Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1996 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This book is very well written if exceptionally dark, a very satisfying read with unforgettable characters and incidents (including a spectacular episode of spontaneous human combustion).
Notes from the Penguin edition: Set in mid 1830s in and around London. A major character is the interminable cause (case) of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (J&J) in the Court of Chancery (C of C). This court deals with matters of Wills and Trusts and is based on precedent rather than statutes. The opening scene includes a description of the court.
The original litigants are dead (Tom J., former owner and namer of Bleak House, killed himself) but the case drones on, consuming the estate at issue like so many others. Mr Tangle mentions to the Lord Chancellor the two wards, Ada Clare ("A.") and her cousin Richard Carstone ("R.")-- they are to be taken care of by their distant cousin John Jarndyce ("J."). The mad Miss Flite (who believes herself to be a party to J&J) and the vocal man from Shropshire (Mr. Gridley, a party to another unresolved suit), are in the audience.
Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, and his elegant wife Lady Dedlock leave their flooding Lincolnshire estate Chesney Wold for their London place. They visit their long-standing attorney, the sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn (he knows and retains the secrets of the wealthy), who apprises them of developments in J&J, in which she has an interest. She faints when she sees the handwriting on an affidavit (it is Nemo's or Captn Hawdon's, her former lover).
Esther Summerson ("E."), an orphan lives with her godmother Miss Barbary (living under an assumed name and actually aunt and sister of her mother Lady Dedlock) and her servant Mrs. Rachael. The aunt tells E. it would have been better had she never been born, that her mother was a disgrace. She dies when E. is 13. J.'s attorney "Conversation" Kenge tells E. she will be provided for by the kindly J. (at the aunt's secret request), who arranges for her schooling (13-19 y/o) under Miss Donny at her house Greenleaf to become governess to A. and accompanies her incognito in the carriage to the school. She then comes to London, meets the clerk Mr. William Guppy at Kenge and Carboy's law firm, and is introduced to A. and R. They meet Miss Flite on the street.
The three stay the night in the chaotic household of the Jellyby's-- she is more interested in long-distance philanthropy in Africa than caring for her own children (including the long-suffering Caddy or Caroline) and husband.
The 3 visit Miss Flite in her poor quarters over the marine and junk shop of her landlord, the eccentric and illiterate Mr. Krook's. He has collected vast quantities of papers and other law-related paraphernalia and is familiar with J&J. His other lodger is a poor law-writer (nemo ="nobody").
The 3 travel to Bleak House, home of the 60 y/o J., and meet him and his visitor, the incorrigibly irresponsible and childlike Harold Skimpole (once trained as a doctor). He borrows money from E. and R. to avoid arrest for his debts by "Coavinses" (Mr. Neckett)-- J. makes up the money to them.
At Chesney Wold, the long-standing housekeeper Mrs. Rouncewell receives her grandson Watt, son of her ironmaster elder son (never named). Her younger son George became a soldier and has not been heard from in years. The attractive maid Rosa is about. Mr. Guppy and his friend Mr. Tony Jobling arrive to tour the house. Guppy notices in a portrait of Lady Dedlock a resemblance to E. They also visit the terrace, where Mrs. R. describes the "Ghost's Walk"-- haunted by a former Lady Dedlock who opposed Charles I in the civil war and vowed she would "walk here until the pride of this house is humbled." Her footsteps are heard after dark.
J. is grandnephew of Tom J. He refuses thanks for his aid to E. Bleak House no longer appears Bleak, but was when Tom lived there poring over J&J materials. The do-gooder and indefatigable Mrs. Pardiggle arrives with her 5 resentful sons. They visit a brickmaker's house at St. Albans (23 miles from Tom-All-Alone's) and receive a surly welcome. His wife Jenny's baby dies as they visit, and she is consoled by her sister Liz. E. lays her handkerchief over it. That night E. and A. return to bring comforts.
Lawrence Boythorn, a vehemently outspoken man and schoolmate of J., visits him. He and Sir Dedlock are hostile neighbors suing each other over access and trespass. J. calls E. "Dame Durden", "Dame Trot" and other fond nicknames. Boythorn once was engaged (to Lady Dedlock's sister) but was turned down unexpectedly. Guppy arrives and proposes marriage to E., offering to advance her interests, but is turned down.
