Bleak House

Bleak House

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Bleak House is the ninth novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period. Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity and fame than had any previous author during his lifetime, and he remains popular, having been responsible for some of English literature's most iconic...

, 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
Court of Chancery
The Court of Chancery was a court of equity in England and Wales that followed a set of loose rules to avoid the slow pace of change and possible harshness of the common law. The Chancery had jurisdiction over all matters of equity, including trusts, land law, the administration of the estates of...

, Jarndyce and Jarndyce
Jarndyce and Jarndyce
Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a fictional court case in Chancery in the novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens.The case concerns the fate of a large inheritance. It has dragged on for many generations prior to the action of the novel, so that, by the time it is resolved late in the narrative, legal costs...

, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator
A testator is a person who has written and executed a last will and testament that is in effect at the time of his/her death. It is any "person who makes a will."-Related terms:...

 who apparently made several wills, all of them seeking to bequeath money and land surrounding the Manor of Marr
Marr, South Yorkshire
Marr is a village and civil parish in the Metropolitan Borough of Doncaster in South Yorkshire, England. It has a population of 138. It was in the historical county of the West Riding and is listed in the Domesday Book complied in 1086 at the command of William the Conqueror at reference 307d...

 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
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

The judiciary is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state. The judiciary also provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes...

 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
Court of Chancery
The Court of Chancery was a court of equity in England and Wales that followed a set of loose rules to avoid the slow pace of change and possible harshness of the common law. The Chancery had jurisdiction over all matters of equity, including trusts, land law, the administration of the estates of...

 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
Judicature Acts
The Judicature Acts are a series of Acts of Parliament, beginning in the 1870s, which aimed to fuse the hitherto split system of courts in England and Wales. The first two Acts were the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873 and the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1875 The Judicature Acts are a...

 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. Unknown to Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover, Captain Hawdon, before she married Sir Leicester — and had a child by him, Esther Summerson. Lady Dedlock, believing her daughter is 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 doesn't know 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, Esther moves in 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 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 doesn't oppose the match, he stipulates that Richard (who's inconstant) must first choose a profession. When Richard mentions the prospect of gaining 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 should be investigated. He traces the copyist who turns out to be a pauper known only as "Nemo" who 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 disguised as her French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. She pays Jo to take her to Nemo's grave. Meanwhile, Tulkinghorn is convinced that Lady Dedlock's secret might threaten his client's interests, Sir Leicester Dedlock, and watches her constantly, even enlisting the maid, who detests her.

Esther meets her mother at church and talks with her later at Chesney Wold - though, at first, neither woman recognizes the tie that binds them. Later, Lady Dedlock realizes that her abandoned child is not dead and is, in fact, Esther. She waits to confront Esther with this knowledge until Esther survives an unidentified disease (possibly smallpox, as it permanently disfigures her), which she got from her maid Charley (whom she devotedly nursed back to health). Though they are happy to be reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never acknowledge their connection again.

Esther recovers, but her beauty is supposedly ruined. She finds that Richard, having failed at several professions, has ignored his guardian and is wasting his resources in pushing Jarndyce and Jarndyce to 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 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. Sir Leicester discovers his lawyer's death and his wife's flight, and he has 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 to have quarrelled with him repeatedly). Bucket asks Esther to help search for Lady Dedlock. By this point, Bucket has cleared Lady Dedlock by discovering Hortense's guilt, but Lady Dedlock has no way to know this and wanders the country in cold weather before dying at the cemetery of her former lover Captain Hawdon (Nemo). Esther and Bucket find her there.

Developments in Jarndyce and Jarndyce seem to take a turn for the better when a later will is found which revokes all previous wills and leaves the bulk of the estate to Richard and Ada. Meanwhile, John Jarndyce cancels his engagement with Esther, who becomes engaged to Dr. Woodcourt. They go to Chancery to find Richard and to discover what news there might be of the lawsuit's resolution. To their horror, they learn that the new will has no chance to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce, for the costs of litigation have consumed the estate. Richard collapses, and Dr Woodcourt determines that he is in the last stages of tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

. Richard apologizes to John Jarndyce and dies, leaving Ada alone with their child, a boy she names Richard. Jarndyce takes in Ada and the child. Esther and Woodcourt marry and live in a Yorkshire 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
Caroline Chisholm
Caroline Chisholm was a progressive 19th-century English humanitarian known mostly for her involvement with female immigrant welfare in Australia. She is commemorated on 16 May in the Calendar of saints of the Church of England...

