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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 43–45 | Summary



Chapter 43

Esther Summerson lives in constant fear that somehow she will lead to her mother's "betrayal." If at all possible, she avoids even hearing Lady Honoria Dedlock's name. Still, she thinks of her all the time.

At Bleak House, Ada Clare, John Jarndyce, and Esther often discuss Richard Carstone. Mr. Jarndyce never blames him and tries repeatedly through letters and visits to "clear away those clouds" of "suspicion and misunderstanding." Finally he decides to let him be. Esther expresses her concerns that Richard is seeking advice and encouragement from Skimpole, but Jarndyce is certain Skimpole is no more than an amusement for Richard. Ada wants to know what made Skimpole "such a child." Since Jarndyce wants to prevent Skimpole taking any more money from Richard, he suggests they visit him at home. Perhaps the girls will understand him better then.

Skimpole has been living in Somers Town for a long time, but the house looks rundown and uninhabited. Much of the house is unfurnished, but Jarndyce leads them to a room furnished with "shabby luxury." There is Mr. Skimpole lounging on the sofa in his dressing gown and drinking coffee. This would be Skimpole's "consulting room" if he practiced medicine. Jarndyce tells Skimpole that, when he goes places with Richard, he shouldn't let Richard pay. Jarndyce will give Skimpole money to give Richard for the outings. Skimpole isn't to say it's from Jarndyce, though. He is also to avoid encouraging Richard with regard to the Chancery case. The more time they spend with Skimpole, his wife, and three daughters, the more Mr. Jarndyce seems to sense the wind moving to the east. He gives Mrs. Skimpole some money.

Skimpole, who is avoiding an angry baker who lent the family some armchairs the family damaged, goes back to Bleak House with Jarndyce, Ada, and Esther—leaving, as Esther notes, his wife and daughters behind without a thought that now he leaves them to encounter the baker. At Bleak House, Skimpole is playing fragments of songs at the piano when Sir Leicester Dedlock arrives. He is concerned that Lawrence Boythorn gave Mr. Jarndyce and the ladies the impression they would not be welcome to visit the house at Chesney Wold. He also apologizes that a Mr. Skimpole was prevented "from examining the family pictures [at] leisure." Jarndyce introduces Skimpole, and Sir Leicester issues him an open invitation to Chesney Wold. He repeats his invitation to Mr. Jarndyce and the ladies and leaves. Esther has been so upset by his visit that she has to go to her room to recover her "self-command."

That night Esther asks to speak with Jarndyce. She first wants to know what he knows about Lady Honoria Dedlock and her sister, but he knows nothing about what parted them. He tells her, though, it was Lady Dedlock's sister whom Boythorn nearly married. Out of the blue, she wrote to him and called off the marriage, saying "from the date of that letter she died to him." Esther cries, "What sorrow have I innocently caused!" and explains Miss Barbary was that sister and Lady Dedlock was Esther's mother. Jarndyce is shocked, but his only concern is for Esther, who wonders how she can ever "show him how [she] bless[es] and honor[s] him."

Chapter 44

The next morning Esther Summerson tells John Jarndyce the rest of what was in Lady Honoria Dedlock's letter. Her guardian knows Mr. Tulkinghorn by reputation and believes he is "a dangerous man." Esther also tells him about William Guppy but says she has "perfect confidence in his silence." The other person she worries about is Hortense, but Jarndyce tells her not to worry since she may only have been looking for work. He promises to do anything he can for her mother.

Jarndyce also broaches a subject he has kept quiet until now. He says he wants to write Esther a letter, but he will give it to her only if she is completely confident he will never change in his treatment of her. If she has no doubts, she is to send Charley Neckett to him in a week to collect the letter. A week passes, and she sends Charley. Before reading the letter, Esther thinks back over her life and how happy she is. She sees that "all this happiness [shines] like a light from one central figure"—John Jarndyce. She reads the letter three times before setting it down. In it Jarndyce asks her to "be the mistress of Bleak House." He asks her to take time to consider the difference in their ages and all other factors before answering. She feels he has offered a way for her to thank him for everything, and yet she feels "as if something for which there was no name or distinct idea were indefinitely lost." She goes into the next room, takes the dried flowers Allan Woodcourt gave her out of the book, and burns them at a candle.

More than two weeks later, Harold Skimpole finally leaves Bleak House. Esther, Ada Clare, and Jarndyce are to go out for a ride. Esther comes downstairs early and finds Jarndyce at the drawing-room window. She asks when he would like the answer to his letter. "When it's ready," he tells her. Esther says it's ready, puts her arms around his neck, and kisses him. The three go riding, and Esther says nothing to Ada of what has transpired between Jarndyce and herself.

Chapter 45

One morning Esther sees Mr. Vholes, looking like "a long thin shadow," entering Bleak House. Soon afterward Charley Neckett comes to find her: John Jarndyce wants to talk to her. She finds Jarndyce with Mr. Vholes, who has brought "an ugly report" of Richard Carstone. Richard is badly in debt; Mr. Vholes has even "made some advances out of pocket" to cover some of the "unpleasantnesses." He fears "Mr. C." may have to "part with his commission." Jarndyce says he cannot help since Richard would not accept it. Vholes agrees. He has not come in a professional capacity and will not be charging for this visit. He only thought, as a father and as a son, they should know. Richard is currently stationed in Deal, on the English coast, not far from London. Esther proposes she should go see him there. Jarndyce offers Mr. Vholes lunch, but the lawyer declines due to digestive problems. He reminds Esther not to mention his name to Mr. C. and leaves.

Ada gives Esther a letter for Richard but does not go with her. Charley is Esther's "traveling companion," and they leave for London that afternoon and take the mail coach to Kent that same night. It's a misty morning when they reach Deal, and the town looks "dull." They find a hotel, bathe, and have an early breakfast. As they eat, the fog over the sea rises, revealing boats of all types, including "a large Indiaman just come home." Charley asks a lot of questions about the Indiaman, and Esther tells her how such ships are sometimes shipwrecked, as was Allan Woodcourt's ship.

Esther and Charley go to the barracks; Esther hopes to speak to Richard before he can prepare himself. The guard takes her to Richard's room. The room is a mess of "clothes, tin cases, books, boots, brushes, and portmanteaus strewn all about," and Richard is just as unkempt. Richard is delighted to see Esther and asks after Ada. He was just writing a letter to Esther, he says, crumpling it up. He's going on leave in an hour and will be selling his commission. He no longer trusts even Vholes unless he is "at his back." He admits he "can't be sane" and "abandon" the case. When Esther gives him Ada's letter, he takes it to the window to read and comes back with "tears in his eyes." Ada has offered him her inheritance, which would just cover his debts and allow him to stay in the army. "Ada's is a noble heart," says Esther. Richard first despairs and then rallies and says angrily that Jarndyce "stepped in to estrange" Ada's heart from him. Esther stops him from going on. Richard says then he is "weary of" the army. Vholes has suggested he consolidate his loans; after selling his commission, he should "have a balance in [his] favor." Esther realizes she can say nothing to change his mind.

Esther and Charley walk along the beach toward the hotel, where Richard is to meet them. They stop and watch some officers who land in a boat from the Indiaman they had seen that morning. Suddenly Esther rushes them back to the hotel. She had seen Allan Woodcourt among the men and didn't want him to see her scarred face. Back in her room, she slowly calms herself down. When she hears the officers come into the hotel, she sends a note to Mr. Woodcourt. He comes immediately, and Esther can tell he feels sorry for her. They talk about Miss Flite. He says he will not be going back to sea as he had come back as poor as he had been before. Richard joins them, and Woodcourt seems to gather all is "not going well with him." Woodcourt has dinner with them and, finding a moment with Esther before she leaves for London, asks about Richard. Esther confides that Richard is estranged from Mr. Jarndyce and "entangled in the ill-fated Chancery suit." Mr. Woodcourt finds Richard changed; he looks anxious, weary, and in despair. He promises Esther he "will be a true friend to" Richard. When he rejoins them, Richard, too, suggests he and Woodcourt meet in London. As they leave in the coach, Esther sees again the look in Woodcourt's eye that tells her how sorry he is for her.


