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.