. 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
G. K. Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, KC*SG was an English writer. His prolific and diverse output included philosophy, ontology, poetry, plays, journalism, public lectures and debates, literary and art criticism, biography, Christian apologetics, and fiction, including fantasy and detective fiction....

 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
Walter Savage Landor
Walter Savage Landor was an English writer and poet. His best known works were the prose Imaginary Conversations, and the poem Rose Aylmer, but the critical acclaim he received from contemporary poets and reviewers was not matched by public popularity...

. The novel also includes one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket. This character is probably based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field
Charles Frederick Field
Charles Frederick Field was a British police officer with Scotland Yard and, following his retirement, a private detective. Field is perhaps best known as the basis for Inspector Bucket in Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House.-Career:...

 of the then recently formed Detective Department at Scotland Yard
Scotland Yard
Scotland Yard is a metonym for the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service of London, UK. It derives from the location of the original Metropolitan Police headquarters at 4 Whitehall Place, which had a rear entrance on a street called Great Scotland Yard. The Scotland Yard entrance became...

. Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in Household Words
Household Words
Household Words was an English weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens in the 1850s which took its name from the line from Shakespeare "Familiar in his mouth as household words" — Henry V.-History:...

, 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
Charlotte Turner Smith
Charlotte Turner Smith was an English Romantic poet and novelist. She initiated a revival of the English sonnet, helped establish the conventions of Gothic fiction, and wrote political novels of sensibility....

's father-in-law's will.

Major characters

  • 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
    Vladimir Nabokov
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a multilingual Russian novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist...

     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
    Walter Savage Landor
    Walter Savage Landor was an English writer and poet. His best known works were the prose Imaginary Conversations, and the poem Rose Aylmer, but the critical acclaim he received from contemporary poets and reviewers was not matched by public popularity...

  • Sir Leicester Dedlock — a crusty baronet
    A baronet or the rare female equivalent, a baronetess , is the holder of a hereditary baronetcy awarded by the British Crown...

    , 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
    Spontaneous human combustion
    Spontaneous human combustion describes reported cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition...

    , something that Dickens believed could happen, but which some critics of the novel such as the English essayist George Henry Lewes
    George Henry Lewes
    George Henry Lewes was an English philosopher and critic of literature and theatre. He became part of the mid-Victorian ferment of ideas which encouraged discussion of Darwinism, positivism, and religious scepticism...

     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
    Crossing sweeper
    A crossing sweeper was a person who would sweep a path ahead of people crossing dirty urban streets in exchange for a gratuity. This practice was an informal occupation among the urban poor, primarily during the 19th century...

    . 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
    Progeria is an extremely rare genetic condition wherein symptoms resembling aspects of aging are manifested at an early age. The word progeria comes from the Greek words "pro" , meaning "before", and "géras" , meaning "old age"...

  • 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.

Minor characters

  • 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
    An ironmaster is the manager – and usually owner – of a forge or blast furnace for the processing of iron. It is a term mainly associated with the period of the Industrial Revolution, especially in Great Britain....

  • 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
David Copperfield (novel)
The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery , commonly referred to as David Copperfield, is the eighth novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a novel in 1850. Like most of his works, it originally appeared in serial...

or Pip in Great Expectations
Great Expectations
Great Expectations is a novel by Charles Dickens. It was first published in serial form in the publication All the Year Round from 1 December 1860 to August 1861. It has been adapted for stage and screen over 250 times....

), 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 Pickwick Papers
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club is the first novel by Charles Dickens. After the publication, the widow of the illustrator Robert Seymour claimed that the idea for the novel was originally her husband's; however, in his preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens strenuously denied any...

). 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
William Searle Holdsworth
Sir William Searle Holdsworth, OM, KC, DCL, LL.D, FBA, was Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University and a legal historian, amongst whose works is the 17 volume History of English Law.-Early life:...

, in his 1928 series of lectures Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian published 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
Spontaneous human combustion
Spontaneous human combustion describes reported cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition...

, 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
George Henry Lewes
George Henry Lewes was an English philosopher and critic of literature and theatre. He became part of the mid-Victorian ferment of ideas which encouraged discussion of Darwinism, positivism, and religious scepticism...

 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
George Gissing
George Robert Gissing was an English novelist who published twenty-three novels between 1880 and 1903. From his early naturalistic works, he developed into one of the most accomplished realists of the late-Victorian era.-Early life:...

 and G. K. Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, KC*SG was an English writer. His prolific and diverse output included philosophy, ontology, poetry, plays, journalism, public lectures and debates, literary and art criticism, biography, Christian apologetics, and fiction, including fantasy and detective fiction....

 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
Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom is an American writer and literary critic, and is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He is known for his defense of 19th-century Romantic poets, his unique and controversial theories of poetic influence, and his prodigious literary output, particularly for a literary...

 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".

Double narrative lets authors draw thematic parallels and contrasts by intertwining different points of view. Charles Dickens uses this unique structure in his tragic novel, Bleak House. It switches from omniscient third-person to the first person narrative of Esther Summerson. The depth Dickens covers in the story couldn't be possible without both narrators. While they mutually corroborate the chain of events in the novel, their interpretations vary significantly. The omniscient narrator speaks darkly, letting readers recognize what is wrong with society without explaining how these issues may be fixed. Therefore, Esther’s narrative is a necessary counterpoint. She lets readers acknowledge that redemption is still possible, even in a corrupt society. Ultimately, Esther brings hope to an otherwise encompassing darkness. Without her narrative, Dickens’ novel would simply illustrate a disorganized society without purpose.

Bleak House, Kent

Broadstairs is a coastal town on the Isle of Thanet in the Thanet district of east Kent, England, about south-east of London. It is part of the civil parish of Broadstairs and St Peter's, which includes St. Peter's and had a population in 2001 of about 24,000. Situated between Margate and...

, on the far north east tip of Kent
Kent is a county in southeast England, and is one of the home counties. It borders East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London and has a defined boundary with Essex in the middle of the Thames Estuary. The ceremonial county boundaries of Kent include the shire county of Kent and the unitary borough of...

 adjoining Margate
-Demography:As of the 2001 UK census, Margate had a population of 40,386.The ethnicity of the town was 97.1% white, 1.0% mixed race, 0.5% black, 0.8% Asian, 0.6% Chinese or other ethnicity....

, is where Dickens stayed with his family for a minimum of one month every summer, from 1839, when he was becoming established as a successful writer, until 1851. Fort House, high on top of the cliff on Fort Road, is now named after the novel whose title it inspired (although that house is in Hertfordshire
Hertfordshire is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in the East region of England. The county town is Hertford.The county is one of the Home Counties and lies inland, bordered by Greater London , Buckinghamshire , Bedfordshire , Cambridgeshire and...

) and was a favourite holiday retreat of his from the mid 1840s until 1852. Bleak House was once open to the public as a museum, but is now in private ownership.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

In the silent film era, Bleak House was filmed in 1920 and 1922. A later version starred Sybil Thorndike
Sybil Thorndike
Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike CH DBE was a British actress.-Early life:She was born in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire to Arthur Thorndike and Agnes Macdonald. Her father was a Canon of Rochester Cathedral...

 as Lady Dedlock. In 1927, a short film made in the UK in the Phonofilm
In 1919, Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, filed his first patent on a sound-on-film process, DeForest Phonofilm, which recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines. These parallel lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back...

 sound-on-film process starred Bransby Williams as Grandfather Smallweed.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters is at Broadcasting House in the City of Westminster, London. It is the largest broadcaster in the world, with about 23,000 staff...

 has produced three television adaptations of Bleak House. The first serial Bleak House
Bleak House (1959 TV serial)
Bleak House is the first BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel of the same name. It was adapted by Constance Cox as an eleven-part series of half-hour episodes first transmitted from 16 October 1959....

was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes. The second Bleak House
Bleak House (1985 TV serial)
Bleak House was the second adaptation by the BBC of the Charles Dickens novel of the same name. The novel was adapted by Arthur Hopcraft....

