The narrator describes George of the shooting gallery and his servant, Phil, getting ready for their day. George asks Phil if he dreamed of the country that night, and Phil says yes. George tells him that he himself was born and raised in the country. Phil asks if George’s mother is dead, and George says no, then changes the subject. George asks Phil how old he is, but Phil doesn’t know. The two men reminisce about how they met, when George rescued the crippled Phil from the street.
Grandfather Smallweed and Judy visit George. Grandfather Smallweed is alarmed by Phil’s handling of the guns in the gallery. He reminds George that George owes him money. George gets out a pipe and lights it, distracting Grandfather Smallweed. Then Smallweed tells him that his friend in the city, Carstone, has done some business with a student of George’s. George suggests that his friend avoid any future dealings in that area, and that he thinks the friend has come to a “dead halt.” Smallweed says that Carstone is still good for something.
Smallweed then mentions a man named Captain Hawdon and claims that he’s not dead. A lawyer has been asking about him, requesting some of Hawdon’s handwriting so he can compare it to some writing he already has. Smallweed says he has only Hawdon’s signature and asks George if he has any of Hawdon’s writing that’s more substantial. George says that he wouldn’t give it to Smallweed even if he did have some, which he may or may not. Smallweed suggests George visit the lawyer for himself, and George agrees.
The group arrives at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where they visit Mr. Tulkinghorn. George sees that Sir Leicester Dedlock is one of Tulkinghorn’s clients. Tulkinghorn explains to George that since George once served under Captain Hawdon and was a friend, he thought George might have some of Hawdon’s handwriting. He will reward George for anything he provides. George seems troubled and says he wants nothing to do with any of this. Tulkinghorn refuses to explain why he wants the handwriting. George says he’ll consult a soldier friend of his about the matter. Privately, Smallweed tells Tulkinghorn that he saw George slip some handwriting into his pocket.
George visits Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet in their musical instrument shop. He greets their two daughters, Quebec and Malta, and asks after their son, Woolwich. When Mr. Bagnet comes home, they all have dinner. Later, George tells the Bagnets what’s going on. They tell him to have nothing to do with it. On his way home, George stops at Tulkinghorn’s and says that he hasn’t changed his mind. Tulkinghorn asks George if Gridley was found in his shooting gallery, and George says yes. Tulkinghorn declares that Gridley was “threatening, murderous, dangerous.” A clerk who is coming up the stairs hears Tulkinghorn and, seeing George walk down the stairs, thinks the words are being directed at him.
The narrator says that Sir Leicester Dedlock, great as he is, has poor relatives, all of whom are his cousins. Several of them visit Chesney Wold, which Sir Leicester Dedlock endures uncomplainingly. One cousin currently staying at Chesney Wold is Volumnia Dedlock, who is sixty years old and usually receives financial support from Sir Leicester Dedlock. The narrator also describes the Honourable Bob Stables, who makes food for livestock. All the poor cousins who visit revere Lady Dedlock.
One evening, Volumnia mentions that she frequently sees a pretty girl on the stairs. Sir Leicester says it is Lady Dedlock’s protégée, Rosa. Volumnia then compliments the housekeeper, Mrs. Rouncewell. Sir Leicester tells Volumnia that Mrs. Rouncewell has two sons. He says that Mr. Tulkinghorn told him that one of Mrs. Rouncewell’s sons was invited into Parliament but declined. Sir Leicester says that Mr. Rouncewell is called an “ironmaster.” He tells Lady Dedlock that this man has requested to speak with them about Rosa.
Mr. Rouncewell comes in. He says that his son is in love with Rosa and wants to propose marriage. Mr. Rouncewell thinks they are much too young, but he says that if he does give his consent, Rosa must leave Chesney Wold. He explains that he isn’t ashamed of Rosa’s position there, but that he doesn’t want his son to make an unequal marriage and would want to educate Rosa first. Sir Leicester is insulted, since Rosa has attended a school he supports. He tells Mr. Rouncewell that the decision is his to make. Mr. Rouncewell says he will try to get his son to forget about Rosa.
Later, Lady Dedlock asks Rosa if she is in love. Rosa says yes and begins to cry. Lady Dedlock comforts her and suggests she isn’t yet ready to leave Chesney Wold, and Rosa agrees. Lady Dedlock tells Rosa that she’ll make her happy.
Chesney Wold is shut up, and the Dedlocks go to their house in town. Tulkinghorn visits frequently, and the narrator suggests that Lady Dedlock is afraid of him. One day, Mr. Guppy visits. Sir Leicester finds out that Lady Dedlock has told Guppy he can visit when he wants. He leaves Guppy and Lady Dedlock alone. Guppy has apparently written many letters to Lady Dedlock, and she has finally agreed to see him. He tells her that he works for Kenge and Carboy, which is connected to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, but that he isn’t here about that. He says that if he had Jarndyce and Jarndyce matters to discuss, he would have gone to Tulkinghorn, with whom he is acquainted. This gets Lady Dedlock’s attention.
Guppy requests that Lady Dedlock not complain of this visit to Kenge and Carboy to Tulkinghorn, and she agrees. He then asks if Lady Dedlock knows Esther Summerson, and she says she met Esther last fall. Guppy asks if Esther reminded her of any of her relatives. Lady Dedlock says no but doesn’t take her eyes off Guppy as he speaks. Guppy persists and says that he sees a strong resemblance between Esther and Lady Dedlock—he saw Lady Dedlock’s portrait at Chesney Wold.
Guppy then says that Esther’s birth and upbringing are mysteries, and that he hopes to somehow prove that she is part of Lady Dedlock’s family so that she can be made a party to Jarndyce and Jarndyce. He is doing all this to try to get Esther to reconsider his marriage proposal. He tells Lady Dedlock that he has found out that Esther’s guardian before Mr. Jarndyce was a Miss Barbary.
Lady Dedlock turns pale. She says she did once know a Miss Barbary, but that, to her knowledge, there was no family connection. Guppy says that although Miss Barbary said very little, she did tell Esther that her real name is Esther Hawdon. Lady Dedlock is shocked but covers it quickly. She says she never heard the name Hawdon. Guppy then says that the lodger who was found dead at Krook’s was named Hawdon. After the death, a strange woman followed a young boy to Hawdon’s grave. Guppy asks if Lady Dedlock would like to see the boy; she says no. He remarks on the boy’s observation that the woman had many rings on her fingers. The narrator says that Lady Dedlock is wearing many diamond rings. Finally, Guppy says that Hawdon left behind some letters, which he will obtain tomorrow. If the letters connect Lady Dedlock to all of this, he will bring them to her. He leaves.
Lady Dedlock falls to her knees. She realizes that Esther is her daughter, who her sister told her had died at birth.
Esther says that a lady named Mrs. Woodcourt has come to stay for a few days at Bleak House. Mrs. Woodcourt quickly befriends Esther, which Esther finds annoying. Esther claims not to really know why she finds her so annoying. Then she says that she does know why, but that it doesn’t matter. Mrs. Woodcourt tells Esther all about her son, Allan, and his marriage prospects. She predicts that Esther will marry someone rich and much older. This all makes Esther uncomfortable, and sometimes she suspects Mrs. Woodcourt of being “cunning.” Esther then digresses and wonders why it was so annoying to talk to Mrs. Woodcourt and yet at the same time wonders why it’s so important to her that Mrs. Woodcourt like her. She says she’ll explain all this eventually.
When Mrs. Woodcourt leaves, Caddy Jellyby visits. Caddy says she is getting married in a month. She and Esther agree that Caddy should stay at Bleak House for a few weeks so Esther and Ada can help her make a dress. Esther also helps Caddy learn housekeeping. After three weeks, Esther goes to stay with Caddy at her new home for a week. Esther must convince Mrs. Jellyby that the marriage is really happening and that she must find something to wear. Esther and Caddy try to clean the Jellyby home, which proves to be a daunting task. Mr. Jellyby tells Caddy never to have a mission.
The wedding guests include Mr. Jarndyce, the Pardiggles, Mr. Quayle, and Mr. Quayle’s fiancée, Miss Wisk. Mr. Jarndyce says that Miss Wisk’s mission is to prove that the only true mission is to make grand, public resolutions. Miss Wisk also claims that to say that a woman’s mission is only in the domestic realm is “slander.” Esther observes that no one with a mission cares for anyone else’s mission.
The wedding complete, Caddy and Prince go on a weeklong vacation. Mr. Jarndyce and Esther hope the marriage will be successful.
The death of Krook’s lodger resurfaces in chapters 26, 27, and 29, as Dickens picks up the thread of the death and weaves it back into the story. In chapter 26, when Grandfather Smallweed approaches George for a fragment of the lodger’s handwriting, the lodger gets a name—Captain Hawdon—and is revealed to be at the center of an as-yet-unexplained mystery, in which his handwriting is key. Tulkinghorn is part of the mystery, being one of the men who looking for the handwriting, as is Guppy, who has learned that the lodger and Esther shared the same last name. While some people are looking for the lodger’s handwriting, Guppy claims to have it, in the form of a bundle of letters. The mystery of the lodger propels the story forward and complicates the relationships between characters.
The third-person narrator adds a twist to the strange relationship between Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn in chapter 29, when he suggests that Lady Dedlock is afraid of Tulkinghorn. The narrator makes Tulkinghorn a more ominous character by describing him as feeling no remorse or pity and perhaps even being cold and cruel. Even though it seemed possible in previous chapters that Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn were involved in a secret love affair, their uncomfortable interactions now suggest that something more sinister is going on. By introducing these new layers to their relationship, the narrator foreshadows Tulkinghorn’s eventual role in Lady Dedlock’s life and suggests that Lady Dedlock may indeed have something to hide. When Guppy visits Lady Dedlock and craftily reveals his connection to Tulkinghorn, he succeeds in getting Lady Dedlock’s attention. His own intimations take on a darker shade thanks to the narrator’s previous descriptions of Tulkinghorn.
Lady Dedlock’s discovery that Esther is actually the daughter she believed dead is the first true climax of Bleak House and sets up the primary conflict and storyline of the second half of the novel. Lady Dedlock—who has seemed so cold, haughty, and privileged—suddenly becomes much more sympathetic. Not only does she have a secret that could destroy her reputation and social standing, but she suffered a traumatic loss long ago. For her, Esther has practically risen from the grave, and the revelation is so overwhelming that she falls to her knees. The newly established connection between Esther and Lady Dedlock complicates everything and makes us question how much the other characters really know. We know that Guppy is nosing around, for example, but we aren’t sure how much he knows. The same can be said for the Frenchwoman, Mademoiselle Hortense. This may also explain why Lady Dedlock is so afraid of Tulkinghorn—unless she’s hiding another secret that hasn’t yet been revealed. The revelation that Esther is Lady Dedlock’s daughter explains why Esther had such a strange, violent reaction when she first met Lady Dedlock at Chesney Wold. The revelation also changes the way we view Esther as a narrator. When we return to her narrative in chapter 30, we do so with knowledge that she is not yet privy to. And although Esther is narrating the story from a point in the future, she does so with a measured pacing. For now, we as readers have secret inside knowledge.