Bleak House, a novel by Charles Dickens, was first published as a serial between March 1852 and September 1853, and is considered to be one of Dickens' finest novels, containing vast, complex and engaging arrays of characters and sub-plots. The story is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include haughty Lady Honoria Dedlock, the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the realistic John Jarndyce, and the childish and disingenuous Harold Skimpole, as well as the imprudent Richard Carstone.
At the novel's centre is long-running litigation Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills. Dickens' satirization of the English judicial system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his earlier books.
Though lawyers and judges criticised Dickens's portrait of the English legal system as exaggerated, his novel helped to spur an ongoing movement that culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s. In fact, Dickens was writing just as the legal system was reforming itself, and the need for further reform was being widely debated. There has been some debate as to when Bleak House is set. The English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth set the action in 1827; however, reference to preparation for the building of a railroad in chapter LV suggests a later date, in the 1830s at least.