The suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is a standing joke in the Court of Chancery. Beginning with a dispute as to how the trusts under a Jarndyce will are to be administered, the suit drags on, year after year, generation after generation, without settlement. The heirs, or would-be heirs, of suits such as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce spend their lives waiting. Some, like Tom Jarndyce, blow out their brains. Others, like tiny Miss Flite, visit the court in daily expectation of some judgment that will settle the disputed estate and bring her the wealth of which she dreams.
Among those involved in the Jarndyce suit are John Jarndyce, grandnephew of Tom Jarndyce, who shot himself in a coffeehouse, and his two cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. John Jarndyce is the owner of Bleak House in Hertfordshire, a country place by no means as dreary as its name. His two young cousins live with him. He provides Esther Summerson as a companion for Ada. Esther suffered an unhappy childhood under the care of Miss Barbary, her stern godmother, and a servant, Mrs. Rachel. The two told the girl that her mother is a wicked woman who deserted her. Miss Barbary is now dead, and John Jarndyce is Esther’s benefactor. Upon arriving in London on her way to Bleak House, Esther finds an ardent admirer in William Guppy, a clerk in the office of Kenge and Carboy, John Jarndyce’s solicitors.
It is Guppy who first notices Esther’s resemblance to Lady Dedlock, who is also tenuously connected to the Jarndyce suit. Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock divide their time between their London home, where Lady Dedlock reigns over society, and Chesney Wold, their country estate in Lincolnshire. One day, when Lord Dedlock’s solicitor, Tulkinghorn, is in the Dedlocks’ London home, Lady Dedlock swoons at the sight of the handwriting on a legal document. Immediately suspicious, the lawyer traces the handwriting to its source, the stationer Mr. Snagsby, who can tell him only that the paper was copied by a man named Nemo, a lodger in the house of the junk dealer Mr. Krook. When Mr. Tulkinghorn goes there, he finds Nemo dead of an overdose of opium. He is convinced that Nemo is not the dead man’s real name, but he can learn nothing of the man’s identity or connections.
Allan Woodcourt, a young surgeon called to minister to the dead Nemo, requests an inquest. One of the witnesses called is Jo, a crossing sweeper Nemo befriended. A short time later, Jo is found with two half crowns on his person. He explains that they were given to him by a lady he guided to the gate of the churchyard where Nemo is buried. Jo is arrested, and as a result of the cross-examination that follows, Mr. Guppy questions the wife of an oily preacher named Chadband and finds that the firm of Kenge and Carboy once had charge of a young lady with whose aunt Mrs. Chadband lived. Mrs. Chadband is the Mrs. Rachel of Esther’s childhood. She reveals that Esther’s real name is not Summerson but Hawdon.
The mystery surrounding Esther begins to clear. A French maid who left Lady Dedlock’s service identifies her former mistress as the lady who gave two half crowns to the crossing sweeper. It is established that the man who called himself Nemo is Captain Hawdon. Years before, he and the present Lady Dedlock fell in love. Esther is their child, but Lady Dedlock’s sister, Miss Barbary, angry at her sister’s disgrace, took the child and moved to another part of the country. Esther’s mother later...
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married Lord Dedlock. She was afraid of exposure but also guiltily overjoyed that the child her unforgiving sister led her to believe dead is still alive.
Mr. Guppy informs Lady Dedlock that a packet of Captain Hawdon’s letters is in the possession of the junk dealer, Krook. Lady Dedlock asks Guppy to bring them to her, and the wily law clerk agrees, but on the night he is to obtain the letters the drunken Krook explodes of spontaneous combustion; presumably the letters burn with him.
In the meantime, Richard Carstone becomes completely obsessed by the Jarndyce case and abandons all efforts to establish his career. Living in the false hope that the Chancery suit will soon be settled, he spends the little money he has on an unscrupulous lawyer named Vholes. When John Jarndyce remonstrates, Richard thinks that his cousin’s advice is prompted by selfish interests. Ada Clare is worried about Richard’s behavior, but she remains loyal to him and secretly marries him so that her own small fortune might stand between Richard and his folly.
When Esther falls desperately ill of a fever, Lady Dedlock feels all of a mother’s terror. When Esther gradually recovers, Lady Dedlock goes to Hertfordshire and reveals herself to her daughter. As a result of her illness, Esther loses her beauty and thus her resemblance to Lady Dedlock. John Jarndyce feels free for the first time to declare his love for her and asks her to marry him; she accepts.
Tulkinghorn is murdered, and several nights later, when she knows her secret is about to be revealed to her husband, Lady Dedlock flees. It is discovered that Tulkinghorn was murdered by the French maid through whom he learned of Lady Dedlock’s connection with Jo. The maid attempted to blackmail the lawyer, and when he threatened her with imprisonment, she killed him. Inspector Bucket, who solves the mystery of the murder, also informs Lord Dedlock of his wife’s past. The baronet, who previously suffered a stroke, tells the detective that his feelings for his wife are unaltered and that he will employ every means to bring her back. It is Esther, however, who finds her mother dead at the gate of the churchyard where Captain Hawdon is buried.
Among Krook’s effects is a Jarndyce will made at a later date than the one disputed in the Chancery for so many years. It settles the question of the Jarndyce inheritance forever. Richard and Ada are declared the heirs, but the entire fortune was consumed in court costs. Richard does not long survive this final blow; he dies, leaving his wife and infant son in the care of John Jarndyce.
When John Jarndyce discovers that Esther’s true love is young Doctor Woodcourt, he releases her from her promise to marry him and in his generosity brings the two lovers together. Before her wedding, John Jarndyce takes her to see a country house he bought in Yorkshire. He named it Bleak House, and it is his wedding present to the bride and groom. There Esther lives, happy in the love of her husband and her two daughters and in the lasting affection of John Jarndyce, the proprietor of that other Bleak House that would always be her second home.