Esther, Charley, and Mr. Jarndyce go to Lincolnshire to stay at Mr. Boythorn’s house. Esther cares for Mr. Boythorn’s bird while she’s there. When she’s alone, she looks in a mirror for the first time and sees her scarred face, barely recognizing herself. She believes her beauty has entirely disappeared. Esther confesses that she has secretly kept Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers. She decides to keep them still, to remind herself of her former beauty.
Esther and Charley stay outdoors all day, to help restore Esther’s health. They ride horses through town and stop to rest at Esther’s favorite place in the woods. Though Chesney Wold is very close, Esther says she never ventured close to it, for no good reason. One day, Esther spots Lady Dedlock approaching in the woods. Lady Dedlock approaches her and inquires about her health. Esther is shocked to see Lady Dedlock holding her handkerchief, the one she’d given to Jenny. Instantly understanding, Esther sends Charley away, and Lady Dedlock cries and says she is Esther’s mother.
Lady Dedlock begs for Esther’s forgiveness and says that she must continue to keep this secret for Sir Leicester’s sake. Lady Dedlock is overcome with grief and guilt but says they can never communicate again. Esther asks if the secret is safe, and Lady Dedlock says that Tulkinghorn may reveal it soon. She tells Esther to confide in Mr. Jarndyce if she wishes. Esther tells us that Lady Dedlock gives her a letter but says that she’ll tell us the contents of the letter another time.
Ada arrives at Lincolnshire and has no negative reaction to Esther’s changed appearance.
Esther tells no one about Lady Dedlock. One day, Mr. Grubble, the landlord of the public house Dedlock Arms, summons Esther. When she arrives, she finds Richard there. He is on leave and has come to check up on his interests in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Mr. Skimpole is with him and is glad Richard’s involved with the suit. Esther brings Richard to Ada, but she suspects Richard doesn’t love her as he says he does.
The next day, Richard tells Esther more about his pursuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. He says he and Mr. Jarndyce have parted ways and that the suit is his one goal now. Ada writes Richard a letter trying to dissuade him, but to no avail. Esther tries to convince Mr. Skimpole not to support Richard’s goal, since it’s irresponsible, but Mr. Skimpole says he can’t possibly be responsible. Later, when Richard goes off to meet someone, Mr. Skimpole says he is going to meet Mr. Vholes, his legal advisor. Skimpole admits that Vholes paid him to be introduced to Richard.
Richard returns with Vholes and introduces him to everyone. Vholes says he does everything for the sake of his three daughters and his aging father. He and Richard depart so that Richard can attend to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case the next day. Ada tells Esther that she’ll love Richard even if the lawsuit ruins him.
Esther returns to Bleak House in full health and visits London on the pretense of visiting Caddy. Caddy and Prince Turveydrop live with Mr. Turveydrop, and Mr. Jellyby visits every evening. Caddy is practicing to be a dancing instructor. There are also several children in the house who are learning to dance. Esther attends one of the dance practices.
Afterward, Esther and Caddy go to see Mr. Guppy, and Esther speaks to him alone. Mr. Guppy is intent on reminding Esther that she refused his proposal and that he will not renew it. Esther agrees readily that the proposal is now defunct. Esther then reminds him that when he made the proposal, he suggested that he could find out information about her background. Esther asks him to cease all investigation if he hasn’t already, and Mr. Guppy agrees to honor her wish.
The narrator describes Mr. Vholes and his small, dark office in Symond’s Inn. Mr. Vholes claims to be a respectable man, fully devoted to his clients and their affairs. Mr. Vholes wholeheartedly promotes the idea that the backbone of English law is that it must make business for itself. Yet he convinces Richard that they will make progress in the suit. Richard trusts him completely.
Mr. Guppy and Mr. Weevle see Richard on the street, and Mr. Guppy observes that Richard is now in debt because he wouldn’t stay away from the suit. Mr. Guppy then tells Mr. Weevle that he no longer wishes to find the letters from the now dead Krook. He asks Mr. Weevle to tell him if there’s any chance the letters didn’t burn and might be hidden in Krook’s shop.
Grandfather Smallweed has been coming to the shop every day, searching through Krook’s belongings, but he never finds anything of value. Mr. Guppy and Mr. Weevle go to the shop, chat briefly with Grandfather Smallweed, then go upstairs to Mr. Weevle’s old lodging. Mr. Tulkinghorn appears. He congratulates Guppy on being able to meet with grand ladies. Guppy grows red and tells Tulkinghorn that he doesn’t have to explain himself. Tulkinghorn leaves. Guppy admits to Weevle that he’s been in communication with a member of the aristocracy, but that this must end and be forgotten.
