Esther Summerson is a timid, friendless girl and confides all her secrets in her favorite doll, who is her only companion. She is raised, like a child in a fairy tale, by her godmother, Miss Barbary, who is a “good, good woman.” Her godmother is so good, however, that she is repulsed by corruption in others and, therefore, is very stern and severe. Esther does not love her godmother and always feels guilty about this. Esther never knew her parents, and her godmother never mentions them. She feels different and separate from the other girls at her school and is not allowed to go out or to attend parties.
Dickens was very influenced by fairy tales, which were popular as children’s stories during the 19th century. It is typical of Dickens’s style to use an orphan as a main character, as orphans are often the central figures in fairy tales. Esther’s emphatic belief that her godmother is “good” is ironic because her godmother is clearly judgmental and intolerant. It seems that Esther is taken in by her godmother’s external façade of goodness.
Despite this, Esther is an affectionate child and longs to be accepted. One year, on her birthday, her godmother tells her that it would be better if Esther had never been born, and that she was her mother’s “disgrace.” Esther is distraught and begs her godmother to tell her about her mother, but Esther’s godmother coldly refuses and only replies that one day the punishment for her mother’s sins will come back to haunt Esther.
Esther’s past is mysterious, but it is implied that her mother was a “fallen woman.” It was considered extremely shameful for women to fall pregnant outside of marriage during this period. It was a common belief in the 19th century that children could be born corrupt and would inherit their parent’s sins.
Not long after this, Esther comes home from school to find her godmother in discussion with a smart-looking gentleman. Her godmother introduces Esther to this man, who is friendly and seems to know something about her. Esther’s godmother dismisses her, however, before she can find out more.
It is insinuated that this man has something to do with Esther’s past or knows something or her origins, but Esther’s godmother is keen on keeping the girl isolated and in the dark.
One night, two years later, Esther is reading the Bible to her godmother when she comes to the passage in which Jesus defends an adulterous woman. As she reads the words, “Ye without sin cast the first stone,” her godmother starts up, cries out, and then falls to the floor. She is paralyzed, her face set in a permanent scowl, and she dies soon after.
This passage in the Bible cautions people against judging others, because no one is perfect or without sin. It is implied that Esther’s godmother has a stroke because she feels guilty about judging Esther’s mother. Her permanent scowl reflects her personality in life and serves as a punishment for her intolerant behavior.
On the day after Miss Barbary’s funeral, the smart-looking man visits the house again and asks to see Esther. The man introduces himself as Mr. Kenge and seems to know Mrs. Rachael, Miss Barbary’s maid. Mr. Kenge reveals that Miss Barbary was really Esther’s aunt, and that he has come to discuss what will happen to Esther now that her aunt is dead. Miss Barbary has left Esther no money, and Mrs. Rachael, who has always disliked Esther, will not continue to care for her. Mr. Kenge asks Mrs. Rachael if Esther has ever heard of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and Mrs. Rachael replies that she has not. Mr. Kenge is shocked and tells Mrs. Rachael that he has come to renew an offer that Miss Barbary previously refused.
It is confirmed that Mr. Kenge does know something of Esther’s past, and now that her godmother is dead, he can reveal these details to her. This suggests that lawyers have a great deal of power over people because they are privy to their secrets. As she has inherited nothing from her aunt, Esther is socially powerless and has no way to provide for herself.
Mr. Kenge informs Esther that a gentleman named Mr. Jarndyce will provide for her education, and that she is to be sent away to school. Although Esther is grateful, she is apprehensive to leave the only place she has ever known. A coach arrives that afternoon to take Esther to Reading, and Mrs. Rachael coldly dismisses her. Mrs. Rachael remains behind in Miss Barbary’s house, which has been left to her.
Mr. Jarndyce’s act is an example of private philanthropy. This type of patronage is a common feature of many Victorian novels. As Miss Barbary has left Mrs. Rachael her property, Mrs. Rachael can now transcend her social position as a servant and can retire as a wealthy lady.
