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
Next morning, Clamb discovers his master's body. Bucket takes the case, quickly learning from Clamb that George was seen at the scene of the crime and had previously issued violent threats against Tulkinghorn. It's only circumstantial evidence so far, but it's damning nonetheless. And while Sir Leicester offers a reward for the arrest of the murderer, Lady Dedlock is keeping quiet.
Phil wants to know where George went with the pistol the night, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Smallweed, come to do an inventory. He leaves in a hurry when George raises the pistol in question and points it at him. But, Smallweed gets his own back by fingering George as a potential suspect to Bucket. He also demands the return of the Hawdon letters he sold to Tulkinghorn, but Bucket is having none of it.
Caddy has had her baby, but both mother and child are very ill. Esther and Ada visit her, and dismiss the quack doctor, sending for Woodcourt instead who quickly improves Caddy's condition. It's more than evident that the flame still burns between him and Esther, however firmly she attempts to hold her feelings in check.
Later, at Ada's 21st birthday party, Richard makes a rare visit to his guardian's house but finds it very difficult to conceal his hostility. Woodcourt is also invited to the party, and Jarndyce offers to help him find a position up north. But Woodcourt is keen to stay in London regardless of the financial hardship: it's clear his desire to do so is connected with Esther.
That night, Ada remarks on Woodcourt's evident feelings for Esther and, embarrassed, Esther is compelled to admit her engagement to Jarndyce. Ada is shocked to have been excluded from the secret. It is also Phil's birthday, although the meager celebration he and George have to revive their spirits is a far cry from Ada's party across town. Bucket joins the pair, drinks their wine, and then springs a surprise by arresting George for the murder of Tulkinghorn. George admits to Bucket that he went to the lawyer's office that night, but denies the murder. He also mentions passing a woman in a black-fringed shawl on the stairs.
Jarndyce, Woodcourt and Esther visit George in his cell, and are shocked by his refusal to hire a lawyer. George insists innocence is his best defense - a position Jarndyce fears will lead to disaster. Esther, however, has an idea. She approaches Phil, who tells them that their last hope is to talk to George's mother, who he hasn't seen for years. She's the housekeeper at Chesney Wold: Mrs. Rouncewell.
Tulkinghorn's funeral is grand, with only a few mourners. Bucket watches the crowd and spots Hortense lurking among the onlookers. He pursues her but she eludes him. Back at the police station, he is surprised by a letter which reads, "Lady Dedlock, Murderess."
Bucket studies the letter and asks Clamb if he saw a lady in a black fringed shawl that night; he did not. Jarndyce brings Mrs. Rouncewell and George together, and they are reunited in his cell. She pleads with him to allow a lawyer to help him, and he eventually relents on the one condition that his brother is not involved. Their old rivalry still won't let him swallow his pride.
Jarndyce returns home to tell Esther the good news about George's situation. She remains worried, however. If George is proved innocent, the finger of suspicion may be pointed at her mother, who had good reason to want Tulkinghorn dead. Esther does not believe Lady Dedlock capable of murder, but is nonetheless concerned for her. Jarndyce does his best to reassure her that Lady Dedlock is a woman above suspicion.
But across town, Bucket has already stepped up his investigation, interviewing Mercury about Lady Dedlock's movements on the night in question. The footman cannot name what, exactly, Lady Dedlock wore for her night walk. She has so many clothes.
Mrs. Rouncewell pays an unexpected visit to the Dedlock's London house, where she begs her mistress to help her son. She hands over a letter which was delivered to her at Chesney Wold. Alone, Lady Dedlock opens it.
Caddy recovers, but she and Prince are unable to pay Woodcourt for his services since all their money goes toward keeping old Mr. Turveydrop in the style to which he has grown accustomed.
Woodcourt and Richard have become good friends, and one evening Woodcourt talks of his envy for the love Ada holds for Richard. He wishes he had the same from Esther and intends to propose to her soon.
The next day, Esther and Ada pay Richard a visit. Esther is surprised that Ada seems to know the way there so well. Richard greets them warmly but is clearly ill. Esther is devastated to learn that Ada is not going back with her. She and Richard have married in secret, and she is staying with her husband.
Bucket strikes upon one useful lead, discovering that the handwriting on the mysterious letter he received matches the sample he possesses of Hortense's hand. She admits it freely, saying that she had to write the letter since Bucket has arrested the wrong person. The true culprit is Lady Dedlock. Hortense followed her to Tulkinghorn's that night, wearing a black fringed shawl. Bucket asks Hortense if she can find that shawl among Lady Dedlock's possessions if he smuggles her into the house. She agrees with glee.
Smallweed still has his sights set on regaining the Hawdon letters. He tries to strike a deal with Clamb, offering him a partnership through which both of them could make a lot of money. But Clamb is unmoved by the offer. Bucket is shown into the presence of the Dedlocks, and astonishes Sir Leicester by asking if he might put some questions to Lady Dedlock about the night of the murder. She coolly agrees, but quickly finds herself confronted with the night walk and the black fringed shawl which is triumphantly brought in by Hortense. Lady Dedlock admits that she did visit Tulkinghorn that night, and knocked at his door, but received no reply and left. She may have passed someone on the stairs. Bucket thanks her and calls in his constable. But the woman who he points to as the murderess is Hortense.
As Hortense hisses with fury, Bucket tells her that he had suspected her from the moment he saw her at the funeral, and then received the anonymous letter. The day after he met her, he had Hortense followed to the country where she dropped the murder weapon into a pond, which his men then retrieved. Still screeching and cursing, Hortense is dragged out and Bucket apologizes to Lady Dedlock for having put her through this interrogation.
When Esther returns, and tells Jarndyce about Richard and Ada's marriage, the pair are saddened that only the two of them are now left. Woodcourt pays Esther a visit to talk of Richard's increasingly ill health, and his concerns about Skimpole's negative influence on him. He has also learned from Bucket that Skimpole betrayed little Jo's presence in Bleak House for a bribe. Esther is appalled. That night, she castigates Skimpole for the way he preys on others - Jarndyce, Richard, even the defenseless little Jo. She warns him never to show his face again, or she might have to tell Jarndyce how thoroughly he has betrayed his trust.
George is released from prison by Bucket, with whom he's not pleased. Mrs. Rouncewell, on the other hand, is delighted that her son is a free man, and tells him she has found a solution to his financial worries. She has arranged with Sir Leicester for him to work at Chesney Wold, looking after the horses. Phil will join them.
Lady Dedlock pays Bucket a private visit, to ask him if her secret is safe. Bucket assures her that there's no reason for it to be brought up again at Hortense's trial. Little does he know, however, that Clamb has given the Hawdon letters back to Smallweed who intends to blackmail Sir Leicester. Guppy gets wind of the plan and rushes desperately to Chesney Wold to warn Lady Dedlock. But he is too late: Smallweed has already been let into the library. Knowing her secret is out, Lady Dedlock takes off her jewelry and writes a note of apology. Then, she flees Chesney Wold.
When Sir Leicester reads the note, his devastated reaction triggers a stroke. Bucket is called in to find Lady Dedlock. He roots through her things in search of clues, finding Esther's handkerchief among her private keepsakes. But Esther has not seen or heard anything of her mother. Esther insists on going with Bucket on his continued search, and despite his misgivings he agrees to take her and Woodcourt with him. They search the underbelly of the city, from Tom-All-Alone's to the Drowned of the River. But all to no avail.
The next morning they return, exhausted, to the London lodgings. Charley comes in with a letter, delivered by an urchin and addressed to Esther. It is from Lady Dedlock, begging her forgiveness, and ending '..the place where I shall lie down has often been in my mind.' Suddenly Bucket realizes where she must mean. They dash to the pauper's graveyard, where they find Lady Dedlock slumped by the gates. Esther rushes to her mother who dies in her arms.
Several months later, Sir Leicester is still heartbroken by Lady Dedlock's death. Even Boythorn recognizes he is a broken man, offering to end their long-running dispute about the rights of way of the land. Sir Leicester is deeply affronted by the idea that Boythorn sees him as a helpless invalid and refuses to accept victory. So, with both quite enjoying it really, their dispute continues.
George receives a visit from his brother at Chesney Wold. They finally put their old differences aside to their mother's great joy. George also tries to make amends with Esther by sending her a letter of apology for handing over Hawdon's writing sample to Tulkinghorn. He encloses the love letters from her mother to her father which ended up in Sir Leicester's possession.
Miss Flite tells Esther she has made Richard executor of her will, to take over her interest in the case in addition to his own, given that he is such a regular suitor in Chancery. More worryingly still, she has added two birds to her collection and named them 'the Wards in Jarndyce.'
When Esther visits Ada she finds her desperately concerned for Richard's health - all the more so because she is pregnant, and doubts he will live to see his child.
Woodcourt tells Esther that Jarndyce has found him a position as a medical practitioner in the north and he's going to take it. But she is the love of his life, and he wants to marry her and take her with him to Yorkshire. Esther has to turn him down, admitting she's not free to marry him since she's betrothed to Jarndyce. She is very upset, but pulls herself together and asks Jarndyce the next morning to set a date for their wedding. They will marry in a month.
Smallweed discovers an important document among Krook's many papers: a will from the original John Jarndyce, which predates all the others in the case. Kenge and Vholes confirm its veracity, and reveal that it will considerably increase Richard's interests in the case while reducing Jarndyce's share. Richard can hardly contain his excitement - they're going to be saved.
As they leave for court, Esther and Jarndyce are detained by a surprise visit from Guppy and his mother. Guppy is still in love with Esther and renews his proposal of marriage. Once more, Esther turns him down, enraging Mrs. Guppy in the process.
Chancery is in uproar: the case is over for good. There wasn't even time to submit the new will because everything has been consumed in costs. Richard tries to make a last complaint to the Chancellor, but is stopped when his mouth fills with blood. As he dies, Richard reconciles with Jarndyce.
Miss Flite finally sets her birds free. Some time later, Jarndyce suggests to Esther and Ada that they go on a little trip. They arrive in Yorkshire to find a house laid out exactly like Bleak House. Jarndyce tells Esther that this is her Bleak House. After Woodcourt came back to London, Jarndyce gradually realized that Woodcourt, not he, was the one for her. He frees her from her betrothal, so that she may marry Woodcourt.
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
Masterpiece is sponsored by: