The scene opens in London on a foggy, smoggy day. The High Court of Chancery is in session, and it appears that the fog has settled thickest on this part of London. This is where the legal suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is being argued. A little mad old woman (Miss Flite), and a man from Shropshire (Mr. Gridley) are in attendance. A "sallow prisoner" is brought forward. Mr. Tangle, a lawyer, speaks with the Lord High Chancellor, and the matter of the two young wards in Jarndyce is discussed. This matter will come up before the court tomorrow.
The scene changes in Chapter 2 to Chesney Wold, a stately home in Lincolnshire. Here the weather is also bad, but it is constant rain rather than fog. The lady of the manor, Lady Dedlock, is bored to death. She had been in London, and has come back to the country seat before leaving for Paris in a few days.
Lady Dedlock is introduced to us as a very beautiful middle-aged society lady, her charms undimmed by time. She is exceedingly dignified and self-controlled, but her "caprices," which she tries to hide, are known to her servants and tradesmen. She is the wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock, a baronet, who has married somehat beneath him. It is clear that Lady Dedlock has brought neither an aristocratic lineage or a fortune to the marriage. It is also clear that Sir Leicester has such a great amount of both of those things, and loves her so dearly, that it matters not to him.
Mr. Tulkinghorn, the family solicitor, has come down to Chesney Wold to discuss the Jarndyce case, in which Lady Dedlock has some slight interest. He is a secretive, enigmatic man, of the most controlled and logical character. He brings many legal papers with him, and Lady Dedlock seems to take an interest in the handwriting on one of them. She asks whose writing it is, but Mr. Tulkinghorn cannot answer her. She becomes faint and must be taken to her room.
In Chapter 3, Esther Summerson's life story is told. She has been materially provided for but emotionally neglected by her "godmother" in the town of Windsor. When Esther is about fourteen, her godmother dies, and Esther is sent to Greenleaf school. Through Mr. Kenge, John Jarndyce's solicitor, who comes to see Esther after her godmother's death, she learns her benefactor is Mr. Jarndyce. She has never seen him, but he appears, unbeknownst to her until years later, in the carriage that takes her to Greenleaf school. She is sent there after her godmother's death, and passes six happy years there, being taught by the Misses Donny. Her accounts are paid by her unknown benefactor all the while. When she is older she becomes a teacher of the other girls there, and inspires great affection in her students.
When she has grown old and educated enough to leave Greenleaf school, she is asked to serve in her benefactor's house, Bleak House. She is brought to Chancery Court to meet Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, two wards in the Jarndyce suit, who are also under the guardianship of Mr. Jarndyce. Esther is meant to be Ada's lady companion.
As they leave the court, they meet Miss Flite, who introduces herself. They learn she is also a suitor in Chancery, and observe that she is poor, eccentric, and perhaps a little mad.
In Chapter 4, the three young people are sent to stay the night at the Jellyby household. Mrs. Jellyby is a philanthropic lady who neglects her large and chaotic household in favor of writing long letters, dictated to her eldest daughter Caddy, about the social conditions in places in Africa. Caddy, an overworked waif, clings to Esther and becomes her friend, as does the youngest neglected child, Peepy.
Dickens immediately plunges the readers in medias res, enveloping us in the Jarndyce suit. The suit is never fully explained, as the main thrust of the suit has been buried beneath legal wrangling, pointless jargon, details and niceties. The dirty, smutty fog surrounding Chancery Lane is a metaphor for the fogged proceedings of the Chancery court. The pathetic victims of the suit, Gridley, Miss Flite, and soon young Richard and Ada are introduced. Dickens makes no compunction about depicting the court as a cesspool of injustice, waste, and corruption, and the cold, foggy, muddy weather is indicative of it. This is the first example of many instances of weather reflecting the meaning of situations, characters, and locations.
Chesney Wold is immersed in rain, to reflect the cynical and bored nature of its mistress, Lady Dedlock. She is portrayed as the most indulged of society's ladies, and her boredom among the manorial splendor and extreme comfort of her wealthy situation is implicitly criticized. It is important that she be a figure of feminine envy, since it will become apparent that she has paid the price for owning such personal charms later. She is shown as a figure of extreme self control and dignity, to match with the high prestige and aristocratic brittleness of her husband Sir Leicester. He, though hidebound and reactionary, is portrayed a little softer, with clear love and concern for his wife.
Tulkinghorn appears as the quintessential family solicitor. He is exceedingly careful and correct, and without emotions of any kind. He immediately seizes upon Lady Dedlock's interest in the handwriting, as anything out of the ordinary concerning the Dedlock family intrigues him.
Esther is also brought in fully formed, and we already know of her desire to do her duty, and her humble, almost apologetic acknowledgement of her own existence. She is remarkably virtuous for a child that has never been shown love or affection, and remarkably willing to do her duty and desire love and respect from others.
Curiosity about Mr. Jarndyce is rife -- is he Esther's secret father, or some other kind of relation? Why is he so kind to people he has never met? The instant friendship between Ada and Richard and Esther is neither explained or questioned, and the three young people are thrust upon the world together.
The Jellyby household, in its extreme dissarray and concern for unimportant things, is Dickens' miniature England. The society at large is like the family which does not care for its children but unloads its charitable efforts abroad. The neglected Jellyby children are like the poor and dispossesed of England, forgotten by both government and philanthropy alike, for those institutions are concerned with matters that are not for the public good. Caddy is introduced less than sympathetically, and realistically speaks for all neglected, angry children. She is unable to speak or express her disaffection, having been deprived of any fuction but that of scribe to her mother's zealous "charity." She is brought round quickly by Esther, showing Esther's almost saintly ability to overcome systemic neglect (including her own) with tender and careful modesty.