Lady Dedlock, a woman who is well known in fashionable circles, has returned to London after a brief stay in her husband’s country house in Lincolnshire. She has returned to the city to escape the constant rain and the tedium of the country, and her unexpected return is discussed all over town by the “fashionable intelligence.”
Lady Dedlock is a celebrity among the London social elite and, therefore, her every move is subject to scrutiny. The “fashionable intelligence” are essentially a well-dressed rumor mill—fashionable people who make it their business to know other people’s business.
Lady Dedlock is the wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock, a baronet from a stately line of English nobles. He is extremely proud of his lineage, which stretches back for generations, and believes wholeheartedly that society would collapse without the stabilizing presence of the Dedlocks. He is a proud and vigorous man, always ready to defend himself and his family’s honor, but he is also rather bigoted and stubborn.
The Dedlocks are an ancient land-holding family in Britain. Before the 19th century, and the advent of the Industrial Revolution and birth of modern capitalism, inheritance of land and wealth was the main source of social power. This meant that vast amounts of wealth, power, and property tended to be kept within single families rather than distributed among the populace. Sir Leicester is a representative of this and reflects the supreme confidence and entitlement of 19th-century landowners.
Sir Leicester is 20 years older than Lady Dedlock and married for love rather than status; it is rumored that Lady Dedlock is not from a noble family. Sir Leicester is extremely attentive to his wife, and although Lady Dedlock was not born into the gentry, her beauty, poise, and determination helped her to surpass her aristocratic peers and rise to the top of the fashionable world.
Lady Dedlock is Sir Leicester’s weakness, and he overlooks her lack of noble connections for love—something which was unusual among the aristocracy of this period, but which became more common as class barriers gradually broke down. Lady Dedlock has achieved her social status through sheer determination, which reflects Dickens’s belief in individual industry as a means of crossing social boundaries.
Although her youthful beauty has faded, Lady Dedlock is still an attractive woman, but she seems bored and disinterested in life. She has climbed as far as she can in social circles and seems to have no more outlets for her ambition. She will spend a few days in town, in Sir Leicester’s lavish London house, before she departs for Paris.
Lady Dedlock is intelligent and ambitious. She has achieved her status by maintaining a noble façade and this suggests that the fashionable world and the aristocracy are easily taken in and are willing to those who appear to be like them.
On this damp, foggy afternoon in London, one of the servants—who looks like “Mercury in powder”—shows a reserved-looking gentleman into the room where Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock are seated together. His name is Mr. Tulkinghorn, and he knows all the personal secrets kept by the nobility. He is a lawyer for the rich, and it is his profession to draw up their legal papers. He is inscrutable, however, and it is impossible to tell what he is thinking. Sir Leicester approves of Mr. Tulkinghorn and finds him a thoroughly respectable man.
Sir Leicester’s servants are old fashioned and wear the powdered wigs of the previous century, suggesting that Sir Leicester is conservative and dislikes social change. Mr. Tulkinghorn is an extremely powerful man because he is privy to the private, legal affairs of rich and powerful people. His inscrutability contributes to his professional respectability as he maintains a passionless façade that masks the secrets he knows and consequently encourages his clients to confide in him even more.
Like many people of her class, Lady Dedlock believes that she is very mysterious and that the people who serve and cater to her know nothing about her inner life. However, the maids, the servants, and even the shopkeepers who sell jewelry and furniture to fashionable ladies and gentlemen know a great deal about the secret desires and weaknesses of the gentry. They know how to use these weaknesses to their advantage, and it is entirely possible, therefore, that Mr. Tulkinghorn is also privy to Lady Dedlock’s weaknesses and desires.
Although Lady Dedlock and other members of her class wish to maintain the idea that they are elite and totally separate from the lower classes, this is clearly not the case. They are subject the same predictable weaknesses, emotions, and desires as anyone else. Salespeople know how to manipulate their wealthy patrons and to exploit their desires in order to sell them products, while servants know their masters well because they attend to them privately in very intimate settings.
Mr. Tulkinghorn has come to update Lady Dedlock on Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which was in court that day and in which Lady Dedlock is a plaintiff (someone who is potentially owed money in a legal dispute). Lady Dedlock is bored with the suit and doesn’t expect it will ever be resolved. Sir Leicester, however, feels that Chancery is an essential and respectable institution and that the length of the trials must reflect how important these cases really are. Furthermore, Sir Leicester feels that old institutions like Chancery support social order, and that if people like him did not respect Chancery, the lower classes may get unsettled and start to rebel, “like Wat Tyler.”
Sir Leicester is complacent about the political establishment and does not feel that it needs to justify its own existence. He trusts that if it operates a certain way, it’s because it genuinely needs to operate that way. This highlights Sir Leicester’s conservativism and social privilege; he does not feel that society needs to change because he reaps many benefits from the way it currently operates. He is afraid of social revolt for this reason. Wat Tyler is thought to be the leader of a famous peasant’s revolt in the medieval period.
Mr. Tulkinghorn begins to read the day’s report to Lady Dedlock but pauses when she asks him who wrote the document he’s reading from. Mr. Tulkinghorn replies that it is written in the standard legal style and Lady Dedlock requests that he go on. A few moments later, however, she turns faint and asks a servant to take her to her room. Sir Leicester is surprised as Lady Dedlock is rarely ill but asks Mr. Tulkinghorn to continue reading once Lady Dedlock has retired to bed.
This passage implies that Lady Dedlock recognizes the handwriting on the document—hence her curiosity about who penned the document and her subsequent outburst—but tries to conceal this from Mr. Tulkinghorn and her husband.