The law stationer Mr. Snagsby has a suspicious wife named Sarah and an epileptic maid/apprentice named Guster (fr. Augusta). Tulkinghorn, coming from his house at Lincoln's Inn Fields, wants him to tell who copied the affidavit that caused Lady D. to faint-- Snagsby directs him to Nemo (Latin for no one).
Krook accompanies Tulk. to Nemo's but he is found dead of an opium overdose. Krook steals the man's portmanteau. A surgeon, Allan Woodcourt attends the corpse and the beadle also arrives to deal with the body. The inquest is held at the nearby Sol's Arms. The homeless and illiterate boy Jo relates that Nemo was good to him. The verdict is accidental death.
The Dedlocks have returned to Chesney Wold. Lady D.'s 32 y/o French maid Hortense is jealous of the attractive 19 y/o servant Rosa. Tulk. arrives and alludes to seeing the writer of the affidavit that disturbed Lady D.-- she is again disturbed. Later he tells of his death-- he and Lady D. stare at each other.
With prodding from J., R. decides rather casually to become a surgeon and is placed through Kenge with his physician cousin Bayham Badger. Allan Woodcourt attends a dinner with them at the Badgers. R. and A. declare their love.
R. dreams of getting rich off J&J. Caddy Jellyby introduces her secret fiancee, the dance instructor Prince Turveydrop, to E. His father, Mr. Turveydrop, is a dandy who worships Deportment as in the years of the Regent and never works. Caddy (she calls her and E. "Fitz-Jarndyce"), J., and E. visit Miss Flite and find Mr Woodcourt attending her. Mr Krook shows up, attracted to J.
Mr. Neckett (Coavinses) has died and J., E., and Skimpole visit his orphaned children Charlotte (Charlie), Emma, etc. They meet the downstairs neighbor Mr. Gridley (the "man from Shropshire"), who tells his tale of woe relating to the Court of Chancery-- his estate has been consumed in court costs.
Jo, who sweeps a corner crossing to eke out a living, lives in dilapidated housing at Tom-All-Alone's (also tied up in the Court of Chancery). Lady D. comes to him disguised as Hortense and asks him to lead her to the gravesite of Nemo. He notices her rings and thinks she is a lady. He points out the gravesite and she gives him a sovereign (pound coin).
R. is not enjoying medicine and decides to switch to law, studying under Kenge (to which J. accedes with reservations). J. tells E. that her aunt wrote him for help when E. was 12. Mr. Woodcourt leaves for India and sends flowers to E.
R. takes lodgings in London to study with Kenge and begins to overspend. E., A, J., and Skimpole visit Boythorn at his estate next to the Dedlock's. They encounter Lady D. at church and later at the keeper's cottage, where they shelter from the rain. She and E. seem to recognize each other, but Lady D. shuns E. She mentions to Boythorn that he knew her sister, but indicates they are unlikely to renew their acquaintance due to the animosity of him and her husband. The hot-blooded Hortense is angry to be supplanted by Rosa and storms off in the rain.
Court is in summer recess. The Snagsby entertain the charlatan "Rev." Chadband and his wife (the former Mrs. Rachael). A constable arrives with Jo and asks for Mr. Snagsby-- he wants the boy to "move on" but Jo has said he knows Snagsby. This provokes the groundless suspicions by Mrs. Snagsby that Jo is his son. Guppy shows up. The constable has found the change from the sovereign the lady gave him on Jo and suspects him of stealing. Snagsby attests for Jo, but his curiosity (and Guppy's) has been raised.
Guppy resents the presence of R. at Kenge and Carboy's. R. is poring over the J&J materials. Bart Smallweed ("Small") is also in training there and looks up to Guppy. Guppy enlists his down-and-out friend Jobling to take over Nemo's former room at Krook's to spy on Krook-- he agrees to do so under the assumed name Mr. Weevle.
Joshua Smallweed (Bart's grandfather) is a shrewd money lender, nearly paralyzed. He detest his senile wife, who mouths off about his money. Bart, his grandson, and twin sister Judy live with them as their parents are dead. Charlie Neckett is their maid now. Mr. George, ex-trooper, arrives to discuss his loan (for a shooting gallery) from Joshua Smallweed and smokes his pipe with him as their agreement stipulates. He is unable to repay the principal. He knew Captain Hawdon, who also owed Joshua Smallweed money, but declined to help track him down, thinking he had drowned.
Tulk. & Mr. Bucket (a detective officer who also has a warrant for Gridley) quiz Snagsby about Jo's mysterious lady and decide to interview Jo. They go to Tom-All-Alone's and encounter Jenny, the brickmaker's wife, caring for Liz's child, and their sleeping husbands. Jo returns with medicine he was sent for. They take him to Tulkinghorn's and ask about the lady. They show her a woman, who Jo says is the one, but when Hortense is revealed, Jo says it was the same clothes but not the same woman.
Hortense, now fired from Lady D., asks to be E.'s maid but is turned down. R. drifts, fatally attracted to J&J. E. helps Caddy and Prince announce their engagement and win approval from their parents. J. has assisted the dead Neckett's children, and presents Charley to be E.'s new maid.
J. persuades R and A to break off their engagement-- he is going into the army as an officer and has exhausted his resources. He has become estranged from J and refuses to follow J.'s good advice to not follow the family curse of J&J further. Mr. George trains R. for the army. R. and E. visit the C of C. Mr. Gridley has become a dying fugitive and is hidden by Mr. George at his shooting gallery. He calls for Miss Flite, who was kind to him. She, E., and J. go to see him. George seems to recognize E. (perhaps because he knew her mother's sister). Bucket shows up disguised as a physician, to arrest him, but Gridley dies, a broken man. Phil Squod is George's misshapen assistant.
Mrs. Snagsby has become obsessed about the mystery of Jo's woman and suspects her husband, thinking Jo is his son, and is spying on her husband. Chadband arrives with Jo and delivers a "sermon" on Truth. Jo has never heard of the Bible and tells Guster he never knew his parents.
George and Phil discuss their past. Phil Squod's story-- he worked as a tinker's apprentice, was unsuccessful because he was not as entertaining to his clients and then was injured. George thought he had been at war. Joshua Smallweed arrives at George's with Judy-- he has come on behalf of a lawyer (Tulk.), who wants to see a sample of Capn. Hawdon's handwriting. R. is now in debt to Joshua Smallweed as well. George places a paper (Hawdon's last instruction) in his breast.
George and Joshua Smallweed come to Tulk's quarters. He had served under Capn. Hawdon at one time. He refuses to hand over the paper to Tulk. but says he will consult with a friend before making a final decision. Smallweed threatens (heard by Tulk. only) to put the screws to George if he will not cooperate. George goes to his old friend and comrade-in-arms, Matthew Bagnet ("Lignum"), now owner of a musical instrument shop who always defers to his wife. He concurs with George's noncompliance. George returns and informs Tulk. of his decision. As George leaves, Guppy chances by and overhears Tulk. refer to Gridley as a murderous fellow but thinks he meant George.
We meet poor relations of the Dedlocks, incl. the 60 y/o spinster Volumnia Dedlock. The ironmaster, who implicitly threatens the old order and has been invited to go into Parliament, comes to Sir Dedlock to ask for the release of Rosa (now engaged to Watt Rouncewell) from Chesney Wold, so she can be further educated-- he regards the village school favored by the Dedlocks as insufficient. Sir Dedlock feels insulted and the ironmaster leaves unsatisfied and says he will recommend against the marriage.
Guppy comes to Lady D. and presents her his knowledge that Nemo was actually Capn. Hawdon, that Esther's last name was Hawdon (acquired from Mrs. Chadband formerly Rachael), E.'s resemblance to Lady D. , and his knowledge of her visit to Jo to see Hawdon's gravesite. He claims to have letters of Hawdon's and wants to know if she is interested. His goal is not blackmail but to do better in his pursuit of E. She suppresses her murderous thoughts to him. She was not aware that her child E. had survived, as her sister told her she had died.
Mrs. Woodcourt, Allan's mother, visits E., waxes profusely about her family's distinguished lineage, and prophesies that she will marry a rich older man (presumably to dissuade any thoughts she may harbor toward her son). Caddy visits with news of her father's bankruptcy and the limited means available for her wedding. Her wedding proceeds.
E. finds the sick Jo at Jenny's (who is trying to return his past kindness to her but fears her husband's reaction to the boy), and decides to bring him to Bleak House. Skimpole tells J. that Jo is contagious and should be turned out, but J. refuses to do so that night and plans to take him in the morning to a hospital. He is placed in a locked loft, but is missing the next day. Charley becomes gravely ill, then E. (presumably smallpox).
Mr. Weevle waits for Guppy on the street at night. Mr. Snagsby happens by, still haunted with the mystery at the rag and bottle shop. The air is foul with soot and a bad smell. Guppy arrives. Weevle will meet with Krook at midnight to get Hawdon's letters (Krook also believes he has other valuable papers). When they enter Krook's place, the air is full of soot and smoke and grease and Krook (who drinks heavily) has undergone spontaneous combustion!
Guppy and Weevle are the toast of Sol's Arms inn all night. Mr. Snagsby is consumed with guilt under his wife's accusatory tone. Guppy coaches Weevle regarding his upcoming testimony. Joshua Smallweed arrives and states that his wife is Krook's sister and therefore heir. The inquest is held and scientists research the remarkable event. Guppy later informs the steely Lady D. that the letters are apparently lost. He leaves as Tulk. arrives.
Joshua Smallweed unexpectedly demands the complete payoff of his loan from George. Mr. "Lignum" Bagnet has cosigned on this loan and stands to be bankrupted. George and Bagnet go to Smallweed, who is hostile and breaks the pipe of peace. They then go to Tulk., following his previous client Mrs. Rouncewell. Tulk. allows Bagnet to be relieved of most liability in return for George turning over Hawdon's letter of last instructions (though he did not die following it), previously denied to him. George later laments to Mrs. Bagnet that he never caused sorrow to his mother.
E. is recovering but has a disfigured face. J. laments R.'s growing corruption by J&J and his suspicion of J. Miss Flite visits, telling E. of a veiled woman visiting and taking the handkerchief from Jenny (that E. placed over her dead child). Mr. Woodcourt has become a hero in a shipwreck. E. believes he loved her and she might have loved him, but she is now resigned to give up on him.
E., wanting to avoid A. seeing her, so goes to Boythorn's house. In the woods of Chesney-Wold, Lady D. finds her and confesses that she is her mother and begs forgiveness-- the handkerchief was the evidence (why?). She thought E. had died at birth. Tulk. is trying to discover the secret. She will not see E. again and wants it to remain a secret from all but J. She gives E. a letter explaining the circumstances of her birth. E. thinks it is herself that haunts the Ghost's Walk. A. arrives.
E. meets R. at the Dedlock Arms. He has become consumed with J&J and suspicious of J.'s motives. He is going into debt and Skimpole is now sponging off him. A. (in a letter) and E. (in person) cannot dissuade him from this course. E. also is unsuccessful in getting Skimpole to leave R. alone. Mr. Vholes, R.'s lawyer, arrives to take him back to J&J.
E. and A. return to Bleak House. E. visits Caddy, now married and studying to be a dance instructor. E. and Caddy visit Guppy. She assures him that they have no engagement, to his relief, and she asks for his assurance that he will no longer pursue the question of her origins-- he agrees.
R. meets with Mr. Vholes in his office-- R. is lodging a few doors away. Vholes is respectable, discreet, like a cannibal, unflagging in his attention to R.'s interests, which he notes differ from J.'s. He predicts R. will receive a fortune. Guppy and Weevle go to Krook's to fetch Weevle's things. There they encounter Joshua Smallweed, Judy, and Tulk. going through Krook's old papers. Tulk. alludes to his interest in learning more about Lady D. to Guppy.
The Dedlocks return to Chesney Wold. Lady D. is not well. Dedlock's conservative political party has resorted to bribes but lost nonetheless. The ironmaster and Watt Rouncewell campaigned for the opposition. Tulk., in front of Lady D., tells Sir D. a story, giving no names but actually that of Lady D's affair with a soldier and child by him.
Later that night Lady D. comes to Tulk.'s turret-room (he is staying with them). She wants to know if, when, and why he plans to divulge her story. She states she will flee. She is concerned about Rosa being tainted by scandal. Tulk. wishes to spare Sir D. the pain of a scandal and they agree to silence for the time being.
Hortense is hovering around Snagsby and then comes to Tulk. She rejects the money he paid her (for appearing before Jo in the dress Lady D wore) and wants him to find her a new position. He threatens her with prison if she will not leave him alone and throws her out-- she leaves vowing to "prove" him.
E. and J. visit Skimpole at his home, meeting his wife and 3 daughters. J. asks Skimpole to leave R. alone-- J. continues to subsidize him. Sir D. arrives at J.'s to express regret at any lack of hospitality shown to E. by Chesney Wold when she visited at his nemesis Boythorn's, and to Skimpole who had wanted to look at pictures there (was he also pursuing the Lad D-E. connection?). E. tells J. who her mother was and J. tells her that it was Boythorn who loved Lady D.'s sister ("Miss Barbary") before E. was born.
J. and E. discuss her fears of discovery. J. sends her a written letter proposing making her the mistress of Bleak House. E. thinks long, including of Allan's flowers, but eventually consents.
Vholes comes to warn J. and E. that R. is abandoning his commission in the army. E. agrees to travel with Charley to see him at the port town of Deal. There, she finds him in disarray-- he confirms he has given up the commission. E. cannot dissuade him and he refuses help from A. or J. (offered in a letter from her), still counting on J&J. E. encounters Allan Woodcourt, now back from India-- he seems to feel sorry for her and agrees to look up R. in London.
Allan walks by Tom-All-Alone's and speaks kindly to Jenny, who has been beaten by her husband. The ill and furtive Jo, still fleeing Bucket and the law, comes by. Allan asks him why he ran away from E.'s help. Jo says Bucket came to Bleak House that night and took him away to a hospital, then told him to leave London for good. Allan offers to help him find lodging.
Miss Flite refers them to George's shooting gallery-- George takes in Jo (a wretched home-grown savage). Allan admits he has an interest in Jo because of E.'s interest in him. They talk of Tulk. J. arrives and later Snagsby. Jo wants Snagsby to write a written apology for him to E. (who visited him the previous day) about making her sick. He wants to be buried by Capn. Hawdon. Allan tries to teach him to pray as Jo dies.
Lady D. resolves to spare Rosa from scandal and arranges to dismiss her, ostensibly to get married. Tulk. sees her in private and says she has violated their agreement to maintain the status quo, cannot be trusted further. He plans to inform Sir D. of the secret. He leaves and later that night is shot and murdered in his home.
The Bagnets celebrate Mrs. Bagnets birthday. Mr. George is included, still moved by the death of Jo. Bucket happens by, joins in the fun, but later arrests George for the murder. George acknowledges he was at Tulk.'s that night.
Caddy has a baby (Esther) and is doing poorly-- Mr. Woodcourt becomes her doctor and sees E. often while he is at Caddy's. Ada is troubled over E.-- E. has told her of her engagement and a shade has passed over Ada in her relations with E. (she is secretly engaged). Woodcourt considers another voyage.
Woodcourt visits R. as promised and fears he will suck A.'s money into the J&J morass. E. and A. visit R. A. announces she is marrying R. and will not be returning to Bleak House, asking forgiveness from J. and E.
E., J., and Woodcourt visit George in prison. He says he is innocent but refuses having a lawyer, and will just plead the truth. He is broken and ruined. The Bagnets come by. George remarks he saw a woman resembling E. at Tulk.'s the night of the murder. Mrs. Bagnet plans to go to George's mother (Mrs. Rouncewell).
At Tulk.'s funeral, Bucket attends observantly. He comes to Sir D.'d later-- he has hired him to pursue the facts of the murder. He has been examining letters that may incriminate Lady D. and knows she was walking in a fringed mantle (like the one George described) the night of the murder.
