Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 2–3 | Summary



Chapter 2

Chapter 2 presents the world of fashion and the fashionable as like the world of Chancery in that both "are things of precedent and usage." Fashion is a world insulated from reality.

Lady Honoria Dedlock is currently in London before traveling on to Paris. She has come to London from her estate in Lincolnshire, which is flooded and—even worse—boring. Lady Dedlock's husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock, may be "only a baronet," but he's from an old family and believes "that the world might get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks." Sir Leicester considers himself an honorable and honest man; in fact, he says what he likes and doesn't worry about who might be offended by it. Although he's nearing 70—20 years older than his wife—Sir Leicester treats Lady Dedlock with a "gallantry ... which has never changed since he courted her." Sir Leicester married Lady Dedlock out of love even though, it is rumored, she did not come from a good family. Today she is a beautiful and fashionable woman.

A footman (the narrator calls him "a Mercury" or simply "Mercury" throughout the novel, after the Greek mythological figure who was the messenger of the gods) escorts Mr. Tulkinghorn to see Lady Dedlock. He is an old-fashioned solicitor and the legal advisor to many aristocratic families, including the Dedlocks. In social settings, he never speaks but always listens and collects information about the fashionable people he deals with. Mr. Tulkinghorn says Lady Dedlock's case was discussed in Chancery again today and reads from the proceedings. Lady Dedlock "sees the papers on the table—looks at them nearer and asks impulsively, 'Who copied that?'" Then asks, "Is it what you people call law-hand?" Mr. Tulkinghorn reads on. Sir Leicester falls asleep but wakes up suddenly when Mr. Tulkinghorn says he thinks "Lady Dedlock is ill." She says she's just feeling faint "but it is like the faintness of death" and asks to be taken to her room.

Chapter 3

In Chapter 3 Esther Summerson recalls that even as a child she knew she wasn't clever; she even used to say to her doll, "Now, Dolly, I am not clever ... and you must be patient with me, like a dear!" Esther was an observant child and recounted to her doll all she had seen each day. Esther was raised by her godmother—a "grave and strict" woman who "went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays." Esther was a shy child, and her doll was her only friend. She would have liked to get to know other children, but felt a distance she could not explain between herself and the other pupils at her school. What is more, her godmother did not allow her to go out or even to celebrate her birthday. Once on her birthday, Esther begged her godmother to tell her about her mother. The woman finally told her, "Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers. ... I have forgiven her ... the wrong she did to me, and I say no more of it, though it was greater than you will ever know" and advised Esther to forget her mother and pray everyone else does as well. Then she added Esther was "different from other children" because she was "not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath." Esther says she cried herself to sleep in the knowledge she had "brought no joy at any time to anybody's heart and ... was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to [her]." That day she promised herself she would always try to be "industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love."

Esther then recalls how one day she arrived home from school to find her godmother sitting with "a portly, important-looking gentleman" who examined Esther closely. Her godmother then sent her upstairs. Two years later, as Esther is reading aloud from the Bible, her godmother suddenly stands up and cries out, "Watch ye, therefore, lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch!" Then she collapses. She never regains consciousness and dies a week or so later. After her burial the "gentleman in black" reappears and introduces himself as Kenge of "Kenge and Carboy, Lincoln's Inn." Esther soon realizes he talks a great deal and later learns he is "generally called Conversation Kenge" for that very reason. In the course of this first conversation with Kenge, Esther learns her godmother was actually her aunt, Miss Barbary, and has left Esther with no means of support. Kenge explains he represents one of the heirs concerned in Jarndyce and Jarndyce—shockingly, Esther has never heard of the case—and this man, John Jarndyce, "offers to place [Esther] at a first-rate establishment where her education shall be completed, where her comfort shall be secured, where her reasonable wants shall be anticipated, where she shall be eminently qualified" for her "station of life." Esther tearfully leaves Windsor and travels by stagecoach with Kenge to Reading.

