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Bleak House is the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. It is held to be one of Dickens's finest and most complete novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon. Dickens tells all of these both through the narrative of the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and as an omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly but depressive John Jarndyce and the childish Harold Skimpole.
The plot concerns a long-running legal dispute (Jarndyce and Jarndyce) which has far-reaching consequences for all involved and involves a convoluted will, monies and land surrounding the Manor of Marr in South Yorkshire. Dickens's assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk. His harsh characterisation of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave voice to widespread frustration with the system, and is often thought of as having helped to set the stage for its eventual 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. This raises the point 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.