Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Chapters 55–56 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 55

In the early hours of the day that Mr. Bucket will arrest Hortense, Mrs. Bagnet and Mrs. Rouncewell are in a chaise traveling toward London. Mrs. Rouncewell is holding Mrs. Bagnet's hand and kissing it from time to time in gratitude for finding her and bringing her to her son, George. She is sure George never contacted her because he never "rose to be an officer" and didn't want to "be a disgrace" to his family. She recalls how much Sir Leicester used to like George when George was a boy. Mrs. Bagnet tells Mrs. Rouncewell how much George regrets not having been a better son. Mrs. Rouncewell vows to do all she can to make sure George gets the lawyers he needs to clear himself of the murder charge. Mrs. Bagnet wonders why her traveling companion keeps murmuring "My Lady!" to herself. Shortly after daybreak, the chaise arrives in London, and the two women make their way to the prison. There, mother and son reconcile. Mrs. Rouncewell insists George must "yield up his case the greatest lawyers that can be got," and he agrees. He asks Mrs. Bagnet to acquaint his mother with Esther Summerson and John Jarndyce. George also asks his mother not to tell his brother about his plight, at least for the time being. She agrees.

Before going home to her family, Mrs. Bagnet delivers Mrs. Rouncewell to the Dedlocks' London mansion. There, Mrs. Rouncewell meets with Lady Honoria Dedlock and tells her she has found George, and he is in prison for murdering Mr. Tulkinghorn. Mrs. Rouncewell begs her, "If you can say but a word to help to clear him, say it!" Her ladyship is confused, wondering what she can say to help. Mrs. Rouncewell says she got a letter last night, when the step of the ghost on the Ghost's Walk was "awfullest" and leaves the letter for her ladyship to read. The letter contains "a printed account of the discovery of the body ... shot through the heart" with her name written under it alongside "the word 'murderess.'" She drops the paper and does not pick it up.

Sometime later a servant announces William Guppy. Lady Dedlock picks up the paper, and is holding it as Mr. Guppy comes in. He has come to warn Lady Dedlock. He asks whether she has had a visit from Miss Barbary's old servant or from "a person without the use of his lower extremities, carried upstairs similarly to a guy?" When she says no, he assures her these people were here. He has come to suspect the letters he thought destroyed weren't and the people he mentions came here to "make money of it." He promises he will not return again. After he goes, she rings and asks Mercury whether Sir Leicester has had any visitors. He says yes and describes them. They match Guppy's description. After Mercury goes, Lady Dedlock despairs. Her husband knows everything, and soon her shame will be common knowledge. On top of that, someone has accused her of Tulkinghorn's murder. She used to wish Tulkinghorn were dead, but now she sees his death has released the information he had on her. She sees "no escape but in death." Lady Dedlock writes a note to Sir Leicester stating her innocence. She says she went to Tulkinghorn on the night of the murder to beg him not to keep torturing her but to tell her husband right away. But his house was dark, and no one answered the door. She hopes he can forget her, and "writes this last adieu." Leaving "all her jewels and money," she puts on a dress and veil, and goes out into "the shrill frosty wind."

Chapter 56

Volumnia Dedlock arrives at the Dedlocks' London mansion, lets herself in, and goes to the library. As she walks around it, she trips over her cousin and screams. The household is aroused. They can't find Lady Honoria Dedlock, but they do find her note. Sir Dedlock has been moved to his bed. It is dark before he begins to respond to his surroundings. He can only whisper, and his whispers don't make much sense. Mrs. Rouncewell is with him. Finding he can't make himself understood with speech, he gestures for something to write with. It takes him some time, but he scrawls, "Chesney Wold?" She tells him he's in London, and the doctors agree he'll be better the next day. His written questions ask about Lady Honoria Dedlock. His old housekeeper tells him she went out before he was discovered and then gives him his wife's letter. It is an hour before he writes out, "Mr. B." He means Mr. Bucket.

Fortunately, Mr. Bucket is waiting downstairs, having promised to update Sir Leicester. He is brought to the bedroom for a private meeting, attended only by Mrs. Rouncewell. Upon reading the letter, he immediately understands Sir Leicester wants him to find Lady Dedlock and says he must begin the search immediately. He seems to understand Sir Leicester's every gesture, expression, and sound. And soon has taken money for expenses and promised to keep an account of them. As he's buttoning his coat, Bucket guesses the old woman is Mrs. Rouncewell and says George is free without a stain on his name. Bucket promises Sir Leicester he will "say everything as is kind and forgiving on [his] part," and leaves the room.

His first stop is Lady Dedlock's room, where a search produces Esther Summerson's handkerchief. He pockets it and leaves the house. His next stop is the shooting gallery, where he gets Esther's address from George. On he goes. At his next stop he finds John Jarndyce just going to bed, tells him he found Esther's handkerchief in Lady Dedlock's room, and shows him the letter Sir Leicester received from his wife. He wants to take Esther with him so, when he finds her, Lady Dedlock will realize he's "friendly." Jarndyce goes to fetch Esther. While he waits for her to dress, he visualizes the people and places around him, but doesn't see Lady Dedlock. The narrator knows, however, and describes "a lonely figure ... miserably dressed" who wanders through the night near the brick kilns in the wind and snow.

Analysis

Chapter 55 again loops back in time. Its action parallels the events in Chapter 54.

Readers already know Lady Dedlock has been cleared of all suspicion of murder, Hortense is the source of the letters accusing Lady Dedlock, and Sir Leicester cares more for his wife than he worries about scandal. (After all, just marrying her created a scandal in the family, but he has never regretted their marriage.) If Lady Dedlock knew all this, it's very possible she wouldn't have left. She is leaving not to avoid capture—especially since she knows she is innocent—but to shield her husband from the fallout when her past becomes common knowledge. What readers learn from her actions and her letter in Chapter 55 is that, even if Sir Leicester was not Lady Dedlock's great love, she cares deeply for him and is grateful to him for his years of devotion. Until now, Dickens has focused on Sir Leicester's love for his wife, but on his wife's frustrated desire to be a mother. Because she does care for Sir Leicester, it is likely Lady Dedlock would not have left if she had known her husband was lying comatose on the library floor as she slipped out the door; if she had known, she would have stayed to look after him.

When Sir Leicester is found in Chapter 56, he begins to recover almost immediately, but it's a slow recovery, which leaves him aware but unable to communicate easily or clearly. It is Mr. Bucket who comes to the rescue again. With his blend of observation, deduction, and intuition, he quickly figures out everything Sir Leicester wants to say. Bucket's hunt for Lady Dedlock will finally bring him into close contact with Esther in the next chapter. (Before now, he has met her only fleetingly.) With close to 100 characters in Bleak House, it is remarkable how all but a few of the most minor (largely associated with the fashionable or with government) ultimately meet Esther and become subject to her appraisal.

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