These three chapters explore the profound changes going on in Esther's life and the factors influencing those changes. Despite her youth she has accepted a maternal role in Ada's and Richard's lives, and her responsibility toward them forces her to analyze their situations and the motives of the people they associate with. As a result she must take what are sometimes uncomfortable steps to address the problems she recognizes.

One such problem is Skimpole's influence on Richard, who is clearly suffering. Jarndyce gives excuses for Skimpole but may not really understand him. He doesn't believe Skimpole could have meant any harm by introducing Richard to Mr. Vholes. The proof, he says, is that Skimpole told Esther about it himself. He takes Skimpole at face value, believing the man's self-representation. But Esther sees beyond all that to a basic self-centeredness that places no importance at all on the interests of others. In an act typical of him, Skimpole has some grapes grown by a gardener who sells them for a living. Skimpole takes the grapes and tells the gardener's man not to wait for payment "if [his] time is of any value." Jarndyce seems to find this childlike, but it can also be seen as blatant theft. When Jarndyce tells Skimpole not to encourage Richard in pursuing the Chancery case, Skimpole says it's Richard who does the encouraging; Skimpole only admires the bright prospects Richard tells him about. Of course, as Esther recognizes later, this is encouragement. If he were truly a friend to Richard, he would be questioning the brightness of the prospects, not admiring it. As much as Skimpole professes to like his wife and daughters, he is perfectly happy to leave them to face the anger of the baker whose armchairs the family has damaged. Even his own family's wellbeing is unimportant to him whenever it becomes inconvenient.

Esther sees Richard is continuing his descent into despair. He is deeper in debt and has lost interest in yet another profession. (This leaves, as Richard himself points out, only one more option—the church—and that seems unlikely to attract him.) What disarms Esther is Richard's complete candor about his condition. He agrees with almost everything she says but is unwilling to do anything to halt his fall. He is in the grip of Chancery, and that overrides all common sense. It is fortunate Woodcourt arrives back in England at that precise moment and offers to take Richard in hand.

In another way, Woodcourt has returned one day too late. Esther has agreed to marry her guardian. But, although she loves Allan Woodcourt, she cannot regret her decision on that account. After all, she sees the look of sorrow on Woodcourt's face when he sees her smallpox scars, and, even though she interprets this as his feeling sorry for her rather than some selfish sorrow, she still feels he cannot care for her in the same way she had once hoped. She doesn't, however, take into account Woodcourt may have other reasons for sorrow regarding her. He tells her he has returned as poor as he was before he set out. It is likely he still feels he cannot offer her the comfortable life she deserves and cannot therefore ask her to marry him. What's more, readers cannot know what his mother may have been writing to him about Esther and Jarndyce. Readers already know she clearly foresaw the possibility of a relationship developing there and went out of her way in Chapter 30 to discourage any interest on Esther's part.

Just what are John Jarndyce's feelings for Esther? He has clearly been deeply interested in her since he met her—without revealing his identity as her benefactor—in the coach on the way to Greenleaf. But at that point, he cannot have been in love with her. She was only 13, after all, and his love and admiration for her have grown during the years she spends with him. He appears to be someone who quickly becomes attached emotionally to those who need him, and, at 13, Esther needed him badly so he opened his heart to her. By the time she is 19 and comes to live at Bleak House, however, Esther is mature and can take care of herself, Bleak House, and everyone who lives in it (and then some). She is an adult, and he comes to love her as a friend and as the family he has never had. She is the one he confides in and looks to for advice. It is very possible he does love her as he has wished he might love a wife, so he asks her to marry him. But as usual, his love is selfless, and his generosity extreme. He will not only be content but completely happy with whatever choice she makes.

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