Bleak House

Characters in Bleak House

As usual, Dickens drew upon many real people and places but imaginatively transformed them in his novel. Hortense is based on the Swiss maid and murderess Maria Manning. The "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, is a criticism of women activists like Caroline Chisholm. The "childlike" but ultimately amoral character Harold Skimpole is commonly regarded as a portrait of Leigh Hunt. "Dickens wrote in a letter of 25 September 1853, 'I suppose he is the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words! ... It is an absolute reproduction of a real man'; and a contemporary critic commented, 'I recognized Skimpole instantaneously; ... and so did every person whom I talked with about it who had ever had Leigh Hunt's acquaintance.'"[3] G. K. Chesterton suggested that Dickens "may never once have had the unfriendly thought, 'Suppose Hunt behaved like a rascal!'; he may have only had the fanciful thought, 'Suppose a rascal behaved like Hunt!'". Mr Jarndyce's friend Mr Boythorn is based on the writer Walter Savage Landor.

The novel also includes one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket. This character is probably based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field of the then recently formed Detective Department at Scotland Yard.[4] Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in Household Words, his weekly periodical in which he also published articles attacking the Chancery system. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case itself is believed to have been inspired by a number of protracted Chancery cases involving real-life wills, including those of Charles Day and William Jennens,[5] and of Charlotte Smith's father-in-law Richard Smith.[6]

Major characters

  • Esther Summerson – the heroine of the story, and one of its two narrators (Dickens's only female narrator), raised as an orphan because the identity of her parents is unknown. At first, it seems probable that her guardian, John Jarndyce, is her father because he provides for her. This, however, he disavows shortly after she comes to live under his roof. The discovery of her true identity provides much of the drama in the book: it is discovered that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock and Nemo (Captain Hawdon).
  • Honoria, Lady Dedlock – the haughty mistress of Chesney Wold. Her past drives much of the plot as it turns out that, before her marriage, she had an affair with another man and bore his child. She discovers the child's identity (Esther Summerson) and, because she has made this discovery and revealed that she had a secret predating her marriage, she has attracted the noxious curiosity of Mr. Tulkinghorn, who feels himself bound by his ties to his client, Sir Leicester, to pry out her secret and use it to control her. At the end, she dies, disgraced in her own mind and convinced that her aristocratic husband can never forgive her moral failings, even though he has already done so.
  • John Jarndyce – an unwilling party in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, guardian of Richard, Ada, and Esther, and owner of Bleak House. Vladimir Nabokov called him "one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel".[7] A wealthy man, he helps most of the other characters out of a mix of disinterested goodness and guilt at the mischief and human misery caused by Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which he calls "the family curse". He falls in love with Esther and wishes to marry her, but gives her up because she is in love with Dr. Woodcourt.
  • Richard Carstone – a ward of Chancery in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. A straightforward and likeable but irresponsible and inconstant character who falls under the spell of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. At the end of the book, just after Jarndyce and Jarndyce is finally settled, he dies, tormented by his imprudence in trusting to the outcome of a Chancery suit.
  • Ada Clare – another ward of Chancery in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. She falls in love with Richard Carstone, who is a distant cousin. She does not share his fervent hopes for a quick settlement in the Jarndyce case. They later marry in secret.
  • Harold Skimpole – a friend of Jarndyce "in the habit of sponging his friends" (Nuttall); supposedly based on Leigh Hunt (but see above). He is irresponsible, selfish, amoral, and without remorse. He often refers to himself as "a child" and claims not to understand the complexities of human relationships, circumstances, and society – but understands them all too well, as when, early in the book, he enlists Richard and Esther to pay off the bailiff who has arrested him on a writ of debt. He believes that in the future Richard and Ada will be able to acquire credit based on their expectations in Jarndyce and Jarndyce and declares his intention to start 'honoring' them by letting them pay some of his debts.
  • Lawrence Boythorn – an old friend of John Jarndyce's; a former soldier, who always speaks in superlatives; very loud and harsh, but goodhearted. Esther learns from Mr. Jarndynce that Boythorn was once engaged to (and very much in love with) a woman who later left him without giving him any reason. Esther feels guilty when she learns that the woman to whom he was engaged was, in fact, Esther's aunt. She abandoned her former life (including Boythorn) when she took Esther from her sister to raise her as an orphan. Boythorn is also a neighbour of Sir Leicester Dedlock's, with whom he is engaged in an epic tangle of lawsuits over a right-of-way across Boythorn's property that Sir Leicester asserts the legal right to close; based on Walter Savage Landor.
  • Sir Leicester Dedlock – a crusty baronet, very much older than his wife. Dedlock is an unthinking conservative who regards the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit in which his wife is entangled as a mark of distinction worthy of a man of his family lineage.
  • Mr. Tulkinghorn – Sir Leicester's lawyer. Scheming and manipulative, he seems to defer to his clients but relishes the power his control of their secrets gives him over them. He learns of Lady Dedlock's past and tries to control her conduct, to preserve the reputation and good name of Sir Leicester. He is murdered, and his murder gives Dickens the chance to weave a detective's investigation of the murder into the plot of the closing chapters of the book.
  • Mr. Snagsby – the timid and hen-pecked proprietor of a law-stationery business who gets involved with Tulkinghorn's and Bucket's secrets. He is Jo's only friend. He tends to give half-crowns to those whom he feels sorry for. He is married to Mrs. Snagsby, who has a 'vinegary' personality and incorrectly suspects Mr. Snagsby of having many secrets against her, such as his being Jo's father.
  • Miss Flite – an elderly eccentric obsessed with Chancery. Her family has been destroyed by a long-running Chancery case similar to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and her obsessive fascination with Chancery veers between comedy and tragedy. She owns a large number of little birds which she says will be released "on the day of judgement".
  • Mr. William Guppy – a law clerk at the Chancery firm of Kenge and Carboy's. He becomes smitten with Esther and plays a role in unearthing her true past. He at first proposes marriage to Esther, but withdraws the offer after discovering her much-altered appearance due to her illness. Esther politely refused his proposal in the first place, prior to his withdrawal. Later, after Esther learns that Lady Dedlock is her mother, she meets with Mr. Guppy to ask him to cease his investigation of her true lineage. He feared that she had asked to meet him in order to belatedly accept his offer of marriage (since she has become disfigured and has, as he sees it, no other prospects). He is so over-come with relief when she explains her true purpose that he agrees to do everything in his power to protect her privacy in the future.
  • Inspector Bucket – a detective who undertakes several investigations in the course of the novel, most notably the investigation of Mr. Tulkinghorn's murder, which he brings to a successful conclusion.
  • Mr. George – a former soldier, serving under Nemo, who owns a London shooting-gallery. He is a trainer in sword and pistol use, briefly training Richard Carstone. The prime suspect in the death of Mr. Tulkinghorn, he is exonerated and his true identity is revealed, against his wishes. He is found to be George Rouncewell, son of the Dedlocks' housekeeper, Mrs. Rouncewell, who welcomes him back to Chesney Wold. He ends the book as the body-servant to the stricken Sir Leicester Dedlock.
  • Caddy Jellyby – a friend of Esther's, secretary to her mother, the "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs. Jellyby. Caddy feels ashamed of her "lack of manners", but Esther's friendship revives her, and she falls in love with young Prince Turveydrop, marries him, and has a baby.
  • Krook – a rag and bottle merchant and collector of papers. He is the landlord of the house where Nemo and Miss Flite live and where Nemo dies. He seems to subsist on a diet consisting of nothing but cheap gin. Krook dies from a case of spontaneous human combustion, something that Dickens believed could happen, but which some critics of the novel such as the English essayist George Henry Lewes denounced as outlandish and implausible. Ironically, amongst the stacks of papers obsessively hoarded by the illiterate Krook is the key to resolving the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
  • Jo – a young and homeless boy who lives on the streets and tries without much luck to make a living as a crossing sweeper. Jo was the only person with whom the deceased Nemo had any real connection. Jo remembers that Nemo expressed a kind, paternal sort of interest in Jo's welfare (something that no human had ever done before). Nemo would share his meagre money with Jo when he could, and would sometimes remark, "Well, Jo, today I am as poor as you," when he had nothing to share. Jo was called to testify at the inquiry into Nemo's death, but it is decided that Jo knows nothing of value to the investigators. Despite this, Mr. Tulkinghorn pays Mr. Bucket to harry Jo and force him to keep "moving along" [leave town] because Tulkinghorn fears that Jo might have some knowledge of the connection between Nemo and the Dedlocks. Jo ultimately dies from a disease (pneumonia, a complication from an earlier bout with smallpox which Esther also catches and from which she almost dies).
  • Allan Woodcourt – a surgeon. A kind, caring man who loves Esther deeply. She in turn cares strongly for him but feels unable to respond to his overtures not only because of her prior commitment to John Jarndyce, but also because she fears that her status as an orphan will cause his slightly arrogant mother to object to their connection.
  • Grandfather Smallweed – a moneylender. A mean, bad-tempered man who shows no mercy to people who owe him money and enjoys inflicting emotional pain on others. He lays claim to the deceased Krook's possessions because Smallweed's wife is Krook's sister and only living relation, and also drives Mr. George into bankruptcy by calling in debts. Mr. Tulkinghorn is his attorney in both these cases. It has been suggested that his description (together with his grandchildren) fit that of a person with progeria.[8]
  • Mr. Vholes – a Chancery lawyer who takes on Richard Carstone as a client, squeezes out of him all the litigation fees he can manage to pay, and then abandons him when Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes to an end.
  • Conversation Kenge – a Chancery lawyer who represents John Jarndyce. His chief foible is his love of grand, portentous, and empty rhetoric.

Minor characters

  • Mr. Gridley – an involuntary party to a suit in Chancery (based on a real case, according to Dickens's preface), who repeatedly seeks to gain the attention of the Lord Chancellor but in vain. He threatens Mr. Tulkinghorn and then is put under arrest by Inspector Bucket, but dies, his health broken by his Chancery ordeal.
  • Nemo (Latin for "nobody") – is the alias of Captain James Hawdon, a former officer in the British Army under whom Mr. George once served. Nemo copies legal documents for Snagsby and lodges at Krook's rag and bottle shop, eventually dying of an opium overdose. He is later found to be the former lover of Lady Dedlock and the father of Esther Summerson. The novel makes a point of never putting Nemo in the reader's view; he is only presented at a remove, as described or referred to by others.
  • Mrs. Snagsby – Mr. Snagsby's highly suspicious and curious wife, who suspects her husband of being Jo's father.
  • Guster – the Snagsbys' maidservant; she is prone to fits.
  • Neckett – a debt collector – called "Coavinses" by debtor Harold Skimpole because he works for that business firm
  • Charley – Coavinses' daughter; hired by John Jarndyce to be a maid to Esther
  • Tom – Coavinses' young son
  • Emma – Coavinses' baby daughter
  • Mrs. Jellyby – Caddy's mother, a "telescopic philanthropist" obsessed with an obscure African tribe but having little regard to the notion of charity beginning at home
  • Mr. Jellyby – Mrs. Jellyby's long-suffering husband
  • Peepy Jellyby – the Jellybys' young son
  • Prince Turveydrop – a dancing master and proprietor of a dancing studio
  • Old Mr. Turveydrop – a master of Deportment who lives off his son's industry
  • Jenny – a brickmaker's wife. She's mistreated by her husband and her baby dies. She helps her friend look after her own child.
  • Rosa – a favourite lady's maid of Lady Dedlock whom Watt Rouncewell wishes to marry. The proposal ends in nothing when Mr. Rouncewell's father asks that Rosa be sent to school to become a lady worthy of his son's station. Lady Dedlock questions the girl closely regarding her wish to leave, and promises to look after her instead. In some way, Rosa is a stand-in for Esther in Lady Dedlock's life.
  • Hortense – lady's maid to Lady Dedlock (based on murderess Maria Manning)[9]
  • Mrs. Rouncewell – housekeeper to the Dedlocks at Chesney Wold
  • Mr. Robert Rouncewell – son of Mrs. Rouncewell and a prosperous ironmaster
  • Watt Rouncewell – his son
  • Volumnia – a Dedlock cousin
  • Miss Barbary – Esther's godmother and severe guardian in childhood
  • Mrs. Rachael Chadband – a former servant of Miss Barbary's
  • Mr. Chadband – an oleaginous preacher, husband of Mrs. Chadband
  • Mrs. Smallweed – wife of Mr. Smallweed senior and sister to Krook. She is in her second childhood.
  • Young Mr. (Bartholemew) Smallweed – grandson of the senior Smallweeds and friend of Mr. Guppy
  • Judy Smallweed – granddaughter of the senior Smallweeds
  • Tony Jobling – aka Mr. Weevle – a friend of Mr. Guppy's
  • Mrs. Guppy – Mr. Guppy's aged mother
  • Phil Squod – Mr. George's assistant
  • Matthew Bagnet – military friend of Mr. George's and dealer in musical instruments
  • Mrs. Bagnet – wife of Matthew Bagnet
  • Woolwich – the Bagnets' son
  • Quebec – the Bagnets' daughter
  • Malta – the Bagnets' daughter
  • Mrs. Woodcourt – Allan Woodcourt's widowed mother
  • Mrs. Pardiggle – a woman who does "good works" for the poor, but cannot see that her efforts are rude and arrogant and do nothing at all to help. She inflicts her activities on her five small sons, who are clearly rebellious.
  • Arethusa Skimpole – Mr. Skimpole's "Beauty" daughter
  • Laura Skimpole – Mr. Skimpole's "Sentiment" daughter
  • Kitty Skimpole – Mr. Skimpole's "Comedy" daughter
  • Mrs. Skimpole – Mr. Skimpole's ailing wife who is weary of her husband and lifestyle

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