An orphan of uncertain parentage, we meet Miss Summerson at the age of 20, having completed her schooling in the Greenleaf School in Winchester, England. She has been raised by a woman whom she thought her godmother, but learns after that woman's death that she was her aunt. Esther is the legal ward of John Jarndyce, a mysterious benefactor whom she has never met. She is assigned by the Court of Chancery (which is roughly equivalent to family and probate court) to be a companion to a relative of John Jarndyce. This cousin is a young woman of 17 named Ada Clare.
Esther's main motivation throughout the novel appears to be adherence to duty. Throughout her narrative, we catch glimpses of her own personal desires for love, respect, and comfort for herself, but, not unsurprisingly, having been raised by a woman who considered it "better if she had not ever been born", she has trouble allowing herself feelings of desire for her own well-being.
Captain Hawdon's pseudonym, now employed as a law writer. He has fallen upon very hard times, and he is a shadow of the man he was. His fateful romance with Lady Dedlock, which produced their illegitimate daughter Esther, ruined his life.
The young woman that Esther Summerson has been assigned to be companion for. She is in love almost at once with her distant cousin, another ward of Chancery. She is loyal to a fault, and can be myopic in her views about those she loves. She never wavers in her devotion to Richard, and Dickens implies that if she might have been a little less supportive of him he might have not fallen into the morass of the Chancery suit, and therefore she might have saved him. She is adored by everyone around her, especially Esther, Richard Carstone, and John Jarndyce, but she is not particularly intellectual.
Esther, Ada's, and Richard's benefactor, as well as many other people's. He is kind-hearted and unfailingly generous, and can be taken in by amusing spongers, such as Mr. Skimpole. At all times he counsels against putting hope in the Chancery suit, and he is in love with Esther. He is a fatherly or avuncular figure, and except for his few foibles of misguided philanthropy, a logical and thoroughly admirable character.
A slightly crazy elderly woman who frequents the law courts. She is apparently waiting the settlement of her own case, which is never explained. She keeps many small birds with allegorical names like Hope, Youth, Beauty, and Words, Confusion, Jargon, Plunder, Precedent, to signify the consumption of all good qualities by fruitless law cases. She becomes friends with Jarndyce, Esther, and Ada.
Lady Dedlock's French maid, who is dismissed and who thereafter resents her former employer.
An unscrupulous lawyer employed fruitlessly by Richard Carstone on the Jarndyce & Jarndyce suit.
An amusing but amoral sponger. He sometimes partakes of Mr. Jarndyce's hospitality. Mr. Jarndyce usually tolerates him, but Esther soon grows to abhor him. He introduces Mr. Vholes to Richard.
The fashionable and stoic wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock. She is the mother of Esther, but did not raise her because she was told that Esther died soon after birth. She lives at Chesney Wold and a house in London. She was born Honoria Barbary.
Sir Leicester Dedlock
A baronet of a family 700 years old. His country seat is Chesney Wold. He personifies the old aristocracy of England, and is reactionary in his social views. He is enamored of his wife, and married her even though she was slightly below him in social position.
A ward in Chancery, and under the legal guardianship of John Jarndyce. A handsome, apt young man, who lacks direction and succumbs easily to the suggestions of others. He loves his distant cousin, Ada Clare.
The daughter of the bailiff Coavinses (Neckett). She becomes a maid to Esther after her father's death. Her name is actually Charlotte.
George Rouncewell (Mr. George)
A former soldier, he runs a shooting gallery in London. He is the son of Mrs. Rouncewell. A principled military man, with more personal honor than business acumen.
The old housekeeper at Chesney Wold.
A lawyer in the Jarndyce & Jarndyce matter. He appears in the Court of Chancery.
Dr. Allan Woodcourt
A charitable and level-headed, yet poor, young doctor. He loves Esther Summerson, and is a friend of John Jarndyce.
The owner of a rag and bottle shop in London, near the Court of Chancery. He is Nemo's and Miss Flite's landlord.
A young village girl, elevated to the position of lady's maid to Lady Dedlock. She replaces Mademoiselle Hortense.
A character deceased before the novel begins. John Jarndyce's great uncle (Krook calls them cousins, a Victorian term for relations of that degree), who killed himself in despair over the Jarndyce & Jarndyce case. Tom-All-Alone's was his property, or the property of the Jarndyce suit, and has gone to rack and ruin.
The brickmaker's wife, from the town of St. Alban's. She has a drunken husband, and her baby dies. She befriends Jo.
Charley Neckett's father, the bailiff who came to Bleak House to collect Mr. Skimpole's debt.
A lawyer in the firm of Kenge and Carboy's. He is assigned to Esther's case when she is made a ward of John Jarndyce.
The law stationery shopkeeper who employs Nemo. He also befriends Jo.
Mr. Snagsby's suspicious and jealous wife.
A street orphan of no education, family, or support. He attempts to eke out a living as a crossing sweeper. Various characters in the novel befriend him, but none manage to save him from an early death. He is Sir Leicester Dedlock's social and economic opposite.
Son of Mrs. Rouncewell. An ironmaster. Father of Watt Rouncewell.
Mrs. Rouncewell's grandson. In love with the maid Rosa.
A greedy man in a wheelchair, who buys Krook's shop after his death. The personification of capitalist opportunism in the novel.
Smallweed's wife -- an infantile woman.
The Smallweeds' grandson.
The Smallweeds' granddaughter. Usually goes about with her grandfather to "shake him up".
Mr. George's servant, and loyal friend. He is disfigured but usually very cheerful.
Hon. Bob Stables
A friend of the Dedlocks. An aristocratic, idle youth.
A young man who works as a dancing master in his father's studio. He is overworked and underappreciated. He marries Caddy Jellyby.
The foppish, ridiculous, and neglectful father of Prince. He runs the dancing school.
Allan Woodcourt's elderly mother.
A clerk in Kenge and Carboy's. He is enamored of Esther Summerson, though he loses his affection for a while after her smallpox scarring. He has a higher opinion of himself than most of the characters in the novel do. Though hampered by a lower-class accent, he attempts to use flowery legal and social language and poetic constructions in his speech. He is instrumental in solving the mystery of Esther's parentage.
Guppy's strange, lower-middle-class mother.
Called the "Man from Shropshire". The unending nature of the Jarndyce suit drives him at last to suicide.
A neighbor of Sir Leicester Dedlock. A friend of John Jarndyce.
A hopeless do-gooder. Mother of a large, neglected family.
Mrs. Jellyby's nonentity husband.
A ferocious village do-gooder, with five discontented sons.
The overworked daughter of Mrs. Jellyby. She becomes a friend of Esther, and the wife of Prince Turveydrop.
The shockingly neglected youngest Jellyby child.
A London doctor who attempts to train Richard.
Mr. Badger's thrice-married wife.
Bleak House Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Bleak House is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
A former soldier, he runs a shooting gallery in London. He is the son of Mrs. Rouncewell. A principled military man, with more personal honor than business acumen. George is arrested later in the book.
I think the simple answer is that many publishing houses, in those days, simply didn't include the publishing date. Reprints would include the reprint date though. We know around when it was written but an exact publishing date was not always...