, starring Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg
Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg, DBE is an English actress. She is probably best known for her portrayals of Emma Peel in The Avengers and Countess Teresa di Vicenzo in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service....

 and Denholm Elliott
Denholm Elliott
Denholm Mitchell Elliott, CBE was an English film, television and theatre actor with over 120 film and television credits...

, aired in 1985 as an eight-part series. 2005 saw the third Bleak House, broadcast in fifteen episodes. This last version starred Gillian Anderson
Gillian Anderson
Gillian Leigh Anderson is an American actress.After beginning her career in theatre, Anderson achieved international recognition for her role as Special Agent Dana Scully on the American television series The X-Files. During the show's nine seasons, Anderson won Emmy, Golden Globe, and Screen...

, Anna Maxwell Martin
Anna Maxwell Martin
Anna Maxwell Martin , sometimes credited as Anna Maxwell-Martin, is a two-time BAFTA award-winning English actress who has won acclaim for her performances as Lyra in His Dark Materials at the Royal National Theatre, as Esther Summerson in the BBC's 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, and as N in...

, and Charles Dance
Charles Dance
Walter Charles Dance, OBE is an English actor, screenwriter and director. Dance typically plays assertive bureaucrats or villains. His most famous roles are Guy Perron in The Jewel in the Crown , Dr Clemens, the doctor of penitentiary Fury 161, who becomes Ellen Ripley's confidante in Alien 3 ,...

, among others. Both the 1985 and the 2005 versions are available on DVD in the UK and the US.

The BBC has also adapted the book for radio.

Original publication

Like most Dickens novels, Bleak House was published in 20 monthly instalments, each containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Phiz (the last two being published together as a double issue). Each cost one shilling, except for the final double issue, which cost two shillings.
Instalment Date of publication Chapters
I March 1852 1–4
II April 1852 5–7
III May 1852 8–10
IV June 1852 11–13
V July 1852 14–16
VI August 1852 17–19
VII September 1852 20–22
VIII October 1852 23–25
IX November 1852 26–29
X December 1852 30–32
XI January 1853 33–35
XII February 1853 36–38
XIII March 1853 39–42
XIV April 1853 43–46
XV May 1853 47–49
XVI June 1853 50–53
XVII July 1853 54–56
XVIII August 1853 57–59
XIX–XX September 1853 60–67

See also

  • Bleak House (1959 TV serial)
    Bleak House (1959 TV serial)
    Bleak House is the first BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel of the same name. It was adapted by Constance Cox as an eleven-part series of half-hour episodes first transmitted from 16 October 1959....

  • Bleak House (1985 TV serial)
    Bleak House (1985 TV serial)
    Bleak House was the second adaptation by the BBC of the Charles Dickens novel of the same name. The novel was adapted by Arthur Hopcraft....

  • Bleak House (2005 TV serial)
  • Bleak House, Broadstairs
    Bleak House, Broadstairs
    Bleak House, formerly known as Fort House, is a large house on the cliff overlooking the North Foreland and Viking Bay in Broadstairs, Kent. Although the exact date is unknown, it is suspected to have been built around 1816...

  • Detective fiction
    Detective fiction
    Detective fiction is a sub-genre of crime fiction and mystery fiction in which an investigator , either professional or amateur, investigates a crime, often murder.-In ancient literature:...

Study guides

External links

Online editions
  • Bleak House at Internet Archive
    Internet Archive
    The Internet Archive is a non-profit digital library with the stated mission of "universal access to all knowledge". It offers permanent storage and access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, music, moving images, and nearly 3 million public domain books. The Internet Archive...

  • Bleak House – complete book in HTML one page for each chapter.
  • Bleak House — HTML Searchable HTML version.
  • Bleak House — Easy to read HTML version.
  • Dark Plates The ten "dark plates" executed by H.K. Browne for Bleak House. "The Detective Police", "Three Detective Anecdotes", "On Duty with Inspector Field". Last piece first publ (June 1841) Household Words