In London, the Lord High Chancellor sits in Lincoln’s Inn Hall in the High Court of Chancery. It is November and very foggy. Several counsels and solicitors are looking through the paperwork of a court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has gone on for generations. An old woman who appears to be crazy sits at the side of the room. She may be a party in the lawsuit. The case is so old that no one really remembers what it is about anymore, and it has corrupted countless people. A man named Mr. Tangle knows more about the case than anyone else. The chancellor determines to send two young people, a girl and a boy, to live with their uncle.
The narrator points out the triviality and evil in the world of fashion, although there are good people in it as well. Lady Dedlock has come home with her husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock. He loves Lady Dedlock, but she is cold and distant. The Dedlocks’ lawyer and legal advisor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, visits them and updates them on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Lady Dedlock asks him who copied the documents, claiming that she likes the handwriting. Tulkinghorn says he’ll find out. Lady Dedlock feels ill and retreats to her room.
Esther Summerson takes over as a first-person narrator. She claims to be unintelligent. She remembers a doll she had when she was a child that she felt was the only person she could talk to. Esther’s godmother, Miss Barbary, raised Esther, and Esther believes that she was fully virtuous but distant and strict. She says her birthday was always the saddest day of the year. On one birthday, Esther demanded to know what happened to her mother, and her godmother revealed that Esther was her mother’s “disgrace” and that her mother was a disgrace as well. As a result, the distance between Esther and her godmother grows wider. One day, a stranger comes to the house and looks Esther over. Then he leaves.
Two years later, when Esther is fourteen, her godmother dies suddenly. The stranger reappears and introduces himself as Kenge. He reveals that Esther’s godmother was actually her aunt. He asks her if she’s ever heard of a lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which she has not. Kenge says that as part of the lawsuit, Esther will live with Mr. Jarndyce. She will be educated and comfortable, but she must not ever leave the grounds without informing Mr. Jarndyce. Esther says goodbye to the housekeeper, Mrs. Rachael, who shows no emotion. Esther buries her beloved doll in the garden.
Kenge takes her away in the coach, then drops her off near Reading. A maid, Miss Donny, leads her to a carriage and they go to an estate called Greenleaf, as arranged by Esther’s new guardian, Mr. Jarndyce. Esther spends six years at Greenleaf. One day, she receives a letter from Kenge, saying she will be placed in a new home in five days.
Esther leaves Greenleaf sadly but talks herself out of crying. At Kenge’s office, she meets a young girl named Ada Clare, and Ada’s cousin, Richard Carstone. All three young people are to be taken to Bleak House, where Mr. Jarndyce lives. Esther has been chosen as Ada’s companion. Ada and Richard are somehow related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, but Esther isn’t.