Bleak House

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Bleak House
Bleakhouse serial cover.jpg
Cover of first serial, March 1852
Illustration from the New York Public Library Berg Collection
Author Charles Dickens
Illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Cover artist Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Country England
Language English
Genre Novel
Published Serialized 1852–3; book form 1853
Publisher Bradbury & Evans
Preceded by David Copperfield (1849–50)
Followed by A Child's History of England (1852-–4)

Bleak House, a novel by Charles Dickens, was first published as a serial between March 1852 and September 1853. Widely considered to be one of Dickens's finest novels, Bleak House has many characters and several sub-plots.[citation needed] The story is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include Lady Honoria Dedlock, the lawyer Tulkinghorn, John Jarndyce, Harold Skimpole, and Richard Carstone.[citation needed] At the novel's centre is the long-running legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This lawsuit revolves around the fact that someone wrote several conflicting wills. Dickens creates this fictional legal case to satirize of the English judicial system, using both his own experiences as a law clerk, as well as his experiences as a litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his earlier books.[citation needed]

Though lawyers and judges criticised Dickens's portrait of the English legal system as exaggerated, his novel helped to spur a judicial reform movement that culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s. As Dickens wrote Bleak House, the need for legal reform was being widely debated in London.[1]

There is some debate among scholars as to when Bleak House is set. The English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth sets the action in 1827;[2] however, reference to preparation for the building of a railroad in Chapter LV suggests a later date in the 1830s.


Sir Leicester Dedlock and Lady Honoria Dedlock live in the estate of Chesney Wold. Lady Dedlock is a haughty and reserved woman, and her husband's junior by more than twenty years. Her good looks, fine clothes, and regal bearing garner her admiration in society. Her comings and goings are considered the choicest gossip among the "fashionable intelligence."[citation needed] 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, who believes her daughter is dead, has chosen to live out her days "bored to death" as a fashionable lady of the world.[3]

Esther is raised by Miss Barbary, her godmother and Lady Dedlock's spartan sister. Miss Barbary instils a sense of inferiority in Esther, holding macabre vigils on Esther's birthday each year. Miss Barbary explains to Esther that her birth is no cause for celebration, because the girl is her mother's "disgrace."[4] Esther does not know that Miss Barbary is her aunt. After 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. Jarndyce simultaneously assumes custody of two other wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Esther is to be Ada's companion.

Bleak House

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. No one realises that Esther (as Lady Dedlock's biological daughter) is also connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Richard and Ada soon fall in love, but though Mr. Jarndyce doesn't oppose the match, he stipulates that Richard (who is inconstant) must first choose a profession. Richard first tries the medical profession, and Esther first meets the newly qualified Dr. Allan Woodcourt at the house of Richard's prospective tutor, Mr. Baynham Badger. 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 recognises the handwriting on the copy. The sight affects her so much that she almost faints, which Tulkinghorn notices and later investigates. He traces the copyist back in London. The copyist, a pauper known only as "Nemo," has recently died. The only person to identify him is a street-sweeper, a poor homeless boy named Jo, who lives in Tom-All-Alone's.

Consecrated ground

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 the interests of his client, Sir Leicester Dedlock, and watches her constantly, even enlisting the help of her maid, who detests her. He also enlists Inspector Bucket to run Jo out of town, so that there are no loose-ends that might connect Nemo to the Dedlocks.

Esther meets her mother at church and talks with her later at Chesney Wold – though, at first, neither woman recognises their filial connection. Later, Lady Dedlock realises 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). Esther becomes sick after nursing the homeless boy Jo, with the assistance of her maid Charley. Though Esther and Lady Dedlock are happy to be reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never acknowledge their connection again.