The narrator discusses the state of England, which is in disarray. Mrs. Rouncewell suspects that the family may be needed, and she prepares Chesney Wold accordingly. But the house seems dismal. A groom tells Mrs. Rouncewell that Lady Dedlock is not well. She and Sir Leicester and a large group of people go to Chesney Wold the next day; people come and go from the house constantly for the next several weeks. Each day, Volumnia asks Sir Leicester how the country is doing, and Sir Leicester says “tolerably” and that people are opposed to the government. He says that the party has incurred great expenses.
Volumnia observes that Tulkinghorn must be very busy, but Sir Leicester says he doesn’t know of Tulkinghorn’s helping any clients. A servant named Mercury says that Tulkinghorn has arrived at Chesney Wold. He appears in the room and tells Sir Leicester that he has lost the election. Tulkinghorn says that Mr. Rouncewell was involved in this election and was running against Sir Leicester, aided by his son, who is in love with Rosa. Sir Leicester is enraged. He suggests that Lady Dedlock advise Rosa to stay away from the boy. Tulkinghorn says that the boy will likely leave Rosa instead, since the family has too much pride.
Tulkinghorn then tells a story: He has learned that a man of similar social standing from the same town as Mr. Rouncewell had a daughter that was favored by an aristocratic woman. This woman had a secret: she had once been engaged to a captain and had an illegitimate child. The captain died, but the woman’s secret was discovered because she made an impudent mistake. Her husband was devastated, and the townsman forbade his daughter from spending any more time with the woman. He took his daughter away.
Throughout this tale, Lady Dedlock has sat very still. Tulkinghorn asks her forgiveness for the painfulness of the story.
When Esther looks at herself in the mirror and sees her scarred face for the first time, she reveals her vulnerability more than at any other point in the novel. Never one to indulge in self-pity, she plainly observes that even though she had never been beautiful, what little beauty she had is now gone completely. The simplicity of her statement—“It was all gone now”—is characteristic of Esther’s clear, direct narrative style, but it also reveals how deeply she feels the loss. No matter how fond others are of her, no amount of affection, love, or respect can alter the fact that her face has been ruined. Although she goes on once again to count her blessings and get over her sadness determinedly, this plain statement suggests that there is great pain beneath Esther’s relentless cheerfulness. Her decision to keep Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers also suggests the depth of her sadness. Although she claims to be fully content with her lot in life, she keeps the flowers to remind her of how she used to look. She may go on with her life uncomplainingly, but she does not go on without a secret reserve of regret.
The revelatory confrontation between Lady Dedlock and Esther brings a secret to the surface, but their brief encounter focuses on the necessity of protecting that secret still further. Esther divines Lady Dedlock’s secret as soon as she sees the handkerchief and, like Lady Dedlock, is overcome with violent emotion. Their happiness at finding each other is brief, and the overarching tone of this encounter is fearful. Esther is unsettled to see Lady Dedlock at her feet, asking her forgiveness. Lady Dedlock is newly consumed by her own guilt, referring to the “dark road” she must follow and declaring herself to be “wretched and dishonoring.” Lady Dedlock’s fear of being discovered overshadows any happiness or relief she may feel at finally revealing her secret. She has just connected with the daughter she thought was dead, and yet she asserts that they can never meet or talk again. She is almost looking over her shoulder as they speak, and she and Esther conspire about who suspects their relationship. Both vow to keep the secret at all costs, and while they can’t pursue a public relationship, this secret binds them together.
The narrator’s scathing portrayal of Mr. Vholes in chapter 38 indicts the legal system as a self-perpetuating waste and lawyers as cannibals. The narrator draws an analogy that directly connects Vholes and his family to “cannibal chiefs” and says, “Make man-eating un-lawful, and you starve the Vholeses!” The endless Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit is a dream job for Vholes, since the case will never end and Vholes can extract money from Richard indefinitely. The narrator is not subtle in his descriptions, leaving no question that Vholes is immoral, untrustworthy, and dangerous. These views are underscored by the narrator’s repetition of the statement, “Mr. Vholes is a very respectable man.” The more we know about Vholes, the more sarcastic this statement becomes. Because of men like Vholes, the legal system has ceased to serve the people and instead serves only the scheming lawyers who want to make themselves rich.