Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a 20-episode serial between March 1852 and September 1853. The novel has many characters and several sub-plots, and is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. At the centre of Bleak House is a long-running legal case in the Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which comes about because a testator has written several conflicting wills. In a preface to the 1853 first edition, Dickens claimed there were many actual precedents for his fictional case. One such was probably the Thellusson v Woodford case in which a will read in 1797 was contested and not determined until 1859. 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.
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; however, reference to preparation for the building of a railway in Chapter LV suggests the 1830s.
Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife Honoria live on his estate at Chesney Wold. Lady Dedlock is a beneficiary under one of the wills. While listening to the reading by the family solicitor, Mr Tulkinghorn, of an affidavit, she recognises the handwriting on the copy. The sight affects her so much she almost faints, which Mr 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 a particularly grim and poverty-stricken part of the city known as Tom-All-Alone's ("Nemo" is Latin for "nobody").
Esther Summerson is raised by the harsh Miss Barbary, who tells her "Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers". 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 his home, Bleak House. Jarndyce simultaneously assumes custody of two other wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (who are both his and one another's distant 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, a physician, 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". Richard decides to change his career to law. He later switches again and spends the remainder of his funds to buy a commission as a military officer.
Lady Dedlock is also investigating the copyist, disguised as her maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. Lady Dedlock pays Jo to take her to Nemo's grave. Meanwhile, Mr Tulkinghorn is concerned Lady Dedlock has a secret which 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, to eliminate anything that might connect Nemo to the Dedlocks.
Esther sees Lady Dedlock at church and talks with her later at Chesney Wold. Lady Dedlock discovers that Esther is her own child: unknown to Sir Leicester, before she married Honoria had a lover, Captain Hawdon (Nemo), and had a daughter by him who she had believed was dead. The daughter, Esther, was brought up by Honoria's sister, Miss Barbary.
Esther becomes sick (possibly with smallpox, since it severely disfigures her) after nursing the homeless boy Jo. Lady Dedlock waits until Esther 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.
Upon her recovery, Esther finds that Richard, having failed at several professions, has ignored his guardian's advice and is trying to push Jarndyce and Jarndyce to conclusion in his and Ada's favour, and has fallen out with John Jarndyce. 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 he continues to seek her company despite her disfigurement. However, Esther has already agreed to marry her guardian, the much older John Jarndyce.
Mademoiselle Hortense and Mr Tulkinghorn discover the truth about Lady Dedlock's past. After a confrontation with Mr Tulkinghorn, Lady Dedlock flees her home, leaving a note apologising to Sir Leicester for her conduct. Mr Tulkinghorn dismisses Hortense, who is no longer of any use to him. Mr Tulkinghorn is shot through the heart, and suspicion falls on Lady Dedlock. Sir Leicester, discovering his lawyer's death and his wife's confession and flight, suffers a catastrophic stroke, but he manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return.
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. He requests Esther's help to find her mother. 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 Inspector Bucket find her there.
Progress in Jarndyce and Jarndyce seems 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. 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, because 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. John Jarndyce takes in Ada and her child, a boy whom she names Richard. Esther and Mr 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.
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, and of Charlotte Smith's father-in-law Richard Smith.
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 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".
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". 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's 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. Horror and supernatural fiction author Stephen King named it among his top 10 favourite books.
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 so far from the location of the fictional house.
The house is on top of the cliff on Fort Road and was renamed Bleak House after his death, in his honour. 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.
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. In 1893, Jane Coombs (actress) acted in a version of Bleak House.
The BBC has produced three television adaptations of Bleak House. The first serial, Bleak House, was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes. The second Bleak House, starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott, aired in 1985 as an eight-part series. In 2005, the third Bleak House was broadcast in fifteen episodes starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance, and Carey Mulligan. 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."
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.
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.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, ed. Nicola Bradbury (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996)