Esther recovers. She finds that Richard, having failed at several professions, has elected to disobey his guardian and is wasting his resources in pushing Jarndyce and Jarndyce to conclusion (in his and Ada's favour). Richard severs his connection with Mr. John Jarndyce under the influence of his lawyer, the odious and crafty Mr. Vholes. In the process of becoming an active litigant, Richard loses all his money and declines in 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 returns to England, having survived a shipwreck, 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 Tulkinghorn, Lady Dedlock flees her home, leaving a note apologising for her conduct. Tulkinghorn dismisses Hortense, who is no longer of 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. He suffers a catastrophic stroke, but manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return to him.

Attorney and Client

Inspector Bucket, who has previously 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 to 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. On their arrival, they learn that the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is finally over, since the costs of litigation have entirely consumed the estate. Richard collapses, and Dr Woodcourt determines that he is in the last stages of tuberculosis. Richard apologises 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. The couple later raises two daughters.

Many of this intricate novel's subplots focus on minor characters. The novel ties their seemingly unconnected lives to the main plot. One such subplot is the hard life and happy, though difficult, marriage of Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop. Another plot focuses on George Rouncewell's rediscovery of his family and his reunion with his mother and brother.

Characters in Bleak House[edit]

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. Dickens wrote the "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, as a criticism of female activists like Caroline Chisholm.[citation needed] The "childlike" but ultimately amoral character Harold Skimpole is commonly regarded as a portrait of Leigh Hunt.[citation needed] "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.' 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.'"[5] 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.[citation needed]

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.[6] Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in Household Words, his weekly periodical in which he also published articles attacking the Chancery system. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case itself is believed to have been inspired by a number of protracted Chancery cases involving real-life wills, including those of Charles Day and William Jennens,[7] and of Charlotte Smith's father-in-law Richard Smith.[8]

Major characters[edit]

