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Bleak House

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A novel by Dickens, published in monthly parts 1852–3.

The book contains a vigorous satire on the abuses of the old court of Chancery, the delays and costs of which brought misery and ruin on its suitors. The tale centres in the fortunes of an uninteresting couple, Richard Carstone, a futile youth, and his amiable cousin Ada Clare. They are wards of the court in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, concerned with the distribution of an estate. The wards are taken to live with their kind elderly relative John Jarndyce. They fall in love and secretly marry. The weak Richard, lured by the will‐o'‐the‐wisp of the fortune that is to be his when the case is settled, sinks gradually to ruin and death, and the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes suddenly to an end on the discovery that the costs have absorbed the whole estate in dispute.

Ada has for a companion Esther Summerson, a supposed orphan, one of Dickens's saints, and the narrative is partly supposed to be from her pen.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is devotedly attached to his beautiful wife. Lady Dedlock hides a dreadful secret: before her marriage she has loved a certain Captain Hawdon and has become the mother of a daughter, whom she believes dead. Hawdon is supposed to have perished at sea. In fact the daughter lives in the person of Esther Summerson, and Hawdon in that of a penniless scrivener. Lady Dedlock discovers the fact of his existence, and the cunning old lawyer Tulkinghorn is alerted to the existence of a mystery. Lady Dedlock's inquiries bring her, through the medium of a wretched crossing‐sweeper, Jo, to the burial‐ground where her former lover's miserable career has just ended. Jo's unguarded revelation of his singular experience with this veiled lady sets Tulkinghorn on the track, until he possesses all the facts and tells Lady Dedlock that he is going to expose her next day to her husband. That night Tulkinghorn is murdered. Bucket, the detective, presently reveals to the Baronet what Tulkinghorn had discovered, and arrests a former French maid of Lady Dedlock, who has committed the murder. Lady Dedlock flies from the house in despair, and is found dead near the grave of her lover.

Much of the story is occupied with Esther's devotion to John Jarndyce; her acceptance of his offer of marriage from a sense of duty and gratitude, though she loves a young doctor, Woodcourt; Jarndyce's surrender of her to Woodcourt.

There are a host of interesting minor characters, including Harold Skimpole (drawn ‘in the light externals of character’ from Leigh Hunt), who disguises his utter selfishness under an assumption of childish irresponsibility; Mrs Jellyby, who sacrifices her family to her selfish addiction to professional philanthropy; Jo, the crossing‐sweeper, who is chivvied by the police to his death; Chadband, the pious, eloquent humbug; Turveydrop, the model of deportment; Krook, the ‘chancellor’ of the rag and bone department, who dies of spontaneous combustion; Guppy, the lawyer's clerk; Guster, the poor slavey; the law‐stationer Snagsby; Miss Flite, the little lunatic lady who haunts the Chancery courts; and Jarndyce's friend, the irascible and generous Boythorn (drawn from W. S. Landor).


Reference entries

Charles Dickens (1812—1870) novelist