Bleak House. Home of John Jarndyce, the novel’s elderly hero-benefactor, and his cousins Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, and ward, Summerson, the novel’s heroine. Situated in the region of St. Albans, a town some twenty miles north of London, Bleak House is portrayed as a refuge, not only from the corruption of the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce lawsuit, but from the corruption of London itself. It is a large old rambling house, as eccentric as its owner. Yet, as its very name suggests, it is not all sweetness and light. The Jarndyce case affects Richard, and he leaves to take up lodgings with a lawyer. Undesirable visitors come for John’s handouts. Finally, disease spreads there through the young street sweeper Jo, striking Esther down and disfiguring her. Nearby lie the Brickfields, with their wretched hovels for the laborers.
*Lincoln’s Inn. Seat of Great Britain’s High Court of Chancery, presided over by the Lord High Chancellor. It is situated off Chancery Lane, in central London. Here are heard all the disputed cases over inheritance—including the Jarndyce case—some of which drag on for years. Dickens portrays such hearings through his descriptions of the court and its environs: fog-bound, dark, labyrinthine, corrupt. Nearby, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the spider-like solicitor Tulkinghorn has his chambers and house. His threads spread out everywhere into London, seeking particularly to entrap Lady Dedlock and capture her secrets. At his chambers, he is murdered by Hortense, Lady Dedlock’s dismissed maid.
Also near Lincoln’s Inn lies a labyrinth of back streets containing Krook’s Rag and Bottle junk shop, full of old legal documents, which are meaningless to Krook since he cannot read, but among which is the document that finally settles the Jarndyce case. His shop is a parody of the Court of Chancery; his spontaneous combustion there is a warning to it. Nearby is Sol’s Arms, a low-life pub that doubles as a music hall, where a coroner conducts an inquest into the death of Captain Hawdon in the dingy shop’s garret room.
Chesney Wold. Ancestral home of Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock, located in Lincolnshire, some 160 miles north of London. The house is built on a low, swampy area and is consequently damp, decaying, and miasmal. The decaying house reflects its owners, just as Miss Havisham’s decaying Satis House does in Great Expectations (1860-1861). The inhabitants of Chesney Wold are depicted as being bored almost to death, but the house’s most emphasized feature is its Ghost’s Walk, symbolizing Lady Dedlock’s wretched secrets, her secret lover and her illegitimate child. It is here that mother and child finally meet, through Esther’s visit to the Dedlock’s neighbor, Boythorne, whose house, by contrast, is always seen in sunny weather.
Tom-all-alone’s. Dirty and disease-ridden part of London that is a symbol of the vulnerability and victimhood of the lowest classes. Caught up in a Chancery case, this neighborhood is the refuge for the sweeper Jo, a key figure in the detective plot, but, more significant, in Dickens’s protest at the neglect of the poorest by a so-called charitable society. Dickens sees the area as the breeding-ground of the contagion that eventually affects every layer of society. Nearby lies the Burying Ground, a filthy and contaminated cemetery where Captain Hawdon is buried and where Lady Dedlock is found dead.
*London. The novel mentions more places in London—some named, some not—than can be easily cataloged. However, these places can be grouped by which of the two narratives they figure into. The legal quarter centers round Lincoln’s Inn, but also includes the Temple, just north of...
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the River Thames, and the area between the two consisting of the Strand and Holborn Hill. Fictitious names include Symonds Inn, the chambers of Mr. Vholes, Richard’s lawyer, just off Chancery Lane, and Cook’s Court in Cursitor Street, the home of Mr. Snagsby, the law stationer, where Mr. Chadband also holds his religious meetings.
The geography within Esther’s narrative is far from clear but centers on the slightly more fashionable areas of London to the west, including Newman Street, where the Turveydrops Dance Academy is situated, off Oxford Street, near Esther’s own London lodgings. Near Leicester Square lies George’s Shooting Gallery, where Jo dies. George himself often goes south of the river where lies the Bagnet’s house, down Blackfriars Road.
Dyson, A. E., ed. Dickens: “Bleak House”: A Casebook. New York: Macmillan, 1969. A collection of criticism and supplemental readings. Includes historical information about the working class in England and other social concerns of the novel, several early reviews and comments, and eight very readable studies.
Nelson, Harland S. Charles Dickens. Boston: Twayne, 1981. After four chapters of overview, Nelson uses Bleak House as a model to demonstrate how Dickens wrote all of his novels. This accessible guide includes plot summaries of other novels discussed.
Newsom, Robert. Dickens on the Romantic Side of Familiar Things: “Bleak House” and the Novel Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Discusses the implications of Dickens’ comment in the novel’s preface that he “purposely dwelt on the romantic side of familiar things.”
Shatto, Susan. The Companion to “Bleak House.” Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988. Lengthy but very useful to have while reading the novel. Detailed explanations, including allusions to earlier literature, definitions of unusual terms, and identifications of proper names from history—things Dickens’ first readers would have known but with which later readers need help.
Storey, Graham. Charles Dickens, “Bleak House.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An excellent introduction, intended as a textbook. Focuses on the novel as a social commentary. Includes a chronology that pairs events from Dickens’ career with dates from history and a guide to further reading.