  • Esther Summerson is the heroine of the story, and one of its two narrators. She is also Dickens's only female narrator. Esther is raised as an orphan and her parents' identities are a secret. Because of her cruel upbringing she is self-effacing, self-deprecating and grateful for every trifle. 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. Finally it is revealed that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock and Nemo (Captain Hawdon).
  • Honoria, Lady Dedlock is the haughty mistress of Chesney Wold. The revelation of her past drives much of the plot. Before her marriage, Lady Dedlock had an affair with another man and bore his child. Lady Dedlock 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 bound by his ties to his client, Sir Leicester, to pry out her secret. At the end of the novel, Lady Dedlock 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.
  • John Jarndyce is an unwilling party in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, guardian of Richard, Ada, and Esther, and owner of Bleak House. Vladimir Nabokov called him "one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel".[9] A wealthy man, he helps most of the other characters, motivated by a combination 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.
  • Richard Carstone is a ward of Chancery in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Straightforward and likeable, but irresponsible and inconstant, Richard 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 trusting to the outcome of a Chancery suit.
The little old lady
  • Ada Clare is another young 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.
  • Harold Skimpole is a friend of Jarndyce "in the habit of sponging his friends" (Nuttall); supposedly based on Leigh Hunt (see above). He is 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 he demonstrates when, early in the book, he enlists Richard and Esther to pay off the bailiff who has arrested him on a writ of debt. He believes that in the future Richard and Ada will be able to acquire credit based on their expectations in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Skimpole declares his intention to start "honoring" them by letting them pay some of his debts.
  • Lawrence Boythorn is an old friend of John Jarndyce's; a former soldier, who always speaks in superlatives; very loud and harsh, but goodhearted. Esther learns from Mr. Jarndynce that Boythorn was once engaged to (and very much in love with) a woman who later left him without giving him any reason. Esther feels guilty when she learns that the woman to whom he was engaged was, in fact, Esther's aunt. She abandoned her former life (including Boythorn) when she took Esther from her sister to raise her as an orphan. Boythorn is also a neighbour of Sir Leicester Dedlock's, 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 is 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.
  • Mr. Tulkinghorn is 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 plot into the closing chapters of the book.
  • Mr. Snagsby is the timid and hen-pecked proprietor of a law-stationery business who gets involved with Tulkinghorn 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 'vinegary' personality and incorrectly suspects Mr. Snagsby of keeping many secrets from her: she suspects he is Jo's father.
  • Miss Flite is 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."[citation needed]
  • Mr. William Guppy is 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 initially proposes marriage to Esther, but withdraws the offer after illness disfigures her appearance. Esther politely refused his proposal in the first place, prior to his withdrawal. Later, after Esther learns that Lady Dedlock is her mother, she meets with Mr. Guppy to ask him to cease his investigation of her true lineage. He feared that she had asked to meet him in order to belatedly accept his offer of marriage (since she has become disfigured and has, as he sees it, no other prospects). He is so over-come with relief when she explains her true purpose that he agrees to do everything in his power to protect her privacy in the future.
  • Inspector Bucket is a detective who undertakes several investigations throughout novel: most notably the investigation of Mr. Tulkinghorn's murder, which he brings to a successful conclusion.
  • Mr. George is 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 is a friend of Esther's, secretary to her mother, the "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs. Jellyby. Caddy feels ashamed of her own "lack of manners," but Esther's friendship heartens her. Caddy falls in love with young Prince Turveydrop, marries him, and has a baby.
  • Krook is 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. He seems to subsist on a diet consisting of nothing but cheap gin. 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.[citation needed] Ironically, amongst the stacks of papers obsessively hoarded by the illiterate Krook is the key to resolving the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
  • Jo is a young and homeless boy who lives on the streets and tries without much luck to make a living as a crossing sweeper. Jo was the only person with whom the deceased Nemo had any real connection. Jo remembers that Nemo expressed a kind, paternal sort of interest in Jo's welfare (something that no human had ever done before). Nemo would share his meagre money with Jo when he could, and would sometimes remark, "Well, Jo, today I am as poor as you," when he had nothing to share. Jo was called to testify at the inquiry into Nemo's death, but it is decided that Jo knows nothing of value to the investigators. Despite this, Mr. Tulkinghorn pays Mr. Bucket to harry Jo and force him to keep "moving along" [leave town] because Tulkinghorn fears that Jo might have some knowledge of the connection between Nemo and the Dedlocks. Jo ultimately dies from a disease (pneumonia, a complication from an earlier bout with smallpox which Esther also catches and from which she almost dies).
  • Allan Woodcourt is a surgeon and a kind, caring man who loves Esther deeply. She in turn cares strongly for him but feels unable to respond to his overtures not only because of her prior commitment to John Jarndyce, but also because she fears that her status as an orphan will cause his slightly arrogant mother to object to their connection.
  • Grandfather Smallweed is a moneylender. A mean, bad-tempered man who shows no mercy to people who owe him money and enjoys inflicting emotional pain on others. He lays claim to the deceased Krook's possessions because Smallweed's wife is Krook's sister and only living relation, and also drives Mr. George into bankruptcy by calling in debts. Mr. Tulkinghorn is his attorney in both these cases. It has been suggested that his description (together with his grandchildren) fit that of a person with progeria.[10]
  • Mr. Vholes is 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 is a Chancery lawyer who represents John Jarndyce. His chief foible is his love of grand, portentous, and empty rhetoric.

Minor characters[edit]

  • 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, a former officer in the British Army under whom Mr. George once served. Nemo is a law-writer who makes fair copies of 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. The novel makes a point of never putting Nemo in the reader's view; he is only presented at a remove, as described or referred to by others.
  • Mrs. Snagsby – Mr. Snagsby's highly suspicious and curious wife, who suspects her husband of being Jo's father.
  • Guster – the Snagsbys' maidservant; she is 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. She's mistreated by her husband and her baby dies. She helps her friend look after her own child.
  • Rosa – a favourite lady's maid of Lady Dedlock whom Watt Rouncewell wishes to marry. The proposal ends in nothing when Mr. Rouncewell's father asks that Rosa be sent to school to become a lady worthy of his son's station. Lady Dedlock questions the girl closely regarding her wish to leave, and promises to look after her instead. In some way, Rosa is a stand-in for Esther in Lady Dedlock's life.
  • Hortense – lady's maid to Lady Dedlock (based on murderess Maria Manning)[11]
  • 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. Rachael Chadband – a former servant of Miss Barbary's
  • 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's
  • Mrs. Guppy – Mr. Guppy's aged mother
  • Phil Squod – Mr. George's assistant
  • Matthew Bagnet – military friend of Mr. George's and dealer in musical instruments
  • Mrs. Bagnet – wife of Matthew Bagnet
  • Woolwich – the Bagnets' son
  • Quebec – the Bagnets' daughter
  • Malta – the Bagnets' daughter
  • 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[edit]

