Summary of Chapter VI: Quite at Home
The day becomes brighter as they leave London for the green landscape of Hertfordshire and Bleak House. Each ward is given an identical letter by their guardian, John Jarndyce, explaining that they must all meet as old friends. Ada and Richard know that cousin John will not be thanked, that he actually runs out of the room if anyone expresses gratitude.
Bleak House is old-fashioned, and they are met by cousin John with warm hospitality. He is about sixty but still handsome. He asks the young people to tell their real thoughts about the Jellybys, who have tried to get money from him for the cause. When they try to tell the cruelty to the Jellyby children, John mentions “the wind is in the east” (p. 49), his phrase for anything bad that happens. The wards immediately love their guardian and settle into their new home. Esther is given the keys to the house, for she is now entrusted with the management of Bleak House.
At dinner they are introduced to Harold Skimpole, a friend of John’s, who is “a child,” an “Amateur” who does not bother to do anything but sponge off his friends. He has a dozen children whom he does not look after. He is charming and negligent, explaining his philosophy that all he asked of society was to let him live. “The butterflies are free,” he says (58).
Skimpole gets Esther and Rick alone in an upstairs room where he is being threatened by the sheriff’s man (Neckett) with arrest for debt. He manages to get them to pay the money and acts like he is doing them a favor to let them help him.
Esther learns backgammon to be a partner for John, and Richard and Ada enjoy the music of her piano in the other room. In this happiness, Esther briefly wonders if John is her father.
Commentary on Chapter VI
The warmth of Bleak House and its makeshift family is the kind of sentimental and homey scene Dickens does as well as he does the underworld. John is fatherly, as Esther is motherly. Richard and Ada are already falling in love. John, though generous, is no fool. He asks for a report about the Jellybys, and mentions that he sent them there on purpose to see what was going on. At the mention of the cruelty to the children, John sensitively turns away. He is a true-hearted innocent, as contrasted to the self-proclaimed innocent, Skimpole.
Esther, though she claims not to be clever, is so acute that she is able to see through Skimpole’s pose. He is proud of his irresponsibility, claiming to be a child, a “butterfly” and that it is society’s duty to take care of him. Esther is skeptical of this philosophy.
Skimpole is Dickens’s satire on the figure of Leigh Hunt, the friend of freethinker Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron, and John Keats. Hunt was a poet, critic, journalist, and liberal thinker of his time, though aging by the eighteen-fifties. He established one of the most famous periodicals, The Examiner, in which he published liberal writers. In poverty most of his life, with ten children, he had a charming personality, and a sort of gypsy and chaotic home, into which he invited young writers, among them Dickens, who helped organize a pension for him.
The warmth of Bleak House contrasts with the coldness of the Dedlock home, Chesney Wold, in Lincolnshire, in the next chapter.