Bleak House

For other uses, see Bleak House (disambiguation).
Bleak House

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 is one of Charles Dickens's major novels, first published as a serial between March 1852 and September 1853. The novel has many characters and several sub-plots, and the story is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. At the centre of Bleak House is the long-running legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which came about because someone wrote several conflicting wills. This legal case is used by Dickens to satirize the English judicial system, and he makes use of his earlier experiences as a law clerk, and as a litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his earlier books.

Though the legal profession criticised Dickens's satire as exaggerated, this novel helped support a judicial reform movement, which culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s.[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 railway in Chapter LV suggests the 1830s.


Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife Lady Honoria live on his estate at Chesney Wold. Unknown to Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover, Captain Hawdon, before she married – and had a daughter by him. Lady Dedlock believes her daughter is dead.[3]

The daughter, Esther, is in fact alive, and being raised by Miss Barbary, Lady Dedlock's sister. Esther does not know Miss Barbary is her aunt. After Miss Barbary dies, John Jarndyce becomes Esther's guardian and assigns the Chancery lawyer "Conversation" Kenge to take charge of her future. After attending school for six years, Esther moves in with him at Bleak House.

Bleak House

Jarndyce simultaneously assumes custody of two other wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (Esther's cousins). They are beneficiaries in one of the wills at issue in Jarndyce and Jarndyce; their guardian is a beneficiary under another will, and the two wills conflict. Richard and Ada soon fall in love, but though Mr Jarndyce does not oppose the match, he stipulates that Richard must first choose a profession. Richard first tries a career in medicine, and Esther meets Allan Woodcourt at the house of Richard's tutor. 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. Early in the book, while listening to the reading of an affidavit by the family solicitor Mr Tulkinghorn, she recognises the handwriting on the copy. The sight affects her so much she almost faints, which Tulkinghorn notices and investigates. He traces the copyist, a pauper known only as "Nemo," in London. Nemo has recently died, and 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 is also investigating, disguised as her maid, Hortense. She pays Jo to take her to Nemo's grave. Meanwhile, Tulkinghorn is concerned Lady Dedlock's secret could threaten the interests of Sir Leicester, and watches her constantly, even enlisting her maid to spy on 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 sees Lady Dedlock at church and talks with her later at Chesney Wold – though neither woman recognises their connection. Later, Lady Dedlock does discover that Esther is her child. However Esther has become sick (possibly with smallpox, since it permanently disfigures her) after nursing the homeless boy Jo. Lady Dedlock waits until she has recovered before telling her the truth. Though Esther and Lady Dedlock are happy to be reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther they must never acknowledge their connection again.

On her recovery, Esther finds that Richard, having failed at several professions, has disobeyed his guardian and is trying to push Jarndyce and Jarndyce to conclusion in his and Ada's favour. In the process, Richard loses all his money and declines in health. He and Ada have secretly married, and Ada is pregnant. Esther has her own romance when Mr 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 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, Hortense kills Tulkinghorn and seeks to frame Lady Dedlock for his murder. Sir Leicester, discovering his lawyer's death and his wife's flight, suffers a catastrophic stroke, but he manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return.

Attorney and Client

Inspector Bucket, who has previously investigated several matters related to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, accepts Sir Leicester's commission to find Lady Dedlock. At first he suspects Lady Dedlock of the murder, but is able to clear her of suspicion after discovering Hortense's guilt, and asks Esther's help to find her. Lady Dedlock has no way to know of her husband's forgiveness or that she has been cleared of suspicion, and she wanders the country in cold weather before dying at the cemetery of her former lover Captain Hawdon (Nemo). Esther and Bucket find her there.

Progress 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 Mr Woodcourt. They go to Chancery to find Richard. On their arrival, they learn that the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is finally over, but the costs of litigation have entirely consumed the estate. Richard collapses, and Mr Woodcourt diagnoses him as being in the last stages of tuberculosis. Richard apologises to John Jarndyce and dies. Jarndyce takes in Ada and her child, a boy whom she names Richard. Esther and Woodcourt marry and live in a Yorkshire house which Jarndyce gives to them. The couple later raise two daughters.

Many of the novel's subplots focus on minor characters. 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

As usual, Dickens drew upon many real people and places but imaginatively transformed them in his novel (see character list below for the supposed inspiration of individual characters).

Although not a character, the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case is a vital part of the novel. It is believed to have been inspired by a number of real-life Chancery cases involving wills, including those of Charles Day and William Jennens,[4] and of Charlotte Smith's father-in-law Richard Smith.[5]

Major characters

The little old lady

Minor characters

Analysis and criticism

Much criticism of Bleak House focuses on its unique narrative structure: it is told both by a third-person omniscient narrator and a first-person narrator (Esther Summerson). The omniscient narrator speaks in the present tense and is a dispassionate observer. 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 felt that letting Esther tell part of the story was Dickens's "main mistake" in planning the novel[14] 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".[15]

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. 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 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. 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 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). 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 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. This was highly controversial. The nineteenth century saw the increasing triumph of the scientific worldview. Scientifically inclined writers, as well as 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 accused Dickens of "giving currency to a vulgar error".[16] Dickens vigorously defended the reality of spontaneous human combustion and cited many documented cases, 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.

Locations of Bleak House

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

The house named Bleak House in Broadstairs, is not the original. Dickens stayed with his family at this house (then called Fort House), for at least one month every summer from 1839 until 1851. However, there is no evidence that it formed the basis of the fictional Bleak House, particularly as it is located so far from the location of the fictional one.

The house is located on top of the cliff on Fort Road, and was renamed Bleak House after his death, in his honour.[17] It is the only four storey grade II listed mansion in Broadstairs.

Dickens locates the fictional Bleak House in St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he wrote some of the book. 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 and was known as Bleak House for many years.[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

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.

Anthony Phillips included a piece entitled "Bleak House" on his 1979 Progressive Rock release, "Sides." The form of the lyrics roughly follows the narrative of Esther Summerson, and is written in her voice.[31]

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


  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. Dunstan, William. "The Real Jarndyce and Jarndyce." The Dickensian 93.441 (Spring 1997): 27.
  5. 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.
  6. Dickens, Charles (2003). Bleak House. New York: The Penguin Group. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-141-43972-3.
  7. Vladimir Nabokov, "Bleak House," Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. p. 90.
  8. Page, Norman, editor, Bleak House, Penguin Books, 1971, p. 955 (note 2 to Chapter 6).
  9. Roseman, Mill et al. Detectionary. New York: Overlook Press, 1971. ISBN 0-87951-041-2
  10. Site of Dr Russell Potter, Rhode Island College Biography of Inspector Field
  11. 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.
  12. Ewell Steve Roach & Van S. Miller (2004). Neurocutaneous Disorders. Cambridge University Press. p. 150. ISBN 978-0-521-78153-4.
  13. "Dickens' London map". Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  14. Nabokov, Vladimir, "Bleak House," Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. pp. 100–102.
  15. Alex Zwerdling. "Esther Summerson Rehabilitated" PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 3 (May 1973), pp. 429–439
  16. Hack, Daniel (2005). The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel, p. 49. University of Virginia Press.
  17. "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.
  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 Archived 10 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine., 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 Archived 10 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine., 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".
  31. "Anthony Phillips Official Website - Lyrics - Sides".


External links

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

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