First published in monthly parts from March 1852 to September 1853, this novel follows the fortunes of three pedestrian characters; Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone. The story they tell embondies Dickens’ merciless indictment of the Court of Chancery and its bungling, morally corrupt handling of the endless case of
Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, giving the novel its scope and meaning.
Starting with Esther’s account of her lonely, unhappy childhood, her role as protégée of the worthy John Jarndyce, Richard and Ada’s guardian, the tale develops the relations between the three young people in the Jarndyce household. Numerous other characters contribute to the complex portrait of society which emerges from the novel. They include the romantic, effusive, and unworldly Harold Skimpole (based on Leigh Hunt, poet, journalist, and critic, who published The Examiner in which he introduced the public to Keats and Shelley); the boisterous, short-tempered Boythorn (based on Walter Savage Landor, poet and essayist, mentor to Robert Browning); Krook, the rag-and-bottle shopkeeper who dies a hideous death by ‘spontaneous combustion’; Gridley and the crazed Miss Flite, both ruined by Chancery; Mrs. Jellyby, neglectful of domestic responsibilities in favor of ‘telescope philanthropy’; the greasy Mr. Chadband, a parson ‘of no particular denomination’; and Conversation Kenge and Mr. Vholes, lawyers both.
Of particular importance to the moral design of the novel is Jo, the crossing-sweeper whose brutish life and death are the instruments for one of Dickens’ most savage judgments on an indifferent society.