Rollover Information
About the Series Schedule The Archive Learning Resources The American Collection Home Search Shop
Bleak House
Dickens & Davies Production Notes Who's Who Synopsis/Episode Descriptions Novel to Film Links + Bibliography The Forum Masterpiece Theatre Bleak House
Synopsis/Episode Descriptions [imagemap with 7 links]

Episode Descriptions

Plot Revealed Below!

Charles Dickens' complex tale of young love, murder, and the quest for a mystery-man's identity unfolds in this adaptation by screenwriter Andrew Davies. Bleak House features some of the most famous plot twists in literary history, including a case of spontaneous human combustion and an inheritance dispute tied up for generations in the dysfunctional English courts.

Episode   1   |   2   |   3   |   4

Episode 1

Esther Summerson is alone in the world after the death of her aunt. John Jarndyce, a man whom she has never met, offers her a home at Bleak House. Esther will be joined by Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, two orphans who have both been made wards of Chancery, since their interests are tied up in the infamous suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

At the Chancery courts, the three meet other beleaguered suitors in the case, including a mad old lady named Miss Flite. She has been waiting for a judgment all her life, but one never comes. Miss Flite lodges nearby with the peculiar (and very drunk) rag and bottle merchant, Krook. They have another lodger, Nemo, who is a mysterious figure: a law-writer by trade, but a self-destructive opium addict by nature. When Esther meets him, she feels a strange shiver of recognition...

Esther, Ada and Richard spend their last night in London with the Jellyby family. They are astonished to find the household running to ruin, as a result of Mrs. Jellyby spending more time dealing with far-flung matters of philanthropy than the problems on her own doorstep. Esther sympathizes with her daughter, Caddy, who is at her wits' end.

Meanwhile, in the upper echelons of society, in their home at Chesney Wold, Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock are unsettled by a visit from their malevolent lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn. When Lady Dedlock recognizes the writer's hand on a legal document she swoons. Whoever the writer was, he must have meant a great deal to her - and Tulkinghorn wonders what her secret can be.

Esther, Ada and Richard are welcomed to Bleak House by Mr. Jarndyce. There, they are introduced to his friend, Harold Skimpole, a man who shirks responsibility for his actions by claiming a childlike lack of understanding in all worldly matters. That night, Esther and Richard are called to Skimpole's rescue. He is about to be arrested by the bailiff, so prevails upon them to use their savings to pay off his latest debts.

Back in London, Tulkinghorn begins enquiries, setting Clamb, his assistant, the task of discovering who copied the document. He discovers it was Nemo. At the same time, Krook is chasing Nemo for large amounts of unpaid rent. As a last resort, Nemo is forced to pawn his army medals for the money.

Mrs. Pardiggle, escorts Esther, Ada and Richard on a charitable excursion to the slum dwellings of some poverty-stricken brickmakers. While there, a tiny baby dies in front of them. Esther provides what little comfort she can, covering the corpse with her handkerchief.

Returning home, Esther receives a surprise visit from Mr. Guppy, a legal clerk she first met in London. Surprising, indeed, when he gets down on one knee and proposes to her. Astonished, Esther turns him down. Finally, Tulkinghorn decides to pay Nemo a visit, but when he gets there he receives a nasty shock: Nemo is dead.

Tulkinghorn and Krook call for the doctor, Allan Woodcourt, who suspects that Nemo's death was caused by an accidental overdose of opium. The coroner confirms as much. Nemo is given a pauper's funeral - and at the gloomy burial ground Tulkinghorn interrogates a young crossing-sweeper, named only Jo, whom Nemo had befriended. Tulkinghorn is convinced Jo knows something.

Ada and Richard are beginning to fall in love. Jarndyce instructs Richard that it is time to choose a career, so he happens, very quickly, upon the idea of medicine. As a result, arrangements are made for Richard to study with Dr. Bayham Badger in Chelsea. The four have dinner with the irrepressible Badgers, where they encounter Allan Woodcourt. He and Esther are attracted to one another.

At Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock has taken a shine to the young maid Rosa - to the absolute horror of her existing French maid, Hortense. However, Lady Dedlock has more serious troubles when Tulkinghorn gleefully informs her of Nemo's fate.

Meanwhile, snooping around in Nemo's room, Krook discovers some love letters which look intriguing...

Ada confides in Esther that she and Richard are in love. They wish to get engaged but Jarndyce disapproves and tells them it's far too soon to take this step. Reluctantly, the pair agree to wait.

Caddy Jellyby, on the other hand, has entered into a secret engagement with Prince Turveydrop, the son of a dancing master. His father is a lazy, self-centered old man who preens around, showing off his 'deportment,' while his son does all the work.

Richard is failing in his medical studies, and decides to quit in favor of the law. It's the worst option he could have chosen, particularly since it marks his increasing obsession with Chancery. At court with Ada, he meets Mr. Gridley - an irascible and frustrated victim of the Court of Chancery who has wasted his life in pursuit of reward. Gridley flies off the handle at Tulkinghorn, who, enraged, orders a warrant for his arrest.

Skimpole joyfully announces that his old adversary, Mr. Neckett, the sheriff's officer, has died. But when Jarndyce and Esther hear that he has left behind his young children, they decide to visit his lodgings. There they find his daughter Charlotte, known as Charley, working as a washerwoman to provide for her siblings. Jarndyce resolves that they should take action.

Lady Dedlock instructs Tulkinghorn not to continue any further in his enquiries about Jo. Nonetheless, she decides to conduct her own secret investigation, tracking Jo down at nighttime and paying him to guide her around Nemo's old haunts. Finally, she visits his burial ground where she grieves for her lost love.

Esther and Allan Woodcourt have become close, so she is disappointed to hear the news that he has taken a job as a ship's surgeon on a long voyage. A little hope remains, however, when she receives flowers from him.

Episode   1   |   2   |   3   |   4

Dickens & Davies | Production Notes
Who's Who | Synopsis/Episode Descriptions
Novel to Film | Links + Bibliography | The Forum

Home | About The Series | The American Collection | The Archive
Schedule & Season | Feature Library | eNewsletter | Book Club
Learning Resources | Forum | Search | Shop | Feedback

WGBH Logo PBS logo


Masterpiece is sponsored by: