History: Published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853.
Plot: Sir Leicester Dedlock and Lady Honoria Dedlock (his junior by more than twenty years) live at the estate of Chesney Wold. Unknown to Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock was involved with a lover, Captain Hawdon, before her marriage to Sir Leicester — the fruit of the union with Captain Hawdon being Esther Summerson. Lady Dedlock, believing Esther to be dead, has chosen to live out the remainder of her days 'bored to death' as a fashionable lady of the world.
Esther is raised by Miss Barbary (Lady Dedlock's spartan sister) who instills a sense of worthlessness in the child that Esther will battle throughout the novel. Esther does not realize that Miss Barbary is her aunt, thinking of her only as her godmother. When Miss Barbary dies, the Chancery lawyer "Conversation" Kenge takes charge of Esther's future (at the instructions of his client, John Jarndyce). John Jarndyce becomes Esther's guardian, and after she attends school in Reading for six years, she goes to live with him at Bleak House, along with his other two wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Esther is to be Ada's companion.
Esther soon befriends both Ada and Richard, who are cousins. They are named beneficiaries of one of the wills at issue in Jarndyce and Jarndyce; their guardian is a beneficiary under another will, and in some undefined way the two wills clash. Richard and Ada soon fall in love, but though Mr. Jarndyce does not oppose the match, he does stipulate that Richard (who suffers from inconstancy of character) must first choose a profession. When Richard mentions the prospect of benefiting from the resolution of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, John Jarndyce beseeches him never to put faith in what he calls "the family curse."
Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock is also a beneficiary under one of the wills in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Early in the book, while listening to her solicitor, the close-mouthed but shrewd Mr. Tulkinghorn, read an affidavit in Jarndyce and Jarndyce aloud, she recognizes the handwriting on a copied affidavit. The sight so affects her that she almost faints, which Tulkinghorn notes and finds important enough to investigate. Tulkinghorn recognizes that Lady Dedlock has focused on the affidavit's handwriting, and seeks to trace the copyist. He discovers that the copyist is a pauper known only as "Nemo" and that he has recently died. The only person to identify him is a street-sweeper, a poor homeless boy named Jo.
Lady Dedlock also investigates the matter, disguising herself as her French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. In disguise, she pays Jo to take her to Nemo's grave. Meanwhile, under the conviction that Lady Dedlock's secret might be a threat to the interests of his ultimate client, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Tulkinghorn begins to watch Lady Dedlock's every move, even enlisting the aid of her maid, who detests Lady Dedlock.
Esther happens to meet her mother unwittingly at a church service and actually has a conversation with her afterwards at Chesney Wold—though, at first, neither woman recognizes the tie that binds them. Later Lady Dedlock realizes not only that her abandoned child is not dead, but is, in fact, Esther. She waits to confront Esther with this knowledge until after Esther has survived a bout with an unidentified disease (possibly smallpox, as it permanently disfigures her), which she contracted from the infected Jo (whom she tried to nurse). Though they are happy at being reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never recognize their connection again.
Meanwhile, Esther, whose disease-scarred face supposedly has ruined her beauty, has recovered her health. She finds that Richard, having tried and failed several professions, has ignored his guardian's advice and is wasting all his resources in trying to push Jarndyce and Jarndyce to a conclusion (in his and Ada's favor). Further, she finds that Richard has broken with his guardian, under the influence of his lawyer, the odious and crafty Mr. Vholes. In the process of becoming an active litigant, Richard has lost all of his money and is breaking his health. Again, defying John Jarndyce's orders, Richard and Ada have secretly married, and Ada is carrying Richard's child. Esther experiences her own romance when Dr. Woodcourt, who knew her before her illness, returns from his mission and continues to seek her company despite her disfigurement. Unfortunately, Esther has already accepted the proposal of her guardian, John Jarndyce, to become his wife.
Hortense and Tulkinghorn discover the truth about Lady Dedlock's past. After a quiet but desperate confrontation with the lawyer, Lady Dedlock flees her home and leaves a note behind apologizing for her conduct. Tulkinghorn dismisses Hortense, having exhausted her usefulness to him. Feeling abandoned and betrayed by both Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn, Hortense shoots and kills Tulkinghorn, and seeks to frame Lady Dedlock for his murder. On discovering his lawyer's death and his wife's flight, Sir Leicester suffers a catastrophic stroke but manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return to him.
Inspector Bucket, who up to now has investigated several matters on the periphery of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, accepts the commission of the stricken Sir Leicester to find Lady Dedlock. He suspects Lady Dedlock, even after he arrests George Rouncewell (the only other person known to be with Tulkinghorn on the night of the murder, and known to have quarreled with the lawyer more than once). Nonetheless, Bucket pursues the charge given to him by Sir Leicester and ultimately calls on Esther to assist in the search for Lady Dedlock. Bucket has cleared her name before this by the discovery of Hortense's guilt, but she has no way to know this, and, wandering London in cold and bitter weather, Lady Dedlock ultimately succumbs, dying at the cemetery where her old lover, Captain Hawdon, is buried. Esther and Bucket find her there.
Developments in Jarndyce and Jarndyce seem to take a turn for the better, when a later will that revokes all previous wills and leaving the bulk of the estate to Richard and Ada is discovered. At the same time, John Jarndyce releases Esther from her commitment to marry him, and she and Dr. Woodcourt become engaged. They go to Chancery to find Richard and to discover what news there might be of the lawsuit's resolution. As they find, to their horror and dismay, the new will is given no chance to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce, for the costs of litigation have consumed the estate, and as there is nothing left to litigate about, the case melts away. Richard, after hearing this, collapses, and Dr Woodcourt determines that he is in the last stages of consumption or tuberculosis. The dying Richard apologizes to John Jarndyce and then dies, leaving Ada alone with their child, a boy whom she names Richard. Jarndyce takes in Ada and the child. Esther and Woodcourt marry and live in Yorkshire, in a house given to them by John Jarndyce. In time they have two daughters.
Many of this intricate novel's subplots deal with the minor characters and their diverse ties to the main plot. One of these subplots is the hard life and happy though difficult marriage of Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop. Another focuses on George Rouncewell's rediscovery of his family at Chesney Wold and his reunion with his mother and brother.
Review: If you can sort out all the characters, then the plot falls into place, sort of. I suppose I could have read it again to get the characters straightened out then I could have caught on easier. I did listen to a lot of this book while traveling to Campbell County, and honestly I couldn’t hear it, and got side tracked, so I did lose interest. I find Dickens hard to follow. I liked Great Expectations so much better. This is supposed to be his masterpiece. It has the traditional happy ending though, thank goodness. I love the names, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Mr. Smallweed, Lady Dedlock.
Opening Line: “London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellorr sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. “
Closing Line: “I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that was ever seen, and that they can do without very much beautiful in me, even supposing.”
Quotes: "Mr. Tulkinghorn, sitting in the twilight by the open window, enjoys his wine. As if it whispered to him of its fifty years of silence and seclusion, it shuts him up the closer. More impenetrable than ever, he sits, and drinks, and mellows as it were in secrecy, pondering at that twilight hour on all the mysteries he knows."