On the opposite seat in the stagecoach sits a man wrapped in a fur coat. Seeing Esther crying, he gruffly demands to know what has upset her. She says it is "because of my godmother's death and because of Mrs. Rachael's not being sorry to part with me." The man replies, "Confound Mrs. Rachael! ... Let her fly away in a high wind on a broomstick!" He leaves the coach before they reach Reading, getting out at a milestone on the road; he shakes Esther's hand and advises her "to be a good girl and to be studious."

Soon the coach stops again, and Esther is met by Miss Donny, a maid, and a carriage. Miss Donny tells Esther "everything is ready ... and ... has been arranged in exact accordance with the wishes of [her] guardian, Mr. Jarndyce." The carriage brings them to Miss Donny's house, Greenleaf. Soon Esther is completely incorporated into the orderly daily routine at Greenleaf, where she is to be trained as a governess. Esther spends six happy years there. She writes twice a year to Mr. Kenge to say she is "happy and grateful" and always receives the same reply: "We note the contents thereof, which shall be duly communicated to our client." After six years Esther receives a letter from Kenge and Carboy saying a ward of the court in the Jarndyce case will be living with Mr. Jarndyce and Esther is to become her companion. Esther will be leaving Greenleaf the following Monday to travel to the Kenge and Carboy office. When she leaves the school, everyone there, including the maids and the gardener, give her gifts and wish her well.

When she arrives in London, Esther is met by a young man from Kenge and Carboy's. He transfers her boxes to a small carriage, helps her in, and explains the "dense brown smoke" that makes it so hard to see is "a London particular"—"a fog, miss." He drives her to Kenge and Carboy's, which is in a corner of a quiet square, shows her into Mr. Kenge's office, and says she may want to freshen up as she'll be "going before the Chancellor." He leaves her with some cookies and wine and a newspaper, but she is too flustered to read. Mr. Kenge returns two hours later to take Esther to the Chancellor's private room. There Esther meets Ada Clare and Ada's distant cousin Richard Carstone, both of them orphans like Esther. Ada is about 17, and Richard about 19. Esther notes how attractive they both are, and how easily the three of them fall into conversation. After a while the Chancellor arrives; he is a "courtly and kind" man. He asks Ada to sit beside him as he looks through the papers Mr. Kenge has given him and verifies the request—Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House in Hertfordshire will provide a home for Ada and Richard, and Esther will act as a companion for Ada. After speaking privately with Ada and with Richard, he announces he "shall make the order."

While Esther, Ada, and Richard are waiting for Mr. Kenge, "a curious little old woman" (Miss Flite, as we later learn) talks to them. She recognizes Ada and Richard as "the wards in Jarndyce." Richard whispers, "Mad!" She agrees but says she wasn't mad once when she was a ward; then she "had youth and hope" and "beauty." But a judgment never came, and now she brings her documents to court every day expecting a decision "shortly. On the Day of Judgement. I have discovered that the sixth seal mentioned in the Revelations is the Great Seal. It has been open a long time! Pray accept my blessing." She says much the same to Mr. Kenge as he returns and ushers the three young people out of Chancery.


In Chapter 2 Dickens introduces the Dedlocks, who are members of "the world of fashion," as Dickens calls the high society of the day. These are the aristocrats, and the fashion they embrace is not only that of clothing and hairstyles, but also art, furnishings, entertainments, and opinions. These things fill the society columns in the newspapers (the "fashionable intelligence"). The narrator admits "there is much good ... [and] many good and true people in" the world of fashion and "it has its appointed place." His complaint is that the fashionable, like Chancery, do not engage with real people leading real lives. Although he doesn't say it, making this comparison leads readers to conclude that, like Chancery, the fashionable people can do harm without explicitly intending to.

Although a baronet is the lowest-ranking aristocratic title, Sir Leicester is proud of his heritage, proud of his influence, and proud of his trophy wife, Honoria. While he treats her with love, he is not careful in his treatment of others. Instead, he tends to be blunt—sometimes to the point of insult or worse. He doesn't much worry about what others think of him, however. Like her husband, Lady Dedlock is proud. Unlike him, though, she worries about what others think, so she tries to hide her true thoughts and feelings, which results in her appearing haughty and bored. The reader gets a clue in this chapter that will become important later in the book—at home in the still rural county of Lincolnshire "Lady Dedlock (who is childless)" was looking out the window and saw "a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate." Seeing this encounter "put [her] quite out of temper," and soon she left for London, complaining of boredom. Adding the information that she is childless to Lady Dedlock's becoming upset after seeing a child run through the rain to meet a man makes readers suspect she's particularly sensitive on the subject of children, and wonder why.

Lady Dedlock has some connection to the Jarndyce case, and the couple's solicitor arrives to give them an update on the day's proceedings in Chancery. The solicitor is Mr. Tulkinghorn, and he seems to be a crusty old man who has done well for himself by dealing with "aristocratic marriage settlements and aristocratic wills." The narrator also says he "never converses when not professionally consulted," so is generally silent at social gatherings. However he knows a lot of "noble secrets" and is always ready to add new tidbits to his stash of information. Although Lady Dedlock considers herself mysterious and hard to read, anyone who has anything to do with her—"from her maid to the manager of the Italian Opera"—knows her character and "how to manage her as if she were a baby." So when she trips up in front of Tulkinghorn by expressing so much interest in the handwriting in his legal documents, she may think she is safe from him, but it's unlikely. He has no doubt added her reaction and her later "faintness of death" to his vast store of knowledge.

In Chapter 3 readers meet Esther and learn about the first 20 years of her life. The reader's first impression of Esther may not be a particularly pleasant one. In fact Dickens's characterization of Esther was much criticized after the first publication of Bleak House because of her excessive modesty and self-deprecation. Esther is gentle, cheerful, nurturing, and self-sacrificing yet manages to fulfill her potential. The character is probably based on Dickens's wife's sister, Georgina Hogarth, who managed the family's household and acted as the children's governess. Esther's name alludes to Esther in the biblical Book of Esther—a Jewish orphan raised by an uncle who becomes queen and saves her people from genocide.

Esther's self-doubt is not surprising, however, when readers take into account how she is treated as a child. Her aunt—Miss Barbary—and Miss Barbary's housekeeper both treat Esther coldly because they disapprove of how she came into the world. (Her parentage is one of the mysteries that will be solved in the course of the novel.) She suspects she is an orphan, but the two women's disapproval makes it clear to readers that she is, orphan or not, illegitimate. Neither woman shows Esther any affection, she is not permitted to make friends, and she is never allowed to go out except to attend school. Raised in this way, how could help but share the women's low opinion of her? What is more surprising is Esther's willingness to forgive the women, calling them both "good," which she seems to define as a synonym for "exceedingly religious." Both are confirmed churchgoers. (Indeed, the housekeeper will eventually reappear as a vicar's wife.) It is not until Esther goes to live at Greenleaf that she receives the affection her cheerful temperament naturally arouses in most people. By the time she is nearly 20 and assumes her post as Ada's companion, Esther has come to appreciate some of her strengths, but she never recognizes that her character is lovable. Instead, she feels she is shown love and affection more as the result of others' goodness than her own.

Chapter 3 also introduces two other important characters—the two orphaned Jarndyce heirs, Ada and Richard. Because Esther is to live in the same house with them, it is fortunate they get along from the moment they meet. Esther's assessment of the two may be colored by what she knows at the time she is supposed to be writing, which is seven years after the events of the book.

In addition to the mystery of Esther's identity, Chapter 2 brings up two other, smaller mysteries to be solved. First, who is the stranger in the stagecoach who talks to Esther? He seems very interested in her and to have surprisingly strong opinions about Mrs. Rachael. Second, who is the crazy old woman? Readers have already met her fleetingly in Chapter 1, when she was pointed out as only one of three people in attendance when court was in session. She seems to know a lot about everyone involved in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but she doesn't introduce herself, and Mr. Kenge doesn't provide any clues. In Chapter 11 readers will finally learn she is Miss Flite.

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