Charles Dickens’s ninth and second-longest novel Bleak House was first published in 1852-53. As shown here, the novel was originally serialised in monthly instalments, each containing several chapters, with illustrations by Hablot Browne. Bleak House is notably Dickens’s only novel to feature a female narrator, the heroine Esther Summerson. Speaking in the past tense, Esther shares the narration with an omniscient third-person narrator.

Biting institutional satire 

The optimistic, celebratory tone that opened the decade – epitomised by the Great Exhibition of 1851 – is not found in these pages. Bleak House depicts a London choked by fog whose inhabitants are caught up in a web of mystery and secrecy, squalor and death. We are witness to homelessness, illegitimacy, disease, drugs, murder, overcrowded graveyards. The Gothic leaves its traces everywhere, permeating the setting, characters and plot. The gloomy, oppressive atmosphere conjured by Dickens’s prose is reflected in Browne’s 10 celebrated ‘dark plate’ illustrations.

The novel weaves a dense, complicated plot that centres upon London’s corrupt Court of Chancery. Notoriously costly and time-inefficient, attempts had been made to reform the system in the early 1850s but little progress was made. Dickens drew his scathing picture partly from his own bitter experiences concerning the copyright of his works, and had further insight from his time as a law clerk. 

As well as the Court of Chancery, the novel comments on a multitude of social issues: slum housing, class divisions, electoral corruption, the education of the poor, the notion of charity. It is unsurprising that the novel was composed at the height of Dickens’s social reform work; during this period the novelist frequently gave public speeches, published many topical articles, and was directly involved in Urania Cottage – a house for ‘fallen women’ – and the Ragged School movement. Bleak House received mixed reviews, with many finding Dickens’s attack on Victorian society too much to stomach. 

Yet, in spite of Dickens’s dark vision of society, he presents the redeeming side of human nature in the fundamentally ‘good’ characters of John Jarndyce, Esther and Jo. The novel’s enduring message is one of charity: between individuals, families, and the multi-layered society in which we all live. 

‘Poor Jo’ and the depiction of poverty

Although Jo is one of Dickens’s most sentimental, brutally tragic characters, he is arguably the most important figure in Bleak House’s plot. He solves the mystery of Nemo, which in turns resolves others, and by doing so connects the large cast of socially-divided characters. 

Orphaned, homeless and without a Christian education, Jo attempts to eke out a living as a crossing-sweeper. He lives in the appalling, crumbling slum area Tom-all-Alone’s (the name of which was considered as the novel’s title). As in Oliver Twist, Dickens does not shy away from exposing the realities of poverty caused by poor governance and lukewarm, or misguided, charity.