conversation" Kenge takes charge of Esther's future on the instruction of his client, John Jarndyce. Jarndyce becomes Esther's guardian, and after attending school in Reading for six years, she goes to live with him at Bleak House, along with his wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Esther is to be Ada's companion.
Esther soon befriends both Ada and Richard, who are cousins. They are named beneficiaries in one of the wills at issue in Jarndyce and Jarndyce; their guardian is a beneficiary under another will, and in some undefined way the two wills conflict. Richard and Ada soon fall in love, but though Mr. Jarndyce does not oppose the match, he does stipulate that Richard (who suffers from inconstancy of character) must first choose a profession. When Richard mentions the prospect of benefiting from the resolution of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, John Jarndyce beseeches him never to put faith in what he calls "the family curse".
Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock is also a beneficiary under one of the wills in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Early in the book, while listening to her solicitor, the close-mouthed but shrewd Mr. Tulkinghorn, read an affidavit aloud, she recognizes the handwriting on the copy. The sight affects her so much that she almost faints, which Tulkinghorn notes and thinks important enough to investigate. He recognizes that Lady Dedlock has focused on the affidavit's handwriting, and seeks to trace the copyist. He discovers that the copyist was a pauper known only as "Nemo" and that he has recently died. The only person to identify him is a street-sweeper, a poor homeless boy named Jo.
Lady Dedlock also investigates the matter, disguising herself as her French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. In disguise, she pays Jo to take her to Nemo's grave. Meanwhile, convinced that Lady Dedlock's secret might be a threat to the interests of his client, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Tulkinghorn begins to watch her every move, even enlisting the aid of the maid, who detests her.
Esther happens to meet her mother unwittingly at a church service and has a conversation with her afterwards at Chesney Wold - though, at first, neither woman recognizes the tie that binds them. Later, Lady Dedlock realises that her abandoned child is not dead, but is, in fact, Esther. She waits to confront Esther with this knowledge until Esther has survived a bout with an unidentified disease (possibly smallpox, as it permanently disfigures her), which she contracted from her maid Charley (whom she devotedly nursed back to health). Though they are happy at being reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never recognize their connection again.
Meanwhile, Esther has recovered her health, but her beauty is supposedly ruined. She finds that Richard, having tried and failed at several professions, has ignored his guardian's advice and is wasting all his resources in trying to push Jarndyce and Jarndyce to a conclusion (in his and Ada's favour). Further, he has broken with his guardian, under the influence of his lawyer, the odious and crafty Mr. Vholes. In the process of becoming an active litigant, Richard has lost all his money and is breaking his health. In further defiance of John Jarndyce, he and Ada have secretly married, and Ada is carrying Richard's child. Esther experiences her own romance when Dr. Woodcourt, who knew her before her illness, returns from his mission and continues to seek her company despite her disfigurement. Unfortunately, Esther has already agreed to marry her guardian, John Jarndyce.
Hortense and Tulkinghorn discover the truth about Lady Dedlock's past. After a quiet but desperate confrontation with the lawyer, Lady Dedlock flees her home, leaving a note apologizing for her conduct. Tulkinghorn dismisses Hortense, no longer any use to him. Feeling abandoned and betrayed by Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn, Hortense kills Tulkinghorn and seeks to frame Lady Dedlock for his murder. On discovering his lawyer's death and his wife's flight, Sir Leicester suffers a catastrophic stroke but manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return to him.
Inspector Bucket, who up to now has investigated several matters on the periphery of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, accepts the commission of the stricken Sir Leicester to find Lady Dedlock. He suspects Lady Dedlock, even after he arrests George Rouncewell (the only other person known to be with Tulkinghorn on the night of the murder, and known to have quarrelled with the lawyer repeatedly). Bucket pursues the charge given to him by Sir Leicester and ultimately calls on Esther to assist in the search for Lady Dedlock. By this point, Bucket has cleared Lady Dedlock's name by discovering Hortense's guilt, but she has no way to know this, and, wandering the country and London in cold and bitter weather, she ultimately dies at the cemetery where her former lover Captain Hawdon (Nemo) is buried. Esther and Bucket find her there.