Much criticism of 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 satirise 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 never quite intersect, though they do run in parallel. Nabokov, after describing the ways Esther's voice changes as the novel progresses, concluded that letting Esther tell part of the story was Dickens's "main mistake" in planning the novel[12] Alex Zwerdling, a scholar from Berkeley, after observing that "critics have not been kind to Esther," nevertheless thought Dickens's use of Esther's narrative "one of the triumphs of his art".[13]

Tom All Alones

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 civil 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.[citation needed] Scholars – such as the English legal historian Sir William Searle Holdsworth, 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 book 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 alcoholism and 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 criticised Dickens, accusing him of "giving currency to a vulgar error".[14] 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' best book; but perhaps it is his best novel". Harold Bloom, in his book The Western Canon, 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".[15]

Bleak House, Kent[edit]

Bleak House in Broadstairs, Kent, where Dickens wrote David Copperfield and other novels.

Bleak House in Broadstairs (previously called Fort House), on the far northeast tip of Kent adjoining Margate, is where Dickens stayed with his family for at least one month every summer, from 1839 until 1851, when he was becoming established as a successful writer. Fort House, located on top of the cliff on Fort Road, was renamed Bleak House after his death, in his honour.[16]

Bleak House, St Albans[edit]

The building on Folly Lane, St. Albans often known as "Bleak House"

Dickens locates the fictional Bleak House in St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he wrote some of the book.[17] An 18th century house in Folly Lane, St Albans, has been identified as a possible inspiration for the titular house in the story since the time of the book's publication[17] and was known as Bleak House for many years.[17][18]


In the late nineteenth century, actress Fanny Janauschek acted in a stage version of Bleak House in which she played both Lady Dedlock and her maid Hortense. The two characters never appear on stage at the same time. In 1876 John Pringle Burnett's play, Jo found success in London with his wife, Jennie Lee playing Jo, the crossing-sweeper.[19] In 1893, Jane Coombs acted in a version of Bleak House.[20]

A 1901 short film, The Death of Poor Joe, is the oldest known surviving film featuring a Charles Dickens character (Jo in Bleak House).[21]

In the silent film era, Bleak House was filmed in 1920 and 1922. The latter version featured Sybil Thorndike as Lady Dedlock.[22]

In 1928, a short film made in the UK in the Phonofilm sound-on-film process starred Bransby Williams as Grandfather Smallweed.[23]

In 1998, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation of five hour-long episodes, starring Michael Kitchen as John Jarndyce.[24]

The BBC has produced three television adaptations of Bleak House. The first serial, Bleak House, was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes.[25] The second Bleak House, starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott, aired in 1985 as an eight-part series.[26] In 2005, the third Bleak House was broadcast in fifteen episodes starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance, and Carey Mulligan.[27] It won a Peabody Award that same year because it "created “appointment viewing,” soap-style, for a series that greatly rewarded its many extra viewers."[28]

Musical references[edit]

Charles Jefferys wrote the words for and Charles William Glover wrote the music for songs called Ada Clare[29] and Farewell to the Old House,[30] which are inspired by the novel.

