The next morning, at Mr. Jarndyce’s house, Esther explores the grounds and begins her housekeeping duties. After breakfast—at which, she notes, Mr. Skimpole is extremely cheerful—she is invited into Mr. Jarndyce’s study, which he calls “the Growlery.” Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther the history of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. He despises the lawsuit and feels that the lawyers have confused the dispute beyond recognition. It was once about a will, but the original suit has long been forgotten.
Mr. Jarndyce distrusts the Chancery system and thinks it is an outdated institution which does more harm than good. He also distrusts lawyers and feel that it is in their own interests to make the case more complicated than it already is in order to run up legal fees and advance their own careers.
Mr. Jarndyce explains that Tom Jarndyce was his uncle, and that the house once belonged to him. When Tom Jarndyce tried to solve the lawsuit himself, he gradually went mad and the house fell into disrepair. Mr. Jarndyce renovated the house when he inherited it and knows that there is some more property in the suit that has not yet been bequeathed to anybody. Mr. Jarndyce says that this is the mark of Chancery, which can be seen on houses all over the country.
Tom Jarndyce’s madness foreshadows Richard’s madness when he, too, tries to solve the lawsuit. Chancery suits, which drag on for a long time, leave many properties unoccupied and disused, as no one can inherit or buy them.
Esther remarks on what a transformation Mr. Jarndyce has produced in Bleak House, and Mr. Jarndyce happily tells Esther that he has great faith in her ability as a housekeeper. He then changes the conversation to Richard’s career prospects and Esther suggests that they should ask Richard what profession he would prefer. Mr. Jarndyce agrees that this is a wonderful idea. He then asks Esther if there is anything she wishes to know about her past, but she tells him that she has great faith in his honesty and that, if she needed to know anything, he would tell her. This gratifies Mr. Jarndyce very much.
Throughout the novel, houses serve as a symbol for the owner’s inner life. Thus, Tom Jarndyce’s house fell into disrepair when he did, consumed with his single-minded obsession with the case. Mr. Jarndyce restores order and hope in the household because he is a sensible man and is not drawn into madness or obsession by the Chancery suit. Although Richard stands to potentially inherit some wealth, he currently has no wealth of his own and, therefore, must find a career as a way of earning it.
Ada and Esther settle into their new life at Bleak House. They spend time with a circle of philanthropists—acquaintances of Mr. Jarndyce—and are amazed at the energy which these people expend on their many charitable causes. One of the most active of these is a Mrs. Pardiggle, who visits the house one day with her five young boys. She proudly introduces her children to Esther and Ada and lists the many charitable causes that they are already involved in. Esther does not think it does them any good, however, because the children seem extremely miserable.
Philanthropy was very popular among the middle classes in the Victorian period. Although Mrs. Pardiggle’s children surpass their social responsibilities, under her guidance, it does not make them happy. Dickens is critical of charitable efforts which are forced on people, either by government or through social pressure. He feels that this leads to resentment and breeds bad intentions towards those that need help rather than encouraging genuine social concern and productive action. Mrs. Pardiggle’s unhappy children hark back to Mrs. Jellyby’s neglected children.
Mrs. Pardiggle explains that her children accompany her on all her visits and philanthropic missions, for which she has inexhaustible energy. She tells Esther and Ada that she expects them to join her on one of these visits and, despite Esther’s timid protests, insists that they should accompany her to the house of a brickmaker and his family, whom she visits often. Feeling that they have little choice, Esther and Ada reluctantly prepare to go with her.
Although Mrs. Pardiggle’s efforts are misguided, she is an impressively active and forceful woman. Esther and Ada feel pressured into accompanying Mrs. Pardiggle, just as her children are pressured into giving to charity.
On the way to the brickmaker’s house, Esther attempts to talk to Mrs. Pardiggle’s children. The eldest child bitterly complains that his mother gives him pocket money but forces him to spend it all on charitable causes. Esther decides, after spending some time with them, that they are some of the most unhappy and constrained young people she has ever met. She is relieved when they finally arrive at the cottage.
Mrs. Pardiggle’s gift of pocket money is undermined by the fact that she chooses how the children spend it. This mirrors Victorian philanthropic efforts, which often advocated giving money to the poor while forcing them to spend it on activities which the middle class sanctioned and deemed beneficial. Dickens suggests that allowing people financial freedom is better than false or forced charity, which really seeks to control the people that it claims to help.
The house is on a very dirty street. Several poor people watch them as they pass and make disparaging comments about “gentlefolks” who should “mind their own business.” Mrs. Pardiggle barges into the brickmaker’s house, where they find a man stretched out on the floor and several other family members squeezed into a dingy and cramped little room. The family seem disappointed to see her, but Mrs. Pardiggle announces that she will never tire of visiting them and that she will continue to return.
Although Mrs. Pardiggle claims to help the poor, the poor people she encounters openly dislike her and resent her interference. Mrs. Pardiggle is intrusive and does not respect the family’s privacy. She has obviously visited them many times and, it is clear, that she does not actually help the family when she visits. She does not respect their feelings, however, and insists she will return.
The brickmaker, who is lying on the floor, impatiently tells Mrs. Pardiggle that it doesn’t matter how often she comes to lecture him, because he is not going to change his ways. There is no point, he says, in washing his children, because the water they have is so contaminated, and he drinks gin because the water is not safe to drink. He has not read the book she left him because it is like a story for children. Nonetheless, Mrs. Pardiggle determinedly whips out her Bible and begins to read to the family.
Mrs. Pardiggle’s advice to the brickmaker—to wash his children and to stop drinking gin—ignore the reasons that he does these things in the first place. She patronizes the family and treats them like children who do not know what is best for themselves and who bring their situation upon themselves. The brickmaker insists that he knows that his lifestyle is bad, but he does not live like this on purpose, and changing his behavior will not change his circumstances. With the brickmaker as a mouthpiece, Dickens sends a powerful message about poverty to his middle-class audience.
Ada and Esther feel terribly uncomfortable and the family takes no notice of Mrs. Pardiggle, who reads in their midst. Eventually she breaks off and prepares to leave, although she says she will be back. Esther and Ada do not follow her, however, and instead approach a woman who sits by the fire and holds a baby in her arms. When they get closer, they see that the baby is dead. Ada bursts into tears at the sight and falls to her knees beside the mother. The woman is shocked by this but soon begins to cry with Ada, who takes hold of her hand.
Esther and Ada feel that reading the Bible to the family will do nothing but irritate them in their already dire situation. Infant mortality was extremely high during the 19th century, especially among the impoverished. Ada’s sympathy with the woman is genuine and spontaneous. This scene humanizes the brickmaker’s family for Dickens’s audience, many of whom (like Mrs. Pardiggle) may have viewed poor people as corrupt and inferior.
Esther takes the baby from the woman and covers it gently with a handkerchief. Another woman enters the hut and rushes to the mother, addressing her as “Jenny.” Esther and Ada leave the women to their grief. On the way home they meet Richard. He is so upset by their tale, and the sight of Ada’s tears, that he agrees to return with them the next day and take some essentials to the poor, deprived family.
Esther’s act here is kind and unobtrusive. It is a gesture of sympathy with the mother, while also respecting the family’s privacy and grief. Richard’s response is similarly compassionate and practical, and this suggests that what the poor really need is material help to improve their living conditions.
They set out the next morning. On the way, they pass a public house, in which they see the brickmaker, who is very drunk. When they arrive at the house, they find Jenny’s friend at the door. She is there to comfort Jenny but periodically rushes outside to check that her husband has not come home. She is afraid he will beat her if he finds her gone. The dead child is still in the room—Jenny is asleep on the bed—but the baby’s clothes have been changed and cleaned, and Esther thinks that it looks like an angel sleeping there.
The brickmaker has kept to his word and has not given up gin. Women, especially poor women, had almost no legal protection against domestic violence in the Victorian era. Scenes of poverty are very common in Victorian novels because many Victorian writers wanted their middle-class readers to witness, and to sympathize with, the plight of the poor in their society.