Developments in Jarndyce and Jarndyce seem to take a turn for the better when a later will is discovered which revokes all previous wills and leaves the bulk of the estate to Richard and Ada. At the same time, John Jarndyce releases Esther from their engagement and she and Dr. Woodcourt become engaged. They go to Chancery to find Richard and to discover what news there might be of the lawsuit's resolution. To their horror, they discover that the new will is given no chance to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce, for the costs of litigation have consumed the estate, and as there is nothing left to litigate, the case melts away. After hearing this, Richard collapses, and Dr Woodcourt determines that he is in the last stages of consumption. Richard apologizes to John Jarndyce and succumbs, leaving Ada alone with their child, a boy whom she names Richard. Jarndyce takes in Ada and the child. Esther and Woodcourt marry and live in Yorkshire, in a house which Jarndyce gives to them. In time, they have two daughters.
Many of this intricate novel's subplots deal with the minor characters and their diverse ties to the main plot. One of these subplots is the hard life and happy though difficult marriage of Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop. Another focuses on George Rouncewell's rediscovery of his family at Chesney Wold and his reunion with his mother and brother.
Characters in Bleak House
As usual, Dickens drew upon many real people and places but imaginatively transformed them in his novel. Hortense is based on the Swiss maid and murderess Maria Manning. The "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, is a criticism of women activists like Caroline Chisholm. The "childlike" but ultimately amoral character Harold Skimpole is commonly regarded as a portrait of Leigh Hunt. "Dickens wrote in a letter of 25 September 1853, 'I suppose he is the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words! . . . It is an absolute reproduction of a real man'; and a contemporary critic commented, 'I recognized Skimpole instantaneously; . . . and so did every person whom I talked with about it who had ever had Leigh Hunt's acquaintance.'" G. K. Chesterton suggested that Dickens "may never once have had the unfriendly thought, 'Suppose Hunt behaved like a rascal!'; he may have only had the fanciful thought, 'Suppose a rascal behaved like Hunt!'". Mr Jarndyce's friend Mr Boythorn is based on the writer Walter Savage Landor. The novel also includes one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket. This character is probably based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field of the then recently formed Detective Department at Scotland Yard.Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in Household Words, his monthly periodical in which he also published articles attacking the Chancery system. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case itself has reminded many readers of the thirty-year Chancery case over Charlotte Smith's father-in-law's will.
- Esther Summerson — the heroine of the story, and one of its two narrators (Dickens's only female narrator), raised as an orphan because the identity of her parents is unknown. At first, it seems probable that her guardian, John Jarndyce, is her father because he provides for her. This, however, he disavows shortly after she comes to live under his roof. The discovery of her true identity provides much of the drama in the book: it is discovered that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock and Nemo (Captain Hawdon).
- Richard Carstone — a ward of Chancery in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. A straightforward and likeable but irresponsible and inconstant character who falls under the spell of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. At the end of the book, just after Jarndyce and Jarndyce is finally settled, he dies, tormented by his imprudence in putting faith in the outcome of a Chancery suit.
- Ada Clare — another ward of Chancery in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. She falls in love with Richard Carstone, who is a distant cousin. She does not share his fervent hopes for a quick settlement in the Jarndyce case. They later marry in secret.
- John Jarndyce — an unwilling party in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, guardian of Richard, Ada, and Esther, and owner of Bleak House. Vladimir Nabokov called him "the best and kindest man ever to appear in a novel". A wealthy man, he helps most of the other characters out of a mix of disinterested goodness and guilt at the mischief and human misery caused by Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which he calls "the family curse". He falls in love with Esther and wishes to marry her, but gives her up because she is in love with Dr Woodcourt.
- Harold Skimpole — a friend of Jarndyce "in the habit of sponging his friends" (Nuttall); supposedly based on Leigh Hunt (but see above). A thoroughly despicable character, irresponsible, selfish, amoral, and without remorse. He often refers to himself as "a child" and claims not to understand the complexities of human relationships, circumstances, and society — but understands them all too well. As when, early in the book, he attempts to have Richard and Ada raise money on their expectations in Jarndyce and Jarndyce to pay off the bailiff who has arrested him on a writ of debt.
- Lawrence Boythorn — an old friend of John Jarndyce; a former soldier, who always speaks in superlatives; very loud and harsh, but goodhearted. A neighbour of Sir Leicester Dedlock, with whom he is engaged in an epic tangle of lawsuits over a right-of-way across Boythorn's property that Sir Leicester asserts the legal right to close; based on Walter Savage Landor.
- Sir Leicester Dedlock — a crusty baronet, very much older than his wife. Dedlock is an unthinking conservative who regards the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit in which his wife is entangled as a mark of distinction worthy of a man of his family lineage.
- Honoria, Lady Dedlock — the haughty mistress of Chesney Wold. Her past drives much of the plot as it turns out that, before her marriage, she had an affair with another man and had his child. She discovers the child's identity (Esther Summerson) and, because she has made this discovery and revealed that she had a secret predating her marriage, she has attracted the noxious curiosity of Mr Tulkinghorn, who feels himself bound by his ties to his client, Sir Leicester, to pry out her secret and use it to control her. At the end, she dies, disgraced in her own mind and convinced that her aristocratic husband can never forgive her moral failings, even though he has already done so.
- Mr Tulkinghorn — Sir Leicester's lawyer. Scheming and manipulative, he seems to defer to his clients but relishes the power his control of their secrets gives him over them. He learns of Lady Dedlock's past and tries to control her conduct, to preserve the reputation and good name of Sir Leicester. He is murdered, and his murder gives Dickens the chance to weave a detective's investigation of the murder into the plot of the closing chapters of the book.
- Mr Snagsby — the timid proprietor of a law-stationery business who gets involved with Tulkinghorn's and Bucket's secrets. He is Jo's only friend. He tends to give half-crowns to those whom he feels sorry for. He is married to Mrs. Snagsby, who has a strong personality and suspects Mr. Snagsby of many secrets, such as Jo (incorrectly) being his son.
- Miss Flite — an elderly eccentric obsessed with Chancery. Her family has been destroyed by a long-running Chancery case similar to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and her obsessive fascination with Chancery veers between comedy and tragedy. She owns a large number of little birds which she says will be released "on the day of judgement".
- Mr William Guppy — a law clerk at the Chancery firm of Kenge and Carboy's. He becomes smitten with Esther and plays a role in unearthing her true past. He at first proposes marriage to Esther, withdraws the offer after discovering her much-altered appearance due to her illness. Esther politely refused his proposal in the first place, prior to his withdrawal.
- Inspector Bucket — a detective who undertakes several investigations in the course of the novel, most notably the investigation of Mr Tulkinghorn's murder, which he brings to a successful conclusion.
- Mr George — a former soldier, serving under Nemo, who owns a London shooting-gallery. He is a trainer in sword and pistol use, briefly training Richard Carstone. The prime suspect in the death of Mr Tulkinghorn, he is exonerated and his true identity is revealed, against his wishes. He is found to be George Rouncewell, son of the Dedlocks' housekeeper, Mrs Rouncewell, who welcomes him back to Chesney Wold. He ends the book as the body-servant to the stricken Sir Leicester Dedlock.
- Caddy Jellyby — a friend of Esther, secretary to her mother, the "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs. Jellyby. Caddy feels ashamed of her "lack of manners", but Esther's friendship revives her, and she falls in love with young Prince Turveydrop, marries him, and has a baby.
- Krook — a rag and bottle merchant and collector of papers. He is the landlord of the house where Nemo and Miss Flite live and where Nemo dies. Krook dies from a case of spontaneous human combustion, something that Dickens believed could happen, but which some critics of the novel such as the English essayist George Henry Lewes denounced as outlandish and implausible. Ironically, amongst the stacks of papers obsessively hoarded by the illiterate Krook is the key to resolving the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
- Jo — a young and homeless boy who lives on the streets and tries without much luck to make a living as a crossing sweeper. He dies from a disease (pneumonia, a complication from an earlier bout with smallpox) which Esther also catches and almost dies of.
- Allan Woodcourt — a surgeon. A kind, caring man who cares deeply for Esther. She in turn cares for him but feels unable to respond to his overtures because of her prior commitment to John Jarndyce. All is resolved happily at the end and they marry.
- Grandfather Smallweed — a moneylender. An evil man who enjoys inflicting emotional pain on other people. He drives Mr George into bankruptcy by calling in debts. Mr Tulkinghorn is his attorney in that case. It has been suggested that his description (together with his grandchildren) fit that of a person with progeria.
- Mr. Vholes — a Chancery lawyer who takes on Richard Carstone as a client, squeezes out of him all the litigation fees he can manage to pay, and then abandons him when Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes to an end.
- "Conversation" Kenge — a Chancery lawyer who represents John Jarndyce. His chief foible is his love of grand, portentous, and empty rhetoric.
- Mr Gridley — an involuntary party to a suit in Chancery (based on a real case, according to Dickens's preface), who repeatedly seeks to gain the attention of the Lord Chancellor but in vain. He threatens Mr Tulkinghorn and then is put under arrest by Inspector Bucket, but dies, his health broken by his Chancery ordeal.
- Nemo (Latin for 'nobody') — is the alias of Captain James Hawdon, an officer in the British Army under whom Mr George once served. Nemo copies legal documents for Snagsby and lodges at Krook's rag and bottle shop, eventually dying of an opium overdose. He is later found to be the former lover of Lady Dedlock and the father of Esther Summerson.
- Mrs Snagsby — Mr. Snagsby's highly suspicious and curious wife, who suspects her husband of being the father of Jo.
- Guster — the Snagsbys' maidservant, prone to fits
- Neckett — a debt collector — called "Coavinses" by debtor Harold Skimpole because he works for that business firm
- Charley — Coavinses' daughter; hired by John Jarndyce to be a maid to Esther
- Tom — Coavinses' young son
- Emma — Coavinses' baby daughter
- Mrs Jellyby — Caddy's mother, a "telescopic philanthropist" obsessed with an obscure African tribe but having little regard to the notion of charity beginning at home
- Mr Jellyby — Mrs Jellyby's long-suffering husband
- Peepy Jellyby — the Jellybys' young son
- Prince Turveydrop — a dancing master and proprietor of a dancing studio
- Old Mr Turveydrop — a master of Deportment who lives off his son's industry
- Jenny — a brickmaker's wife
- Rosa — a favourite lady's maid of Lady Dedlock
- Hortense — lady's maid to Lady Dedlock (based on murderess Maria Manning)
- Mrs Rouncewell — housekeeper to the Dedlocks at Chesney Wold
- Mr Robert Rouncewell — son of Mrs Rouncewell and a prosperous ironmaster
- Watt Rouncewell — his son
- Volumnia — a Dedlock cousin
- Miss Barbary — Esther's godmother and severe guardian in childhood
- Mrs Rachel Chadband — a former servant of Miss Barbary
- Mr Chadband — an oleaginous preacher, husband of Mrs Chadband
- Mrs Smallweed — wife of Mr Smallweed senior and sister to Krook. She is in her second childhood.
- Young Mr (Bartholemew) Smallweed — grandson of the senior Smallweeds and friend of Mr Guppy
- Judy Smallweed — granddaughter of the senior Smallweeds
- Tony Jobling — aka Mr Weevle — a friend of Mr Guppy
- Mrs Guppy — Mr Guppy's aged mother
- Phil Squod — Mr George's assistant
- Matthew Bagnet — military friend of Mr George and dealer in musical instruments
- Mrs Bagnet — wife of Matthew Bagnet
- Mrs Woodcourt — Allan Woodcourt's widowed mother
- Mrs Pardiggle — a woman who does "good works" for the poor, but cannot see that her efforts are rude and arrogant and do nothing at all to help. She inflicts her activities on her five small sons, who are clearly rebellious.
- Arethusa Skimpole — Mr. Skimpole's "Beauty" daughter
- Laura Skimpole — Mr. Skimpole's "Sentiment" daughter
- Kitty Skimpole — Mr. Skimpole's "Comedy" daughter
- Mrs. Skimpole — Mr. Skimpole's ailing wife who is weary of her husband and lifestyle
Analysis and criticism
Much criticism about Bleak House focuses on its unique narrative structure: it is told both by an unidentified, third-person narrator and a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson. The third-person narrator speaks in the present tense, ranging widely across geographic and social space (from the aristocratic Dedlock estate to the desperately poor Tom-All-Alone's in London), and gives full rein to Dickens's desire to satirize the English chancery system — though this narrator's perceptiveness has limits, stopping at the outside to describe characters' appearances and behaviour without any pretence of grasping or revealing their inner lives. Esther Summerson tells her own story in the past tense (like David in David Copperfield or Pip in Great Expectations), and her narrative voice is characterised by modesty, consciousness of her own limits, and willingness to disclose to us her own thoughts and feelings. These two narrative strands almost never intersect, but they do run in parallel. Many scholars regard this narrative structure as the most complex and brilliant that Dickens ever created.
Esther's portion of the narrative is an interesting case study of the Victorian ideal of feminine modesty. She introduces herself thus: "I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever" (chap. 3). This claim is almost immediately belied by the astute moral judgement and satiric observation that characterise her pages, and it remains unclear how much knowledge she withholds from her narration, or why someone who has chosen to relate the story of her life should be so coy about her own central place in it. In the same introductory chapter, she writes: "It seems so curious to me to be obliged to write all this about myself! As if this narrative were the narrative of MY life! But my little body will soon fall into the background now" (chap. 3). This does not turn out to be true.
For most readers and scholars, the central concern of Bleak House is its riveting and insistent indictment of the English Chancery court system. Chancery or equity courts were one half of the English justice system, existing side-by-side with law courts. Unlike law courts, which heard actions for legal injuries compensable by monetary damages, Chancery courts heard actions having to do with wills and estates, or with the uses of private property. By the mid-nineteenth century, English law reformers had long criticised and mocked the delays of Chancery litigation, and Dickens found the subject a tempting target. (He already had taken a shot at law-courts and that side of the legal profession in his 1837 novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club or The Pickwick Papers). The fame and critical success of Bleak House have led many readers and scholars to apply its indictment of Chancery to the entire legal system, and indeed it is the greatest indictment of law, lawyers, and the legal system in the English language. Scholars such as the English legal historian Sir William Searle Holdsworth, in his 1928 series of lectures Charles Dickens as a Legal Historianpublished by Yale University Press, have made a plausible case for treating Dickens's novels, and Bleak House in particular, as primary sources illuminating the history of English law.
Dickens claimed in the preface to the volume edition of Bleak House (it was initially released in parts) that he had "purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things". And some remarkable things do happen: One character, Krook, smells of brimstone and eventually dies of spontaneous human combustion, attributed to his evil nature. Using spontaneous human combustion to dispose of Krook in the story was controversial. The nineteenth century saw the increasing triumph of the scientific world-view and of technology rooted in scientific advances. Scientific and technological research and discovery were regarded as among the highest forms of human endeavour. Scientifically inclined writers, as well as medical doctors and scientists, rejected spontaneous human combustion as legend or superstition. When the instalment of Bleak House containing Krook's demise appeared, the literary critic George Henry Lewes criticized Dickens, accusing him of "giving currency to a vulgar error". Dickens vigorously defended the reality of spontaneous human combustion and cited many documented cases, such as those of Mme. Millet of Rheims and of the Countess di Bandi, as well as his own memories of coroners' inquests that he had attended when he had been a reporter. In the preface of the book edition of Bleak House, Dickens wrote:
"I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable Spontaneous Combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received."
George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton are among those literary critics and writers who consider Bleak House to be the best novel that Charles Dickens wrote. As Chesterton put it: "Bleak House is not certainly Dickens's best book; but perhaps it is his best novel". Harold Bloom in his book The Western Canon, also considers Bleak House to be Dickens's greatest novel. Daniel Burt, in his book The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time, ranks Bleak House number 12.
Bleak House has been cited as "the first novel in which a detective plays a significant role".