Mr. Kenge informs the party that they will spend the night at the home of a woman called Mrs. Jellyby, a friend of Mr. Jarndyce’s, who is working on a project in Africa where she encourages the local people to grow coffee beans. They set out in a carriage with Mr. Guppy, the clerk who met Esther earlier that day. He is talkative and jokes a little with Esther as he drives them to Mrs. Jellyby’s residence in Thavies Inn.
The 19th century was a period of colonial expansion in Britain, and the British government claimed several territories in Africa. There were attempts to set up trade links with these nations, and many Victorian philanthropists and social campaigners took this duty on themselves, as Mrs. Jellyby does with her research into the coffee trade.
As they arrive at Mrs. Jellyby’s, they notice a crowd of people around a young boy whose head is stuck in some railings. Esther jumps out of the carriage, hurries to the boy’s aid, and manages to free him. The boy rushes away unharmed, and Esther, Ada, and Richard enter Mrs. Jellyby’s home.
The boy has clearly not been supervised because no one has stopped him putting his head through the fence. This passage also speaks to Esther’s unwavering kindness and willingness to put others before herself.
They are astonished to find that the house is filled with children, and that it is very dirty inside. The children are unwashed and badly dressed, and one child falls down the stairs, completely unnoticed by the servant who shows them up to Mrs. Jellyby’s room. Mrs. Jellyby greets the group placidly, and Esther notices that Mrs. Jellyby has a strange, faraway look in her eye and that her dress is very shabby.
Mrs. Jellyby’s house, brimming with neglected children, represents the poor in Britain, who Dickens felt were neglected because of the government’s exploits abroad. A large amount of government and taxpayer’s money was spent on colonial enterprise, which Dickens considers a waste of money. Mrs. Jellyby represents the careless British government, which was often depicted as a mother in the 19th century, who ignores her own children and squanders her energies abroad.
In the corner of Mrs. Jellyby’s room, a young girl, who is covered in ink, looks up from her work. Mrs. Jellyby dreamily tells her guests that all her time is dedicated to her work in Africa, and that she is constantly writing letters to the government and to private philanthropists to raise funds for the project. The girl in the corner is Caddy, Mrs. Jellyby’s eldest daughter. The small boy who fell down the stairs comes in crying, and Mrs. Jellyby tries to send him away. Esther finally picks up the child, whose name is Peepy, and he falls asleep in her arms.
Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed with her mission that she comes across as slightly mad and given no thought to her dress or appearance, let alone to the well-being of her children. She has no time to care for herself or her children and does not think it is strange that her daughter is covered with ink and has clearly been writing for several hours. Peepy is also neglected and appears unaccustomed to love and care, which is what Esther provides him with.
Mrs. Jellyby asks Caddy to show Esther and Ada to their room, and Esther carries Peepy up with her and puts him to sleep on her bed. Their rooms are in shambles, and Ada first cries and then laughs when she sees them. All the other children follow them upstairs and Esther entertains them with fairy tales. Dinner that evening is an equally chaotic affair, and Esther is surprised to learn that the strange, silent man who sits at the table is Mr. Jellyby. Another a philanthropist, Mr. Quale, also joins them and talks enthusiastically about Mrs. Jellyby’s work.
Mrs. Jellyby’s house is uncared for and chaotic, and this reflects her negligent attitude towards her home and her internal chaos caused by her obsession with Africa. In the Victorian era, airy tales were considered both educational and entertaining for children; Mrs. Jellyby’s children have never heard them because their educations have been neglected.
When Esther and Ada return to their room that night, they begin to talk about their guardian, Mr. Jarndyce. Neither of them has ever met Mr. Jarndyce, and Richard has only seen him once in his life. They all received the same letter, however, inviting them to London as a means of repairing “some of the damage” that Jarndyce and Jarndyce has caused.
Although Mr. Jarndyce is not responsible for the court case, he seems to feel some guilt for the orphans’ involvement in it. As the novel will continue to show, he views the Chancery proceedings as a bad influence which may negatively affect his charges’ lives.
Ada falls asleep quickly, but Esther lies awake. Caddy comes to the door to say goodnight, so Esther invites her in. Caddy bitterly announces that she despises Africa. She hates her mother’s causes and complains that, even though Ada is an orphan, she has been educated and taught to do many useful things, whereas Caddy only knows how to write letters. Esther listens politely and Caddy says that the house is a disgrace. Esther can see that Caddy is very upset and allows her to sit and talk. Eventually Caddy falls asleep with her head in Esther’s lap, while Esther sleeps in her chair and dreams of Bleak House.
Mrs. Jellyby’s philanthropy is misguided because it has caused Caddy to hate social causes rather than encouraged her to participate in them. Caddy resents her mother’s obsession with Africa because it has led her to neglect the family and ignore their immediate needs. Although Caddy, unlike Esther, has had a mother, she feels as though she is not much better off than an orphan. True to character, Esther is very kind to Caddy and unquestioningly offers her sympathy. She also puts her own needs aside and defers going to bed so that Caddy can lean on her.