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 he 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.
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