"BLEAK HOUSE" is a novel by Charles Dickens, published in 20 monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853. It is held to be one of Dickens's finest novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon. The story is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by a mostly omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly but depressive John Jarndyce, and the childish and disingenuous Harold Skimpole, as well as the likeable but imprudent Richard Carstone.
At the novel's core is long-running litigation in England's Court of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills. The litigation, which already has taken many years and consumed between £60,000 and £70,000 in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery.
Though Chancery lawyers and judges criticised Dickens's portrait of Chancery as exaggerated and unmerited, his novel helped to spur an ongoing movement that culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s. In fact, Dickens was writing just as Chancery was reforming itself, with the Six Clerks and Masters mentioned in Chapter One abolished in 1842 and 1852 respectively: the need for further reform was being widely debated. These facts raise an issue as to when Bleak House is actually set. Technically it must be before 1842, and at least some of his readers at the time would have been aware of this. However, there is some question as to whether this timeframe is consistent with the themes of the novel. The English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth set the action in 1827.
Characters in Bleak House:
As usual, Dickens drew upon many real people and places but imaginatively transformed them in his novel. Hortense is based on the Swiss maid and murderess Maria Manning. The "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, is a criticism of women activists like Caroline Chisholm. The "childlike" but ultimately amoral character Harold Skimpole is commonly regarded as a portrait of Leigh Hunt. "Dickens wrote in a letter of 25 September 1853, 'I suppose he is the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words! ... It is an absolute reproduction of a real man'; and a contemporary critic commented, 'I recognized Skimpole instantaneously; ... and so did every person whom I talked with about it who had ever had Leigh Hunt's acquaintance.'" G. K. Chesterton suggested that Dickens "may never once have had the unfriendly thought, 'Suppose Hunt behaved like a rascal!'; he may have only had the fanciful thought, 'Suppose a rascal behaved like Hunt!'". Mr Jarndyce's friend Mr Boythorn is based on the writer Walter Savage Landor.
The novel also includes one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket. This character is probably based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field of the then recently formed Detective Department at Scotland Yard. Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in Household Words, his weekly periodical in which he also published articles attacking the Chancery system. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case itself has reminded many readers of the thirty-year Chancery case over Charlotte Smith's father-in-law's will.
Esther Summerson – the heroine of the story, and one of its two narrators (Dickens's only female narrator), raised as an orphan because the identity of her parents is unknown. At first, it seems probable that her guardian, John Jarndyce, is her father because he provides for her. This, however, he disavows shortly after she comes to live under his roof.