John Jarndyce, the unmarried, aging owner of Bleak House and a party in the famous and protracted Chancery suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Generous to a fault, he makes two young cousins, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, his wards in the hope that they will fall in love and fill his ancestral home with renewed life. He also takes into his home an orphan, Esther Summerson, as a companion to Ada. He himself falls in love with Esther, but when he learns that she is in love with Allan Woodcourt, a young surgeon, he releases her from her promise to him and gives the couple a new Bleak House of their own. He is loyal to his old friend and is always scrupulously fair, even though he calls his library “The Growlery” and retreats there when the winds of adversity blow on him. Admirable in every way, the head of the Jarndyce family creates rather than preserves a family dignity.
Esther Summerson, the orphan whom John Jarndyce takes into his home and later into his heart. She is the natural daughter of Lady Dedlock and a gallant named Captain Hawdon (who dies and is buried under the name of Nemo). Though part of the story is told by Esther, her ingenuousness makes of her less of a heroine and more of a companion and comforter who goes under various motherly terms of endearment. Although she respects and admires her benefactor, she truly loves the compassionate doctor, Allan Woodcourt, who woos her in spite of her disease-ravaged face, the result of a serious illness incurred while nursing Charley, her maid. Her immediate sympathies are aroused by any homeless beings and by those, like Caddy Jellyby, whose homes are friendless and loveless. She finally finds happiness with her husband and two daughters.
Ada Clare, John Jarndyce’s cousin and ward. She secretly marries Richard Carstone, her cousin, to protect him from the grinding poverty that lawyers and the courts bring upon him. She manages to keep her loyalties and sympathies divided by remaining with her benefactor while extending her love to Carstone. Beautiful and tractable, she displays evenness of disposition and generous motives that make her a tearful heroine.
Richard Carstone, Ada’s cousin and husband. Anything suits this young man, who has already sold his soul to the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. He tries medicine, the law, and the army, only to die of disappointment after the suit in Chancery has been settled and he learns that legal costs have eaten up the whole of his inheritance. John Jarndyce provides for Ada and her infant son.
Lady Honoria Dedlock
Lady Honoria Dedlock, secretly the mother of Esther Summerson by Captain Hawdon, a rake to whom she was once engaged. When Tulkinghorn, her husband’s legal adviser, threatens to inform her husband of her past, she flees from her home and dies, a victim of shame and exposure, at the gate of the cemetery where her lover has been buried under the name of Nemo. Her body is discovered by Esther Summerson.
Sir Leicester Dedlock
Sir Leicester Dedlock, an honorable gentleman of prejudice and pride of family, completely unaware of his wife’s guilty secret.
Mr. Tulkinghorn, a conniving solicitor who threatens to expose the secret in Lady Dedlock’s past. He is murdered by Lady Dedlock’s French maid when he refuses to pay her blackmailing demands and threatens her with imprisonment.
Allan Woodcourt, the surgeon who attends Captain Hawdon at the time of his death and who extends his help to...
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Esther Summerson and Richard Carstone as well. He marries Esther after John Jarndyce releases her from her promise to him.
Mrs. Woodcourt, his handsome mother, proud of her Welsh ancestry.
William Guppy, a lawyer’s clerk in the firm of Kenge and Carboy, John Jarndyce’s solicitors. Attracted to Esther Summerson, he “files a declaration” of his love. Later, discovering that she has lost her beauty as a result of illness, he regrets his proposal and asks her to make a statement, before a witness, that there was never any formal engagement between them. He also meddles, though in a cowardly and humorous fashion, in Tulkinghorn’s intrigue to discover Lady Dedlock’s connection with the dead Nemo.
Miss Flite, a Jarndyce relative, half-crazed by the frustrations and delays of the suit in Chancery. Bright, friendly, perceptive of the crushing power of the law, she raises birds for release when the case is settled, and she tries to keep others from her own sad fate.
Miss Barbary, Lady Dedlock’s sister and Esther Summerson’s aunt and godmother, a good, austere woman.
Mademoiselle Hortense, Lady Dedlock’s French maid. She murders Tulkinghorn when he resists her attempt at blackmail.
Inspector Bucket, the police detective who solves the mystery of Tulkinghorn’s murder.
Rosa, a villager also employed as a maid by Lady Dedlock. She is engaged to marry Watt Rouncewell.
Mrs. Rouncewell, the Dedlock housekeeper.
Mr. Rouncewell, her son, the father of Watt Rouncewell.
George Rouncewell, another son, a soldier and later the owner of a shooting gallery in London. He is falsely arrested for the murder of Tulkinghorn.
Watt Rouncewell, the young man engaged to Rosa.
Mrs. Rachael, later Mrs. Chadband, a servant to Miss Barbary.
The Reverend Mr. Chadband
The Reverend Mr. Chadband, her husband, a self-conscious clergyman given to flowery speech.
Mrs. Snagsby, one of his parishioners, a shrew.
Mr. Snagsby, a law-stationer, her mild, henpecked husband.
Captain Hawdon, now calling himself Nemo, a law writer, the former lover of Lady Dedlock. After dying in a garret over Krook’s dingy shop, he is buried in the Potter’s Field.
Jo, also called Toughey, a street sweeper, befriended by Nemo. Lady Dedlock pays him two half-crowns to point out Nemo’s grave.
Krook, the owner of a rag-and-bottle shop and the landlord of Miss Flite and Nemo. He has in his possession a packet of papers belonging to the former Captain Hawdon. This fact has been ferreted out by Tony Jobling, and William Guppy has agreed to reclaim the papers for Lady Dedlock. On the night that the papers are to change hands, Krook, a habitual drunkard, perishes of spontaneous combustion, and the papers are apparently destroyed in the fire.
Mrs. Smallweed, Krook’s sister.
Mr. Smallweed, her husband, a superannuated man of unimpaired and irascible mind.
Bartholomew Smallweed, also called Chickweed, their grandson, a sponging friend of William Guppy.
Judy Smallweed, Bartholomew’s twin sister.
Tony Jobling, a law writer for Mr. Snagsby and a friend of William Guppy. Calling himself Weevle, he takes lodgings in Krook’s establishment and learns that Krook has in his possession a bundle of Captain Hawdon’s papers.
Mrs. Jellyby, a plump, strong-minded woman who neglects her house and family while interesting herself in philanthropic projects, one of which is to settle a colony of English poor in Boorioboola-Gha, on the Niger River in Africa.
Caroline Jellyby, also called Caddy, Mrs. Jellyby’s oldest daughter. Tired of her mother’s endless projects, she marries Prince Turveydrop. A close friend of Esther Summerson, Caddy names her first daughter Esther.
Mr. Jellyby, a mild, miserable man who goes bankrupt.
“Peepy” Jellyby, the Jellybys’ weak and neglected son.
Prince Turveydrop, named in honor of the Prince Regent. He marries Caddy Jellyby.
Mr. Turveydrop, Prince Turveydrop’s father, a model of deportment and a monster of selfishness.
Harold Skimpole, the sentimental, unworldly recipient of John Jarndyce’s bounty, a character thought to have been modeled after the poet Leigh Hunt.
Mrs. Skimpole, his sickly wife.
Arethusa Skimpole, the “Beauty” daughter,
Laura Skimpole, the “Sentiment” daughter, and
Kitty Skimpole, the “Comedy” daughter, the Skimpole children.
Lawrence Boythorn, John Jarndyce’s friend. His character is modeled on that of the poet Walter Savage Landor.
Mr. Gridley, also called The Man from Shropshire, a farmer’s son ruined by a suit in Chancery, frequently jailed for contempt of court. While hiding from the law, he dies in a London shooting gallery.
Bayham Badger, a medical practitioner to whom Richard Carstone is apprenticed for a time. He is proud of his wife’s two former husbands.
Mrs. Badger, his wife, who brings glory to her present married state because she is the widow of Captain Swosser, an officer of the Royal Navy, and Professor Dingo, a scientist.
Charlotte Neckett, also called Charley, Esther Summerson’s devoted maid.
Mr. Kenge, nicknamed
“Conversation” Kenge, a member of the law firm of Kenge and Carboy. Through him, John Jarndyce first meets Esther Summerson.
Mr. Vholes, Richard Carstone’s solicitor. He helps to bring about the young man’s ruin.
Mr. Quale, Mrs. Jellyby’s partner in her impractical philanthropic schemes.
Miss Wisk, betrothed to Mr. Quale.
Mr. Tangle, a legal authority on the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.