Whoa, total about-face as we flip into the voice of a first-person narrator, Esther. The third-person narrator specializes in sounding obnoxious, mocking everything he describes. Esther, on the other hand, is all about self-flagellation and self-deprecation. She is someone totally unlikely to want to write or talk about her life – and that's just how she sounds.
She begins at the beginning, with her totally miserable childhood.
Raised by a woman she knows as her godmother, Esther has no friends, no family, and no one who's nice to her. Her only companion is a doll, which she talks to.
The godmother is cold, unloving, and generally miserable. Esther, though, keeps calling her very good, mostly because the woman is really, really religious.
On Esther's birthdays, this godmother tells her how much better everything would be if she had never been born. (And you thought that ugly sweater was a bad birthday present!)
Whenever Esther asks about her mother or father (she doesn't remember either of them) the godmother just quotes the Bible in response. Also, she says "your mother is your disgrace, and you were hers" (3.14). To a 10-year-old. Awesome.
When Esther is 12, a chubby, important-looking man comes to the house, looks her over, and leaves. Nothing happens.
Two years later the godmother has some kind of fit and dies. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
The man comes back and introduces himself as Kenge from the law firm of Kenge and Carboy. He reveals that this godmother was actually Esther's aunt (shocker!), but an aunt in fact and not in law (whatever that means).
Kenge offers Esther the chance to go to a boarding school to learn how to be a governess, and eventually to work for Mr. Jarndyce.
Esther is totally floored by this offer. She is pretty much totally floored anytime anyone is the slightest bit nice to her, actually. It's sort of awful and horrifying to read how little kindness she has ever experienced and how deeply she feels it whenever anything positive happens to her. Her response is usually to talk about how little she deserves it.
Esther is enrolled at Greenleaf, a school where she spends six years learning stuff and then learning to teach the stuff she's learned. She loves it there.
One day she gets a letter stating that in five days she will be off to London to be a governess for Mr. Jarndyce's ward, per the plan. She is sad to leave the school, and everyone there tells her how much they love her and will miss her.
In London she comes to the Court of Chancery and meets Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Richard and Ada are going to be Mr. Jarndyce's wards. Ada is about 17 and will be Esther's pupil. Richard is Ada's distant cousin and is about 19. Esther is 20.
Esther and Ada become fast friends and after meeting with the Lord Chancellor, who OKs the Mr.-Jarndyce-wards thing, they leave the court building.
Outside they run into the crazy little old lady who hangs out there. She blesses them, is impressed to meet "the wards in Jarndyce" and tells them that she is expecting a Day of Judgment. She seems to be mixing up the end of the world with the end of the court case. Pay attention here: the crazy old woman is kind of wacko, but in that way where you know that everything she is saying is actually really relevant, meaningful, and highly symbolic.