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The narrator says that Volumnia finds Sir Leicester sprawled
on the floor of the library. She screams, causing a commotion and
bringing servants running to help. Sir Leicester is much weaker
and quieter than he was before. He can barely speak and writes notes
to communicate. When he asks about Lady Dedlock, the doctors say
she has gone out and doesn’t yet know Sir Leicester is sick. They
let Mrs. Rouncewell give Sir Leicester the letter from Lady Dedlock.
Sir Leicester requests Bucket. He tells Bucket that he fully forgives
Lady Dedlock and asks him to find her immediately. Before Bucket
leaves, he reassures Mrs. Rouncewell that George will be fine and
that her immediate concern must be attending to Sir Leicester.
Bucket first inspects Lady Dedlock’s chambers. In a drawer,
he finds a white handkerchief with Esther’s name on it. He rushes
to George, who tells him Esther’s address. When he reaches Esther’s home,
he shows the letter to Mr. Jarndyce and says he fears Lady Dedlock
is going to kill herself. Bucket says he needs Esther to go with
him on his search, and Mr. Jarndyce gets her. The narrator ruminates
on where Lady Dedlock is and then says there is a figure wearing
shabby clothes fleeing near the brick kilns.
Esther tells us that when Mr. Jarndyce wakes her up, she
immediately prepares to go with Bucket. Bucket reads her the letter,
and they set off. Bucket asks her a few questions about her relationship with
Lady Dedlock and if there is anyone Lady Dedlock may have confided
in. Esther says perhaps Mr. Boythorn. Bucket stops in a police station
and quietly gives instructions to a few men. They continue on their
journey. Bucket stops by the water and speaks to some policemen
and sailors, then he inspects what Esther suspects is a person who
drowned. They make several other stops as they go on and eventually
head toward Saint Albans. After another stop, where Bucket gets
Esther a cup of tea, he says he’s been told that Lady Dedlock passed
through there that evening. They head toward Bleak House. Bucket
tells Esther that he took Jo away when she’d been sheltering him
in the stable to protect Lady Dedlock since Jo had been telling
too many people about the lady he led to the burial ground.
At Bleak House, Bucket asks if Skimpole always stays in
the same room when he visits. He tells Esther that Skimpole had
showed him where to find Jo after Bucket had given him some money
for the information. Esther feels betrayed by Skimpole, and Bucket
warns her to watch out for people like Skimpole. None of the servants
at Bleak House has seen Lady Dedlock.
Bucket and Esther head toward the brickmaker’s cottage.
There, Esther finds out that Jenny, Liz, and their husbands live
together in a single cottage. Jenny is not there, but they speak
to the others. Bucket asserts that he knows a lady had been there
the night before; Jenny’s husband is defensive and unresponsive.
Esther suspects that Liz wants to talk to her alone, but there is
no way for her to do this. Esther asks where Jenny is, but before
Liz can answer, her husband kicks her. Jenny’s husband says she
went to London last night. Esther asks if Jenny was home when the
lady visited. Liz asks her husband if she can answer, but her husband
threatens her. Jenny’s husband says Jenny was home, and that the
lady asked for Esther’s handkerchief. Then he says that the lady
went one way and Jenny went the other. He says he isn’t sure what
time it was, since they don’t have a watch. Esther asks how the
lady looked, and Liz said she didn’t look well. They leave the cottage.
Outside, Bucket tells Esther he’s sure Lady Dedlock gave
them her watch, since it was strange for Jenny’s husband to mention
a watch. He wonders what they gave Lady Dedlock in return and says that
if Liz had been alone she probably would have told them more. Bucket
speculates that Lady Dedlock may have sent Jenny to London to see
Esther, but they continue on straight ahead.
It’s snowing, and the snow slows their journey. Bucket
seems to lose some of his confidence and eventually admits that
he has lost the trail. At an inn, Esther faints and is then cared
for by the landlady and her daughters. Later, when they stop again
to change horses, Bucket realizes something and says he finally
understands. He excitedly orders the driver to return to London,
which shocks Esther. He says he is going to follow Jenny. Esther
protests that they shouldn’t abandon Lady Dedlock, but Bucket tells
her not to worry.
The narrator says that at the Dedlock town house, people
are told that Lady Dedlock has gone to Lincolnshire, but rumors
abound about where she really is and what has happened between her
and Sir Leicester. Sir Leicester is still bedridden. In the morning,
he instructs Mrs. Rouncewell to have Lady Dedlock’s rooms prepared for
her. Mrs. Rouncewell admits to George that she thinks Lady Dedlock
will not be returning to Chesney Wold or anywhere else. She says
that Lady Dedlock told her yesterday that the footsteps on the Ghost’s
Walk had “almost walked her down.”
The narrator describes the abandoned appearance of Lady
Dedlock’s rooms. Mrs. Rouncewell and George help the servants light fires
and prepare for her return. Volumnia sits with Sir Leicester. When
Mrs. Rouncewell returns, Volumnia praises George, and Mrs. Rouncewell
explains to Sir Leicester that George is her long-lost son. Sir
Leicester seems hopeful at the news and asks to see George immediately.
George appears and helps arrange Sir Leicester more comfortably
in his bed. Sir Leicester tells George he is unwell, that he has
had an attack that “deadens” and “confuses” (most likely a stroke).
He tells everyone in the room—Volumnia, Mrs. Rouncewell, and George—that
if he gets worse and becomes unable to communicate, then they should
make it known that his feelings for Lady Dedlock have not changed
whatsoever and that he harbors no anger toward her. After his speech
he lays back. George stays with him.
The narrator says that the day is coming to an end, but
that Sir Leicester is unwilling to admit it. Mrs. Rouncewell convinces
him to rest. He maintains his hopes by thinking that her rooms are
prepared for her arrival. Eventually, everyone goes to bed, except
for Mrs. Rouncewell and George. Volumnia can’t sleep, worrying that if
Sir Leicester dies she will have no income. George runs into her
as he walks around the house and convinces her to go to bed.
The morning comes.
Esther tells us that she and Bucket reach London around
three in the morning. Esther still fears they’ve abandoned Lady
Dedlock, but Bucket assures her he has reasons for coming back.
As they travel through the winding London streets, Bucket occasionally
stops and meets with others. Finally he says he’s tracked the woman
down and that they need to walk for a bit. As they walk down Chancery
Lane, they cross paths with Mr. Woodcourt, and he joins them. Woodcourt
says he has been with Richard, who is not well.
They arrive at Mr. Snagsby’s and hear a girl sobbing.
Bucket says it’s the Snagsbys’ servant, Guster, and that he needs
information from her. He asks Woodcourt to try to calm her down
so that Bucket can get a letter he needs. Mr. Snagsby lets them
in and introduces them to Mrs. Snagsby. Woodcourt and Snagsby go
to see Guster. Bucket chastises Mrs. Snagsby for being so jealous
and suspicious. Woodcourt returns with the letter, and Bucket asks
Esther whose writing it is. She says it’s Lady Dedlock’s. The letter
says she went to the cottage and got help from Jenny, and that her
only purpose is to die.
Esther asks Guster how she got the letter. Guster says
she had been running errands when a woman stopped her, asking the
way to the burial ground. Guster says it was the burial ground in
which Krook’s lodger was buried. The lady gave Guster a letter and instructed
her to send it.
They leave the Snagsbys’ house and rush to the burial
ground. Esther is numb and confused. At the gate to the burial ground,
she sees a woman on the ground, who she thinks is Jenny. She starts
to run toward her, but Bucket stops her, telling her that he suspects Lady
Dedlock and Jenny traded clothes and that Jenny walked only a short
distance before turning around and going home. The purpose was to
deceive. Esther doesn’t understand what all this means. She goes
to the woman and sees that it is Lady Dedlock, dead.
Esther says that she doesn’t want to discuss her sadness
too much and that she will move on in her story. She says that she
becomes briefly sick in London and that Mrs. Woodcourt stays with
them for a while. Mr. Jarndyce suggests they stay in London so that
Esther can be closer to Ada. Esther asks if he sees Woodcourt, and
Mr. Jarndyce says he sees him every day. Mr. Jarndyce wants to stay
in London so that he can get news of Richard more easily, since
Richard won’t speak to him. Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther if she likes
Mrs. Woodcourt, and Esther answers that she does. Mr. Jarndyce asks
if she has any objections to Mrs. Woodcourt’s staying with them,
and even though Esther says she doesn’t, she is unsettled without
really knowing why. Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther that Mr. Woodcourt
will probably not be leaving the country and may instead take up
a position in Yorkshire.
Esther visits Ada every day. She sometimes sees Richard,
and he is much changed. Esther understands that Vholes is taking
all of Richard’s money. She suspects Ada doesn’t understand that
Richard is destroying himself. During one visit, Miss Flite is just
leaving when Esther arrives. Miss Flite says she doesn’t like Vholes
and that she has made Richard the executor of her estate, since
he is at Chancery so much. She had planned to appoint Gridley, but
he had died. Vholes joins Esther, Ada, and Richard for dinner. When
Richard and Ada are out of the room, Vholes tells Esther he thinks
Richard and Ada’s marriage was unwise and that Richard and his interests are
doing very poorly. When Vholes leaves after dinner, Richard overpraises
him, which makes Esther think that he has actually begun to doubt
Mr. Woodcourt arrives, and he and Richard go for a walk.
Ada tells Esther that when she married Richard, she knew what she
was getting into but hoped she could change him. She says that she
has been determined not to make him any unhappier than he already was.
She also reveals that she’s pregnant. She has hoped that the baby
will save Richard, but now she is afraid that Richard will die before
the baby is born.
Lady Dedlock is Sir Leicester’s greatest weakness, and
the revelation of her secret personal history is enough to nearly
destroy him. Bombastic, influential Sir Leicester collapses when
he learns Lady Dedlock’s secret, losing his ability to move and
speak after suffering what appears to be a stroke. Suddenly bedridden,
he is dependent on his subordinates to care for him and understand
him. Although there are many tragedies in Bleak House, Jo’s
death among them, the fall of Sir Leicester may be the most affecting.
We may see it as a tragedy caused by love: Lady Dedlock hid her
secret to protect Sir Leicester and then fled to escape the wrath
she expected, while Sir Leicester forgives her easily and fully
despite her transgressions. He never has the chance to prove the
depth of his devotion, nor does Lady Dedlock ever have the opportunity
to see it. Their partnership has never been an obviously warm one,
thanks in part to Lady Dedlock’s carefully maintained haughtiness,
but the tragic fall of Sir Leicester shows that there was passion
in their marriage after all.
Esther and Bucket’s frantic nighttime pursuit of Lady
Dedlock ratchets up the suspense of the novel, and Dickens skillfully
raises the tension by switching between his two narrators more frequently than
usual. The third-person narrator narrates chapter 56,
describing Sir Leicester’s sad state and then following Bucket as
he calls for Esther in the middle of the night. Esther takes over
the narration in chapter 57, and she leads
us on their fast, feverish journey. The chapter ends in a rush,
with Bucket making the unexpected decision to return to London.
The third-person narrator takes over again in chapter 58,
removing us from the nighttime journey and taking us back to Sir
Leicester, who is waiting earnestly in his bed for news. In chapter 59,
we’re back out in the cold with Esther as the search continues and
finally ends. This quick back-and-forth, which jerks us in and out
of the action of the search, increases the suspense of the journey
and raises the stakes. Esther is not the only one frantic to find
Lady Dedlock; Sir Leicester, who has prepared Lady Dedlock’s rooms
and lit the fires, is perhaps even more desperate than she is. Dickens’s
use of two narrators in these chapters is perhaps more affecting
than at any other point in the novel.
Esther demonstrates a remarkable control over her narrative
in chapters 59 and 60,
proving once again that she is an agile storyteller and a confident
guide through this sordid, bulky tale. Although she is narrating Bleak
House from a point seven years in the future, she withholds
information and feigns ignorance when doing so increases the dramatic
effect. We’ve seen her do this with her feelings for Woodcourt,
which increased the poignancy of Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal. In this
section, when Esther, Bucket, and Woodcourt finally find the woman
they’ve been pursuing, who Esther believes is Jenny, she tells us
she doesn’t understand what Bucket is getting at when he explains
that Jenny and Lady Dedlock switched clothes. When Esther sees that
the woman is actually Lady Dedlock’s body, we share her shock. She
has successfully drawn us into her own disoriented confusion to
make the story more intriguing.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!