Bucket comes to Sir D in private and tells him of Tulk.'s discovery of Lady D's past lover. They are interrupted by Joshua Smallweed (who wants money for the letters of Hawdon's from "Honoria" he has found at Krook's and that Bucket now has), the Chadbands, and Mrs. Snagsby, who also have various extortionary interests in the case. Bucket arrests Hortense (who has been boarding at Bucket's home recently) for the murder. She tried to shift suspicion to Lady D. with letters but was seen by Mrs. Bucket to discard a pistol in a lake. Bucket also found the paper from which the pistol wad was torn in her room. Sir D. is left to mourn his wife's downfall.
Mrs. Bagnet brings Mrs. Rouncewell to see her long-lost son George in prison. He asks forgiveness and agrees to have a lawyer. Mrs. R. asks Lady D. for help-- she has received a letter suggesting Lady D is the murderer. Guppy comes to Lady D and warns her of the extortion attempt over the letters by Smallweed etc. Lady D leaves her husband a note and flees in shame. She had gone to Tulk.'s home the night of the murder.
Sir D. has a stroke of sorts and can barely speak. He hires Bucket to find his wife and convey his forgiveness. Bucket goes to George, then J. to get E. to accompany him. He has E.'s handkerchief.
Bucket takes E. on a long pursuit by carriage, first at the Thames, where they see a woman (?Jenny, actually Lady D) on a bridge, then Skimpole's (he tells E. that it was him who led Bucket to Jo at Bleak House), the brickmaker's at St. Albans (where Lady D had stopped but was said to have continued North while Jenny returned to London). They then lose her trail and Bucket resolves to pursue Jenny instead.
Rumors about Lady D.'s shame are spreading. The Dedlock family is breaking up. Sir D. asks to see George, who has been released. Lady D. has not yet been found.
Bucket follows "Jenny" to Chancery Lane. Woodcourt joins them. At Snagsby's, Guster is recovering from a seizure sustained when she was discovered by Mrs. Snagsby after encountering "Jenny", receiving a letter from her to E., and directing her to the burial grounds. There, E. finds her mother, dressed in Jenny's clothes, dead at the gates.
J. proposes to take in Mrs. Woodcourt at his London quarters. E. visits A., who is getting poorer daily. Miss Flite has made R. her executor because of his steady devotion to J&J. Vholes thinks R. has made a bad marriage. A. is pregnant and fears R. will not live to see the child.
E. visits Skimpole and insists he stop sponging off R., to which he consents. She also questions him about letting Bucket bribe him to release Jo at Bleak House, to which he gives a sophistical answer. In later years, he becomes changed and writes bitter comments about J. Woodcourt declares his love for E., but she states she is not free to accept.
J. assures E. she will be mistress of Bleak House. Smallweed and Bucket arrive with a will he found in Krook's papers. Kenge studies it with Vholes and they agree it is more favorable to R. and A. and less to J.
George is employed by Sir D. He visits his ironmaster brother, who welcomes him. He writes E. about Hawdon.
E. is called away by J., who is visiting with Woodcourt in Yorkshire, and is shown a cottage J. has magnanimously decorated and furnished and named "Bleak House". He recognized Woodcourt's love for her, hers for him, and has received Mrs. Woodcourt's approval for E. and Woodcourt to marry. Guppy later comes to E. for one last unsuccessful marriage proposal.
The legal world erupts in laughter to learn that J&J has been dismissed-- the new will was irrelevant-- because the entire estate has been consumed in court costs. R. asks forgiveness of J. and A. and dies. Miss Flite releases her caged birds.
"There is a hush upon Chesney Wold"-- it lies in decay and much is shut up. Boythorn has tried to reconcile with Sir D, but fails. George and Phil still tend part of the estate. Much is shut up. Volumnia reads at night to Sir D., bored.
After seven years of marriage, E. prospers though not rich, much loved by her husband. E. writes that A. had a boy named Richard. J., still serving as her guardian, gives his home to her and the child. E. has 2 daughters. Charley has married a miller. Caddy is thriving. J. is best friends to Woodcourt and lives happily-- the wind never again in the East.