Original publication[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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


  1. ^ James Oldham, A Profusion of Chancery Reform, Law and History Review
  2. ^ Holdsworth, William S. Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian. Yale University Press, 1928.
  3. ^ Dickens, Charles (2003). Bleak House. New York: The Penguin Group. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-141-43972-3. 
  4. ^ Dickens, Charles (2003). Bleak House. New York: The Penguin Group. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-141-43972-3. 
  5. ^ Page, Norman, editor, Bleak House, Penguin Books, 1971, p. 955 (note 2 to Chapter 6).
  6. ^ Site of Dr Russell Potter, Rhode Island College Biography of Inspector Field
  7. ^ Dunstan, William. "The Real Jarndyce and Jarndyce." The Dickensian 93.441 (Spring 1997): 27.
  8. ^ Jacqueline M. Labbe, ed. The Old Manor House by Charlotte Turner Smith, Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2002 ISBN 978-1-55111-213-8, Introduction p. 17, note 3.
  9. ^ Vladimir Nabokov, "Bleak House," Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. p. 90.
  10. ^ Singh, V (2010). "Reflections: neurology and the humanities. Description of a family with progeria by Charles Dickens". Neurology 75 (6): 571. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181ec7f6c. PMID 20697111. 
  11. ^ "Dickens' London map". Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  12. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir, "Bleak House," Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. pp. 100–102.
  13. ^ Alex Zwerdling. "Esther Summerson Rehabilitated" PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 3 (May 1973), pp. 429–439
  14. ^ Hack, Daniel (2005). The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel, p. 49. University of Virginia Press.
  15. ^ Roseman, Mill et al. Detectionary. New York: Overlook Press, 1971. ISBN 0-87951-041-2
  16. ^ "What the Dickens? Author's Bleak House holiday home up for sale at £2m". London: Archived from the original on 9 May 2013. Retrieved 17 June 2013. 
  17. ^ a b c William Page, ed. (1908). "The city of St Albans: Introduction". A History of the County of Hertford 2. London. pp. 469–477. Retrieved 14 November 2015 – via British History Online. 
  18. ^ 'Bleak House', Folly Lane, St Albans St Albans Museums, Photo numberG1087. Accessed September 2013
  19. ^ Jennie Lee, Veteran Actress, Passes Away. Lowell Sun, 3 May 1930, p. 18
  20. ^ Mawson, Harry P. "Dickens on the Stage." In The Theatre Magazine, February 1912, p. 48. Accessed 26 January 2014.
  21. ^ "Earliest Charles Dickens film uncovered". BBC News. 9 March 2012. Retrieved 9 March 2012. 
  22. ^ Pitts, Michael R. (2004). Famous Movie Detectives III, pp. 81–82. Scarecrow Press.
  23. ^ Guida, Fred (2000; 2006 repr.). A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations, p. 88. McFarland.
  24. ^ "BBC Radio 7 - Bleak House, Episode 1". BBC. 
  25. ^ ""Bleak House" (1959)". Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  26. ^ ""Bleak House" (1985) (mini)". Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  27. ^ ""Bleak House" (2005)". Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  28. ^ 65th Annual Peabody Awards, May 2006.
  29. ^ "Digital Collections - Music - Glover, Charles William, 1806-1863. Ada Clare [music] : "Bleak House" lyrics". 
  30. ^ "Digital Collections - Music - Glover, Charles William, 1806-1863. Farewell to the old house [music] : the song of Esther Summerson". 


  • Crafts, Hannah; Gates, Jr, Henry Louis (Ed). The Bondswoman's Narrative. Warner Books, 2002. ISBN 0-7628-7682-4
  • "Blackening Bleak House: Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative," in In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman's Narrative, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins. Basic/Civitas, 2004. ISBN 0-465-02708-3
  • Calkins, Carroll C. (Project Editor). Mysteries of the Unexplained. Pleasantville, New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1982.
  • Holdsworth, William S. Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian. Yale University Press, 1928. Contains detailed information on the workings of the Court of Chancery.
  • Bleak House Map

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "Skimpole, Harold". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne.