by Charles Dickens
Where It All Goes Down
Mid-Victorian London and Suburbs
The plot of Bleak House only works in the context of its historical setting (the middle of the 19th century) and its geographical location (London and its 'burbs). So, first things first – let's rustle up what we know about Victorian England. The stereotype: straight-laced, repressed, overdressed people who were way not into the human body. The truth: see the stereotype. For our purposes, it's really important not to underestimate how big a deal sex and pregnancy outside marriage really was. It was a Really Big Deal that could plausibly ruin a woman's life.
Also important for the plot is the fact that we're dealing with London, a ginormous, sprawling metropolis. Although nowadays we think of slums as a normal part of any big city, back then it was pretty new. So it was way more shocking that just a few streets away from the mansions of the super-rich were the collapsing tenements of the desperately poor. For anyone who needed a quick shorthand way of highlighting the inequalities of life (ahem, Dickens), London was the perfect setting for characters from wildly different economic classes to plausibly bump into each other.
Chesney Wold (an aristocratic estate), Bleak House (a middle-class house), Tom-all-Alone's (a London slum)
What's it like to be these characters? Short of describing a typical day ("First, Esther woke up. Then she washed her face. Then she walked to the door..." = boring!), a really handy tool is describing where they live. After all, so much of how we go about our daily lives depends on where we spend our days – our environment's logistics shape our actions to an enormous degree. And so we find quite a difference between the main places where the domestic action takes place.
Chesney Wold is enormous, cavernous, cold, haunted, usually wrapped in dust-covers, and generally not particularly welcoming to human life. And so, at first glance, we find the Dedlocks to be themselves: locked into very formal and ritualized ways of behaving, tending to prefer isolation and elitism, and never expressing emotions or interest about anything.
Then, there is the normative (check it out – that's actually a pretty good English-paper word meaning "most culturally appropriate" or "modeling or prescribing the way something ought to be") middle-class comfort of Bleak House. It's a comfortable place with enough room for everyone. It is also a sort of informal, ad hoc structure, with random layers having been added on without a master plan. And its inhabitants, in the best of times, match that style. Esther and Jarndyce roll with life's punches without too much freaking out, and their main goal in life is to provide comfort and protection to whomever they come across without too much fuss.
Finally, we've got the surreal horror of Tom-all-Alone's, the forgotten slum that is literally covered with oozing garbage and excrement, and where buildings fall down every now and again without anyone from the outside caring all that much about the damage. Jo's life here is as difficult as can be imagined. Homelessness, dirt, disease – you name it, it's here. Even when Jo gets some money from the veiled woman, going to Tom-all-Alone's guarantees that most of it will be stolen or confiscated from him.