Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 53–54 | Summary



Chapter 53

Mr. Bucket is busy investigating. He is at Sir Leicester Dedlock's London house, then at Chesney Wold, and then in Lincoln's Inn. He is never at home. Although his wife is "a lady of natural detective genius," he doesn't seek her out. Lincoln's Inn Fields is crowded with carriages on the day of the funeral, though most are empty and have been sent to represent the bereaved. Mr. Bucket is sitting unseen in one of the empty carriages and surveying the scene, while Mrs. Bucket stands where he "stationed" her, on the steps of Mr. Tulkinghorn's house. While he watches, he sees a bag of Tulkinghorn's "noble secrets" being carried out. Then the procession moves off. When it stops, Bucket slips out of the carriage and goes to Sir Leicester Dedlock's house. He lets himself in with a key. Mercury gives him a letter that has arrived for him. It is the sixth he has received in the last 24 hours and contains the same two-word message: "Lady Dedlock."

After dinner Bucket meets with Sir Leicester, Volumnia Dedlock, and one of the Dedlock cousins. Sir Leicester assures Bucket he will take care of Bucket's expenses during his investigation; he is dedicated to bringing "to light" whoever "struck down" someone "who was ever faithful." Bucket's expression seems to hold "a touch of compassion." Volumnia wants to know if "that dreadful soldier" will be convicted and if "he had any accomplices," but Bucket refuses to comment. The cousin believes it's better to hang the wrong man than no one at all. Sir Leicester asks Volumnia not to ask so many questions but let Bucket do his job. Bucket says he expects to get some key information in a few hours. He warns them they "have no idea ... what games goes on" in families, even "high families." Bucket says he may have the case wrapped up by morning.

He stops to talk with Mercury next, first asking whether the footman has ever worked as an artist's model. Bucket says he has a friend in the Royal Academy who would love to paint Mercury. He makes other conversation as well, interspersing questions about Lady Honoria Dedlock. She comes in as they are talking and goes to her room. Bucket learns Lady Dedlock went out about 9:30 on the evening of the murder and was wearing "a loose black mantle, with a deep fringe."

Chapter 54

Mr. Bucket breakfasts heartily and then meets with Sir Leicester Dedlock. Sir Leicester is moving slowly; his gout is acting up. Mr. Bucket locks the door so they won't be disturbed. Then he tells Sir Leicester he has solved the case and the culprit is not the soldier but a woman. He tells Sir Leicester to prepare himself, to think of his family—right back to Julius Caesar. He assures Sir Leicester that he should not worry about Bucket knowing things about Sir Leicester's "family affairs." When Bucket mentions Lady Honoria Dedlock, Sir Leicester says he'd prefer his wife to be left out of the conversation, but Bucket says that's impossible: "She is the pivot it all turns on." Bucket then tells the story of Mr. Tulkinghorn's investigation of Lady Dedlock—about Nemo having once been her lover, his death in poverty, and Lady Dedlock's visit to his grave while wearing Hortense's clothes. He also knows Lady Dedlock went to Tulkinghorn's on the night he was murdered and passed Mr. George on the stairs. Sir Leicester goes pale. He speaks slowly and with some difficulty, wondering why Tulkinghorn never said anything to him about this. Bucket tells him to ask his wife.

There is a noisy disturbance in the hall, and Mr. Bucket opens the door. He tells Sir Leicester they should let in the "people now in a wrangle with your footmen"; Bucket will deal with them, and Sir Leicester should just nod when he indicates. In come Mercury and another footman carrying Grandfather Smallweed in his chair, followed by Mr. Chadband, his wife (the former Mrs. Rachael), and Mrs. Snagsby. Grandfather Smallweed tells them about a bundle of letters found in Krook's shop; they had been written to Krook's lodger—Captain Hawdon—and signed "Honoria." The letters also make reference to their child. He gave the letters to Tulkinghorn and wants them back now. Smallweed says if George had anything to do with the murder, "he was only an accomplice." Suddenly Mr. Bucket is angry and threatening. He bends close to Mr. Smallweed and warns him not to interfere with his case; he knows "the right time to stretch [his hand] out and put it on the arm that fired that shot." Smallweed apologizes, and Bucket becomes friendly again. He has the letters, he says. Smallweed wants £500 for the bundle of letters; Bucket tries to negotiate about the price, with Sir Leicester nodding his agreement appropriately, but without effect. The Chadbands also want money for their silence. Mrs. Chadband recounts how she helped raise "Miss Hawdon, her ladyship's daughter" while working for Lady Dedlock's sister. Mr. Bucket offers £20, but Mrs. Chadband laughs it off. Mrs. Snagsby just wants the confirmation of her deductions regarding her "false husband" with the final goal of ending their marriage. The detective tells Mr. Smallweed and the Chadbands he will contact them "tomorrow or the next day."

After the visitors leave, Mr. Bucket recommends Sir Leicester "buy this up," which he thinks can be done "pretty cheap." Then he says, "the party to be apprehended is in this house" and will be arrested in Sir Leicester's "presence." He assures the baronet it will be done quietly, and he'll come back later to talk about "the nobbiest way of keeping it quiet." He rings and, when Mercury comes in, whispers something to him. Soon, Hortense is shown in. Bucket closes the door and stands against it. Bucket introduces Hortense as his lodger. Hortense says Mrs. Bucket brought her here, and she expected to find Mrs. Bucket in this room. Bucket tells the Frenchwoman to sit down and be quiet. Still, as he talks, she keeps interrupting to correct his story or to complain it is all lies. Bucket reviews her history with Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn, and her persecution of Snagsby. Bucket says he never believed George murdered the lawyer, but it was his duty to arrest him. But while watching Hortense eating supper that night, he had a flash of intuition that she had done it. He then spent all his time investigating while his wife kept Hortense at home, unaware he was investigating her. Hortense, he says, framed Lady Dedlock. Sir Leicester begins to rise at this but then sits again. Mrs. Bucket saw Hortense writing the letters incriminating Lady Dedlock. She also found the rest of the paper Hortense used as wadding in the pistol she shot Tulkinghorn with. After the funeral, Hortense took Mrs. Bucket for tea in the country and threw the pistol into a nearby "piece of water"; the detective had the water dragged, and the pistol was found. Mr. Bucket handcuffs Hortense and takes her away.

Sir Leicester stays in the chair for a while and then gets up with difficulty. He takes a few steps and stops, staring at nothing. He sees a vision of his wife, who "has been a stock of living tenderness and love" and "cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well." Saying her name, he slowly falls to the ground.


Chapters 53 and 54 bring Mr. Bucket's investigation of Mr. Tulkinghorn's murder to a conclusion. But just as Bucket allowed his arrest of Mr. George to lull his chief suspect into a false sense of security, Dickens tells the story in such a way as to mislead readers about just who is about to be arrested. Bucket's interrogation of Mercury at the end of Chapter 53 about Lady Dedlock's headaches and her solitary walk on the night of the lawyer's murder and his conversation with Sir Leicester in Chapter 54, in which he explains what his investigation for Tulkinghorn into Lady Dedlock turned up, lead the reader to believe he's getting ready to arrest Lady Dedlock. He tells Sir Leicester that Lady Dedlock was seen on Tulkinghorn's stairs at the approximate time of his murder and Tulkinghorn had been about to tell Sir Leicester about her past.

Sir Leicester, whether or not he also believes his wife is about to be arrested, is extremely upset by these revelations, and suffers a stroke. It begins before Bucket can finish telling Sir Leicester everything, and it is unlikely the detective has even any idea what has happened. He is busy fending off the blackmail attempts from Grandfather Smallweed and Mr. Chadband and then, with his arrest of Hortense, the real murderer. Sir Leicester follows all this, so at least his mind is relieved. But he is still worried for his wife. He knows her position in society will be destroyed, and he is concerned for her. Although he is very proud of his family and of his own position in society, what matters most to him is Lady Dedlock. He does not hesitate to forgive her anything, as readers recognize in the final words of Chapter 54: "oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name ... in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach."

When Volumnia last entered the story a dozen chapters earlier, Dickens began fleshing out her personality. He indicated she was particularly fond of Mr. Tulkinghorn; yet, at the same time, she seems to have become engaged to be married. The narrator talks about the sun shining on "the chaste Volumnia, bestowing a dower of fifty thousand pounds upon a hideous old general with a mouth of false teeth like a pianoforte too full of keys, long the admiration of Bath and the terror of every other community." Her fiancé gets another mention in Chapter 53. While she's telling Mr. Bucket how devastated she is ("her nerves are unstrung forever"; "she has not the least expectation of ever smiling again"), she is simultaneously sending a cutely folded note to her fiancé: "she folds up a cocked hat for that redoubtable old general at Bath, descriptive of her melancholy condition." Volumnia may be a poor cousin, but she knows how to suppress her feelings as well as anyone in the aristocracy.

It is unclear what Mrs. Snagsby has to add to Bucket's investigation or how she can threaten Lady Dedlock. Despite this she tags along with Grandfather Smallweed and the Chadbands when they come to threaten money out of Sir Leicester in Chapter 54. Perhaps she wants only to vent her irrational anger with her husband. In any case, readers can compare the effectiveness of her investigation with the effectiveness of Tulkinghorn's and Bucket's. Mrs. Snagsby has unearthed all the details but has ended up deducing that Jo was Mr. Snagsby's son. When she and her cohorts leave, Mr. Bucket tells Sir Leicester that Mrs. Snagsby was used "by all sides" and has unknowingly done a lot of harm by "bringing odds and ends together." It is likely she came just to fill in missing bits of the story and provide a little comic relief.

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