Bleak House- Notes

Well,  it’s really quite different to read Dickens after having read a number of his works and actually studied a couple of them.  I see now quite clearly his attitude toward women (mixed but the good ones are really “angels of the house)  and setting uglified by the industrial revolution,  and the corruption including, in Bleak House, the judicial system.

This time I’m taking notes!

Bleak House
by Charles Dickens
1853 /  583 pages
read by Sean Barrett, Teresa Gallagher 35h 15m
rating  – 10 / classic English (19th century)

Opening as is typical in a Dickens novel,  London is fully described  in full including the fog and the “waterside of pollutions of a great (and dirty) city”  Fog prevails over everything – very symbolic.

Then to Chesney Wold,  the home of  Lord and Lady Dedlock where the couple and a lawyer discuss something – Lady is not interested,  Lord loves Lady.

The action begins in a courtroom scene hearing the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a massive labyrinth of a lawsuit which has gone on for  many years.  An old woman waits at the court every day – she’s somewhat mad – says she is a party to Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Meanwhile,  Esther Sommerson, who has been living with her aunt and then a guardian,  is moved via the attorney MrKenge to the house of John Jarndyce.  There she meets Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, Ada’s cousin.    Esther is to be a companion to Ada.

Mr Jarndyce, Ada and Richard are all involved in the case but Esther is not.

The children (teens actually) are taken to Mrs Jellyby’s house.  Mrs Jellyby is heavily involved with her social activism on behalf of some communities in Africa.  She’s so involved her family suffers.   Caddy, the oldest daughter, is old enough to realize her predicament and complains to Esther.

Esther and Ada go with Mrs Jellyby on her “good will” walks.  The old woman joins them and takes them to her room in a house where Tom Jarndyce committed suicide.

The kids go to the house of Jarndyce which is large and maze-ilke.  Harold Skimpole, the eternal child,  is introduced. Next thing we know the kids have put some money together to help him out.  Jarndyce does not approve and tells them it will only happen again – don’t give him money.   Jarndyce seems to want Ada and Richard to establish a deeper relationship.

In the chapter called “Ghost Walk,” which takes place back at the home of Sir Leicester,  we have the ghosts –  Dickens liked ghosts  (A Christmas Carol, of course,  but A Tale of Two Cities also gives brief mention to the idea.  He also wrote a several short stories which revolve around the idea.  Mostly here I think it may simply add to the atmosphere. 

Anyway,  the Leicester  house has a ghost – a very old one.   Mr Guppy,  who has come to see Leicester (who is not there) and thinks he recognizes the woman in a portrait.  The housekeeper says it’s Lady Dedlock.  He also likes the Ghost Walk terrace.  When Guppy leaves the housekeeper explains the ghost story to her grandson, a  visitor.

Now Esther thanks Mr Jarndyce and he explains to her about the lawsuit and how it has run through the money which was to be inherited from Tom Jarndyce (the suicide who left the inheritance which is at stake).

Richard and Ada are falling in love.  Richard wants to be a sailor. Jarndyce wants to help via Lord Deadlock but he can’t help.  Richard has rather lazy attitude about money.  The big blustery Lawrence Boythorn, an old friend of Jarndyce is introduced. He has his own lawsuit and a pet bird – his heart is broken.

Guppy comes to visit Boythorn but after that meeting confesses to Esther he is in love with her.  He leaves and she cries.

Snagsby, a law clerk of sorts, is introduced – his partner may be insane.  Guster, a charity case,  also lives with them – she’s strange, too  howls. Mrs Snagsby (Peffer’s niece) takes care of details of living.

Mr Tulkinghorn goes to meet Snagsby about the handwriting which Lady Dedlock liked. It was written by someone named Nemo –  they go to check on Nemo at Mr Krook’s shop (buys rags and bottles) but not there.  Tulkinghorn returns to the shop and finds Nemo – apparently dead.  An inquest is held and the little urchin Jo testifies about finding him dead and knowing hm.

So the Dedlocks return home – Lady bored – but Tulkingham shows up and asks them about the handwriting guy – Lord and Lady seem to know something.

Esther tells us about Richard’s plans for the future – army?  How does Jarndyce and Jarndyce affect Richard’s inability to decide.   Guppy follows her around,  smitten.

Mr. Bayham Badger brags about his wife’s prior husbands (3).

Ada and Richard tell Esther they are in love.  Esther tells Jarndyce who advises caution – they’re young.

Esther sees a young dark surgeon and Richard, now in the army,  is sure he’ll be rich when Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes through.

Caddy Jellyby comes to visit – is very unhappy but has met a man named Prince. Turveydrop, a dance instructor whose father has perfect “deportment.”  Esther visits the dance studio – and the men.   They go to see Mrs Flite (the old  insane court lady who lives above Krook’s shop) and find a dead man there.  Ada and Jarndyce turn up there.  The dark-skinned doctor,  Mr Woodcourt, is there, too.

A guy named Quale follows Mrs Pardiggle (Mrs Jellyby’s friend) around along with Mr Gusher and they all gush about charities unti  Jarndyce is aggravated.

Skimpole visits Jarndyce and complains about his bills and bill collectors and so on.  Jarndyce visits Skimpole’s newly deceased landlord,  Neckett.  Jarndyce visits and meets the Neckett children –  Tom, Emma and Charlie (Charlotte). 

