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Synopsis

Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, published in 20 monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853. It is held to be one of Dickens's finest novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon. The story is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by a mostly omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly, but depressive John Jarndyce, and the childish and disingenuous Harold Skimpole, as well as the likeable but imprudent Richard Carstone.

At the novel's core is long-running litigation in England's Court of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills. The litigation, which already has consumed years and between £60,000 and £70,000 in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery. Dickens's assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce his copyright on his earlier books. His harsh characterisation of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave memorable form to pre-existing widespread frustration with the system. Though Chancery lawyers and judges criticized Dickens's portrait of Chancery as exaggerated and unmerited, his novel helped to spur an ongoing movement that culminated in enactment of the legal reform in the 1870s. In fact, Dickens was writing just as Chancery was reforming itself, with the Six Clerks and Masters mentioned in Chapter One abolished in 1842 and 1852 respectively: the need for further reform was being widely debated. These facts raise an issue as to when Bleak House is actually set. Technically it must be before 1842, and at least some of his readers at the time would have been aware of this. However, there is some question as to whether this timeframe is consistent with some of the themes of the novel. The great English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth (see below) set the action in 1827.

In the late Nineteenth Century, actress Jane Coombs toured the west and midwest with a two-hour version of Bleak House. She played both Lady Dedlock and her maid Hortense, who never appear in the same scene.

A 1901 short film, The Death of Poor Joe is the oldest known surviving film featuring a Charles Dickens character.

In the silent film era, Bleak House was filmed in 1920 and 1922. A later version starred Sybil Thorndike as Lady Dedlock. In 1927, a short film made in the UK in the Phonofilm sound-on-film process starred Bransby Williams as Grandfather Smallweed.

The BBC has produced three television adaptations of Bleak House. The first serial Bleak House was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes. The second Bleak House, starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott, aired in 1985 as an eight-part series. 2005 saw the third Bleak House, broadcast in fifteen episodes.

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