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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Preface–Chapter 1 | Summary




A Chancery judge once told Dickens any delays in Chancery were due to the "parsimony of the public," who didn't want any more Chancery judges. In the Preface, Dickens assures readers what Bleak House says about Chancery "is substantially true." The Gridley case is taken from published reports of a real one. As he is writing the Preface, one current suit has been tied up in Chancery for nearly 20 years; it has involved up to 40 lawyers at any given time and has consumed £70,000 in costs so far—even though it's "a friendly suit." Another case was begun at the end of the 18th century and is still running in the middle of the 19th century; it has consumed more than £140,000 in costs so far.

In response to Mr. Lewes's letters taking Dickens to task for the manner of Krook's death in Bleak House and "arguing that spontaneous combustion could not possibly be," Dickens assures readers he did the research and found about 30 documented instances of spontaneous combustion, including the deaths of a countess in Italy and a French woman. He includes "general reference to the authorities" in the novel.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 begins on a November afternoon in London with muddy streets, irritable pedestrians, and soot from chimneys drifting down. Fog is creeping in. It's so dark the shops have had to turn their lights on early. The fog is deepest at Temple Bar, the gate between Westminster and the City of London. Nearby is the Court of Chancery, where the Chancellor sits "at the very heart of the fog." Court is in session; the Chancellor is hearing the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case with about 20 barristers in attendance. This case has been going on so long now that none of the court reporters show up for it any more. The audience consists of just three people, all of whom have been waiting years for their cases to be decided.

The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case has been going on for so long it has become "a joke in the [legal] profession." It is an inheritance case, and some heirs have died, while others have been born; still others have married into the family. Today the Chancellor postpones further discussion of the case until two weeks from Wednesday, but says he is about to meet with a "young girl and boy" as to whether or not they may go to live with a distant cousin and "will mention the matter" when court resumes in the morning.


As a journalist Dickens was used to researching the facts of cases, and he often included details taken from actual events in his novels. He did so in two ways—he would mention actual people and historical or contemporary events in the narration, and he would base characters and plots on actual people and events. This is what he does in Bleak House as well, as he explains in his preface to the first complete edition, written in 1853. At that time few readers would have disagreed with him about Chancery, but on the subject of spontaneous combustion, most scientists would have agreed with Mr. Lewes.

In Chapter 1 Dickens describes the setting. It is November in London, and the weather is typical: wet and foggy. Because the Industrial Revolution was characterized by crowded cities in which people, businesses, and factories burned coal as fuel, those cities, especially London, were known for their "pea soupers"—fogs so dark with soot it was hard to see. When visibility was particularly bad, people carried lanterns to see where they were going. These "black fogs" continued into the mid-20th century. In Chapter 1 Dickens takes this intrusive, blinding, choking black fog and turns it into a powerful symbol of the Chancery system. After describing the scene on the streets, he leads the reader to the center of the fog: Chancery itself. After talking about how pedestrians have slipped on the muddy pavements, he now says members of the court are "tripping one another up on slippery precedents." After talking about mud so deep that the horses have been "splashed to their very blinkers," he describes court members as "groping knee-deep in technicalities." Like the people outside on the streets, they can't see clearly, so they keep "running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words." (The words goat-hair and horsehair refer to the wigs English barristers and judges wear in court.)

By exploring this symbol, Dickens introduces the Court of Chancery, the topic which ties together the plotlines in Bleak House. He also introduces his main theme: the issue of law versus justice as exemplified by the inhumane and destructive Chancery system.

Chancery cases were long, drawn-out processes serving no one but the courts and the solicitors and barristers involved in them. It was not unheard of for inheritance cases, such as Jarndyce and Jarndyce, to drag on so long the inheritance was largely consumed by the costs (court fees and the payment owed to solicitors and barristers). Dickens mentions three in the preface to the first edition of Bleak House: the Gridley case, which he also discusses in the novel, and two cases that were still running at the time of the novel's publication—one that had already been before the court for two decades and another that had begun at the end of the 18th century, over 50 years earlier.

Dickens also introduces several recurring characters in this chapter, although he does not give their names at this time: the audience members—the mad old woman (Miss Flite), the man from Shropshire (Mr. Gridley), the two young people (Ada Clare and Richard Carstone), their cousin (John Jarndyce), and the cousin's barrister (Conversation Kenge).

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