Charlotte earns money by washing clothes while Tom is locked into their room with Emma whom he watches. No rent.  Gridley also befriends the children – he has his own issues with Chancery Court.

Jo, the urchin who testified about Nemo’s death, runs into a mysterious “servant” who wants to know where Nemo’s body was found.   He shows her and she pays him a gold coin.  Jo is a sweet kid.

Meanwhile,  the Ghost Walk is making noise back at the Leicester mansion  – Lady Dedlock is out at parties.

Esther visits with Mrs Badger and her 3rd husband and asks about Richard who apparently wants to be a doctor.  They don’t think he has enough ambition.  Esther tries to talk to Richard and Ada but they’re not really interested – don’t want to talk about it.   Later that night she runs into Jarndyce and their discussion is about her own circumstances,  her memory,  and what Jarndyce knows about it – not much – but some about her mother or aunt or at least a string on a background.  Jarndyce got involved but only via Kenge.  Secrets.

Mr Woodcourt comes to visit – he will be going to India and China – rather tender goodbye.

Caddy Jellyby comes en route to see Prince and brings a bouquet of flowers which were left at Mrs Flite’s.  Probably from Woodcourt and probably for Esther.  But Ada enters and teases Esther who doesn’t say who they could be from.

Richard is trying the law – okay fine.  Skimpole is upset about how the landlord has taken his furniture for owed rent but it’s not been paid for  – Jarndyce is supposed to pay according to Skimpole.  Skimpole is skimpy for sure – doesn’t pay for food in the coach. Looking for Boythorn – in country.  There is a lawsuit regarding his land and Skimpole thinks that silly.  The way and the neighboring church in a park is beautiful – no fog –  and Esther sees a face from her past  – but she doesn’t recognize it – it’s Lady Dedlock – like in  a very  old glass – but she met her eyes.  Lady Dedlock seemed to have been looking for someone.

Skimpole and Boythorn talk about patrons and having nothing to offer as homage.

Lady Dedlock and Mr Jarndyce meet and talk ambiguously but the idea comes across that Lady Dedlock may be Esther’s mother.

on vacation Mr Chadband, a thoroughly hypocritical minister,  and his wife Rachel, visit the Snagbys.  The police bring Jo in and Snagby admits to knowing him.  Jo explains about the coin and that he now has nowhere to go. Mrs Chadband says something about having cared for a child named Esther Sommerson. Guppy says he met her in London.  Jo finally gets to leave.

Richard is living at Kenge’s now and reading about Jarndyce and Jarndyce – Guppy is jealous. Chick Smallweed,  age 15 but very smart, is also working there.  A Mr Jopling goes to dinner with Smallweed and Guppy – funny scene – Jopling gets a room at Krook’s, might get hired by Snagsby.  Gossip says he’s after Krook’s money.


Inspector Bucket enters the picture – he reminds me of Columbo –  (an early detective)
Krook – spontaneous combustion



In some ways a tale of 6 degrees of separation.  What starts out as a bunch of seemingly unrelated plot threads with minor characters turns out to be a labyrinth of relationships caught in secrets not unlike the fog which permeates London and the courts.

Esther and her situation, the Dedlocks, Snagsby, Jarndyce the man and his case at court, Tulkinghorn, Snagsby,  Sometimes secrets are shared,  other times not.  Sometimes subtle, sometimes not so much but the reader is left guessing.

Setting is so cool – (to read about! not to live in) –

The characters are all rather fun and wonderfully well described even with only a few words.   Their names are  way too cool – indicate whether the character is sympathetic or not along with other clues as to their nature.

the plot rather pot-boilerish, the social commentary very pointed and the overall effect depends on the reader.  Some love it,  some hate it.

The writing –
“Through some of the fiery windows, beautiful from without, and set, at this sunset hour, not in dull-grey stone but in a glorious house of gold, the light excluded at other windows pours in, rich, lavish, overflowing like the summer plenty in the land. Then do the frozen Dedlocks thaw. Strange movements come upon their features as the shadows of leaves play there. A dense Justice in a corner is beguiled into a wink. A staring Baronet, with a truncheon, gets a dimple in his chin. Down into the bosom of a stony shepherdess there steals a fleck of light and warmth that would have done it good, a hundred years ago. One ancestress of Volumnia, in high-heeled shoes, very like her — casting the shadow of that virgin event before her full two centuries — shoots out into a halo and becomes a saint. A maid of honour of the court of Charles the Second, with large round eyes (and other charms to correspond), seems to bathe in glowing water, and it ripples as it glows.”  –  Chapter 40

In Bleak House  the narration switches between a first person narrator (person narrator) , Esther Sommerson,   and a 3rd person narrator.    Dickens’  typical “Angel of the house” – (see  Lucie Manette  in A Tale of Two Cities)  are both Esther and Ada and Esther gets the keys which is pretty symbolic.   The “angels” here are countered by Mrs Jellyby and Lady Deadlock.   –  (Poem –  by Coventry Patmore in 1854 – popular until 20th century)

Allegory –

  1.   Chancery House is an actual abuse Dickens wanted fixed
  2. a symbol of what is wrong with the whole social system and of the laws (in a more general sense) by which we lives
  3.  The basis of an allegory of man’s living in expectation of a judgement ” which will be associated in some sense with the fires of apocalypse
  4.  A symptom of human selfishness and combativeness


Alphabetical list of characters:

List of major characters by order of appearance:

more extensive:


Pictures by Phiz: