This is how the two main characters start off. One is on her way up, the other on her way down. Will they cross in the middle? Are they in any way connected?
As soon as Tulkinghorn is on the case, Lady Dedlock is running scared, and we know something big is going to go down when the big secret is finally revealed. Meanwhile Esther starts to develop her adult self, becoming housekeeper at Bleak House, taking care of Ada, tending to the various unfortunates she encounters in London, and starting a tentative love affair with Woodcourt. The stories of both women parallel nicely here. Both are starting to confront whatever inner desires and feelings they have been hiding all this time. For Esther, it's her attraction to Woodcourt and a slowly growing sense that she is pretty awesome. For Lady Dedlock, it's her repressed maternal instincts, now directed at Rosa and her extreme guilt over her past.
Just when she thought the past was safely buried, Lady Dedlock realizes that she actually has a grown-up daughter. Meanwhile, all of Esther's hopes about Woodcourt seem dashed, since she is no longer pretty. Both respond to the sudden shocks with some level of grace under pressure. Lady Dedlock throws caution to the wind and decides to do the right thing, telling Esther she is her mother. Esther sucks it up and decides to try to turn gratitude and duty into romantic love by marrying Jarndyce.
Lady Dedlock cannot live with the weight of her guilt. She becomes depressed and suicidal when she thinks about the daughter she didn't raise (who was raised by her hateful sister instead), the fiancé she didn't marry (who ended up dying in abject poverty in some hellhole), and the husband she betrayed (who is about to be publicly humiliated when her past is made known to the world and she is accused of murder).
The detective and the long-lost daughter set out on a crazy chase through the countryside, in extreme winter weather, with time constantly ticking away and not too many clues to go on. It's a nail-biter.
Lady Dedlock is already dead of exposure by the time they get to her. Oh, man. But on the other hand, now Esther no longer has to worry about everyone finding out her secret and ruining her mother's life. In other excellent news, Lady Dedlock was not the murderer after all. It's a win-win! Oh, right, except for the dead-of-exposure part.
Esther doesn't have to marry Jarndyce after all and ends up owning her womanhood as Woodcourt's wife, the mother of his children, and his medical assistant. Lady Dedlock's honor and reputation remain intact and she is buried beside Sir Dedlock with love in the family crypt. And sure, Richard dies and Ada is a single mom, but somehow that seems OK.