In the coach, Esther finds herself alone with a gentleman who is wrapped up in furs and who ignores her to stare out of the window. She is still crying because of her abrupt departure and is surprised when the man begins to talk to her. He has a loud, booming voice, which makes him sound angry, but Esther thinks he has kind eyes. He offers her a pie and a piece of cake, and when she declines, he tosses them out of the window and then gets out of coach a few stops later.
Although the man appears aggressive, he is kind to Esther. However, he reacts extremely to her rejection of his kindness, suggesting that he is a volatile man.
Esther arrives at Greenleaf school. She settles in quickly and is very happy there. She is educated in order to become a governess and grows very fond of the other girls she boards with. After six years at Greenleaf, Esther receives a letter on her birthday from Mr. Kenge. This letter informs her that she will be removed from the school and sent to the house of her guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, where she will become the companion of a young ward in the lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Middle class women in the 19th century could train to be teachers or governesses, a career path that provided them with an education and a meager income. This education was usually supported by philanthropists, who used their incomes to set up charitable schools like Greenleaf.
Esther is delighted at the prospect of this new position, and although she is sad to leave her companions at Greenleaf, she sets out in good spirits in a coach bound for London. She is startled by the thick fog when she arrives and remarks on this to the young legal clerk who greets her and takes her in another carriage to Mr. Kenge’s office. The young clerk offers her a mirror, in case she should want to examine herself before meeting the Lord Chancellor.
As she has come from the countryside, Esther is surprised by the smog and pollution of the city, which she has never experienced before.
Esther waits in Mr. Kenge’s office for several hours. At last, Mr. Kenge appears and takes her to another room where a young man and a young woman are also waiting. Mr. Kenge introduces Esther to the young woman, Ada Clare, who is to be her companion, and Esther is struck by Ada’s beauty. The young man’s name is Richard Carstone. The three are left to wait in the room together and Esther learns that they are both orphans and both under the age of 20. Mr. Kenge returns after a short while and shows them into the next office, where the Lord Chancellor is waiting.
Ada and Richard are too young to receive their inheritance even if the case is resolved. Since they are orphans, they have no family to provide for them and are automatically placed under the care of the court, where their inheritance will hypothetically come from. Ada and Richard’s position demonstrates that young people are basically powerless in the face of large-scale institutions, which have large amounts of power over their futures.
The Lord Chancellor greets them all politely and tells them that they will be under the care of a Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House while they wait for the outcome of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Ada and Richard, it appears, are related, but Esther is from another family and is only hired to be a companion to Ada. The Lord Chancellor approves of all this and dismisses the three young people.
As the novel will later reveal, Ada and Richard are cousins from different sides of the Jarndyce family, which split over the original will and the distribution of the Jarndyce property.
They are left outside the court to wait for Mr. Kenge. Richard asks Ada and Esther if either of them know where they are going, and they reply, to each other’s surprise and amusement, that neither of them have any idea. While they discuss this, a strange looking old woman approaches them and announces graciously that she is delighted to meet the “wards of Jarndyce.” Richard whispers to the others that the woman is mad, but the old woman hears him and says that she has not always been mad.
As orphans in the care of the court, the three young people are totally powerless in this situation, and their fate is in the hands of complete strangers.
The woman, whose name is Miss Flite, tells them that when she first came to court, to “hear a judgement” on her case, she was a young and optimistic woman who believed in hope and beauty. Even though she is old now, she still “expects a judgement” any day and feels that it may even fall on Judgement Day. Ada is a little spooked, and the three young people politely disentangle themselves from the old lady when Mr. Kenge returns. He tells them that she is a harmless soul as he leads them away, and the old lady blesses them.
Miss Flite has become so consumed with her court case that her whole world now revolves around it. She, therefore, believes that the resolution of her case is not only a personal matter which affects her, but something of towering importance which affects the whole of humanity, such as Judgement Day. Miss Flite, in her madness and obsession, is an early warning to the characters not to become embroiled in a Chancery suit.