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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 28–29 | Summary



Chapter 28

Sir Leicester Dedlock is suffering through a visit from a number of poor Dedlock cousins to Chesney Wold. Among them are Volumnia Dedlock, a heavily rouged old maid who lives in Bath on a small allowance from Sir Leicester, and Bob Stables, who likes horses and shooting and aspires to a government job with good pay but no responsibility. All these cousins pay Lady Honoria Dedlock "feudal homage." One evening in the long drawing-room, Volumnia comments on how beautiful Rosa is and says an "uncommon eye must have picked [her] out." Lady Dedlock says it was Mrs. Rouncewell's eye, not hers. Sir Leicester remarks that Mrs. Rouncewell's son, who is an ironmaster, "has been invited to go into Parliament." Volumnia is shocked to hear it. Apparently, though, Mr. Rouncewell has declined.

Mr. Rouncewell is at Chesney Wold that evening, and after the cousins go up to bed, he comes to talk with Sir Leicester and his wife about Rosa. His son Watt wants to marry her. Although Mr. Rouncewell feels Watt is not yet able to support a wife, he also thinks that, if the two become engaged, Rosa should leave Chesney Wold. He wants to provide her with further education suitable to life in "the class to which" he belongs. Sir Leicester is incensed because Mr. Rouncewell seems to be claiming his class is much like Sir Leicester's and because he does not see Lady Dedlock's attention to the girl as the honor and advantage Sir Leicester believes it to be. Since he is a very honest person, though, he says it is up to Rosa to decide; he will not hold Mr. Rouncewell's words against the girl. Rouncewell says he will advise his "son to conquer his present inclinations" and takes his leave.

Afterward Lady Dedlock asks Rosa about her feelings for Watt. Rosa is "attached to" Lady Dedlock and doesn't want to leave her but does feel she is falling in love with Watt. Lady Dedlock tells Rosa she wants her "to be happy." Soon Rosa leaves her mistress deep in thought.

The following day, the cousins leave.

Chapter 29

Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife, Lady Honoria Dedlock, have closed up Chesney Wold and come up to London, where the house is much warmer and cheerier. One day Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock are sitting by the fire when Mercury announces Mr. William Guppy. Apparently Lady Dedlock had told Mercury she would "see" Guppy "whenever he called." Sir Leicester leaves the room.

Apparently Guppy has written to Lady Dedlock a number of times and now wishes to discuss the matter in person so as "not [to commit him]self in writing." He explains that he works at Kenge and Carboy's, but he has not come about the Jarndyce case. Guppy begins by asking whether her ladyship has ever heard of or seen a Miss Esther Summerson. She replies she saw her this past autumn. Guppy tells her he finds that she and Esther look surprisingly alike. Becoming confused again, he refers to his notes and reads the name "Mrs. Chadband." Then he explains "there is a mystery about Miss Esther Summerson's birth and bringing up" and he hopes, if he can show she is a member of Lady Dedlock's family, that he can convince Esther to look on his "proposals" with "more dedicated favor." He explains he met a woman who was the servant of "the lady who brought Miss Summerson up." This lady was called Miss Barbary; Lady Dedlock says she has heard the name. Miss Barbary disclosed very little but on one occasion told her servant the girl's name was not Summerson but Hawdon. "My God!" says Lady Dedlock; she pulls herself together and admits to having heard the name Hawdon before. Then Guppy tells her he has discovered Hawdon is the real name of a law-writer who died in Krook's house near Chancery Lane. He tells her about the mysterious woman Jo showed around. He tells her the law-writer left a bundle of old letters that will "come into [his] possession" the next night. Finally he offers to bring the papers to Lady Dedlock and read them with her. She agrees and picks up a small chest, unlocking it as she looks intently at him, but Guppy says he is "not actuated by any motives of that sort."

After he leaves, Lady Dedlock falls on her knees and cries, "O my child, my child! Not dead in the first hours of her life, as my cruel sister told me, but sternly nurtured by her, after she had renounced me and my name! O my child, O my child!"


Chapter 28 explores the English upper classes and class boundaries. Sir Leicester and his poor relatives belong to the highest class—the aristocracy. This is something Sir Leicester is proud of, but it can also be a burden. Wealth among the aristocracy generally passed to the oldest son, leaving the other sons to fend for themselves by entering a profession, such as politics, the military, or the clergy. They were still dependent on their wealthier relatives, however. To enter politics, one needed connections and financing, both of which were supplied by the better-off and better-placed in the extended family. To become an officer in the military, the commission had to be purchased, as readers have seen with Richard Carstone. A clergyman went to university to be trained, which cost money, and then had to have a living; this also was typically the responsibility of a wealthy family member, who provided a house, income, church, and congregation for the new vicar. Women, of course, might receive an annual allowance to provide for them but were usually at the mercy of their better-off male relatives. So for Sir Leicester and others like him, as seen in this chapter, their "poor cousins" could be quite a burden—at least if they took their duty to them seriously. Since Sir Leicester is, however prideful and blunt, an honorable as well as honest man, he does his duty.

Mr. Rouncewell is a member of the industrial upper class. His money is new, but there's plenty of it. Because they were important to the country and its economy, such men believed they should also have political influence. They observed how the titled class lived and, in some ways, used their lifestyle as a model. For example, they wanted their children to be well educated, to enter useful professions such as the law, and to govern. On the other hand, they saw much to complain about in the aristocracy, such as living well off the sweat of others, idleness, and networks that perpetuated outdated government policies. Sir Leicester is right in thinking Mr. Rouncewell and his kind pose a threat to the status quo. Unfortunately for Sir Leicester and his kind, the social changes resulting from the Industrial Revolution required corresponding changes in politics.

Chapter 29 shows off how clever William Guppy is. He has drawn together the various clues and reached a conclusion even Tulkinghorn—as far as readers know—has not yet approached. From his meeting with Mrs. Chadband, he has information Tulkinghorn does not. When Guppy meets with Lady Dedlock, he is cautious and seems nervous. The caution is typical; he has protected himself by not putting things in writing, and he tells her if she were to complain to his firm or to Mr. Tulkinghorn, it would put him "in a very disagreeable situation." However his caution has also protected Lady Dedlock, and, if what he has deduced is the case, his power to damage Lady Dedlock is at least as great as her power to damage him. But what is Mr. Guppy's ultimate goal? When Lady Dedlock appears to be about to offer him money, he says that's not his motive and he "couldn't accept anything of the kind." So is this some convoluted way of reaching Esther, as he hints to Lady Dedlock, or does he have some other purpose?

Both chapters are primarily about Lady Dedlock. In Chapter 28 the narrator reminds readers that Sir Leicester married beneath him, saying "older cousins ... were paralyzed when Sir Leicester married" her. In Chapter 29 readers learn the truth of Esther's birth and the relationship between her and Lady Dedlock. The unexpected thing is that Lady Dedlock is a victim of her sister's stern religious beliefs, and she did not want to give away her child but believed her baby dead. This explains the many times readers have witnessed her becoming depressed when seeing happy children with their parents. Her boredom and restlessness probably result from her frustrated desire to raise her child and a resulting sense of pointlessness. What's more, Rosa most likely serves as a surrogate for her lost daughter; her desire for Rosa to be happy comes from her maternal feelings for the girl. Some mystery still surrounds the situation, though. Who was Lady Dedlock at that time? Her sister "renounced" their name and became Miss Barbary, so their identity is unknown. All readers know for certain is she was not a member of the aristocracy, or Sir Leicester's cousins would not have been "paralyzed" by the marriage.

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