Despite the obvious importance of Esther Summerson, Lady Honoria Dedlock dominates Bleak House. She either initiates or becomes the object of nearly all of the most interesting or exciting actions in the story. Tulkinghorn’s pursuit of her secret, her attempts to evade his snares, her boldness and courage in seeking out Captain Hawdon’s burial place and in punishing herself by self-exile and what amounts to suicide — all this is considerably more interesting than anything that happens to Esther.
The somewhat odd thing, experienced by some readers as a weakness in the novel, is that Lady Dedlock’s domination of the book is not matched by her connection with the story’s main theme. There is a connection but it is not a strong one. To press his biggest point (theme) home, Dickens should probably have made Lady Dedlock’s misfortunes the direct result of some aspect of the Jarndyce and Jamdyce court case or, in any event, of some action or inaction of the Chancery court. Tulkinghorn is, of course, a Chancery court lawyer, but he isn’t restricted to that court, and corrupt or self-seeking lawyers are as likely to be found in one place as in another. It is a mere accident — the noticing of some papers that Tulkinghorn happens to spread on a table in the Dedlock house — that commences Lady Dedlock’s downfall. That initiating situation represents no meanness or malevolence on the part of either Tulkinghorn or Chancery. Nor does Lady Dedlock suffer because Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been a fiasco; rich, secure, comfortable, she is in no way dependent on the outcome of that suit even though she does have some slight involvement in it. Lady Dedlock dominates the story but fails to dominate the theme. This is a clear example of artistic (or literary) disunity and is perhaps the only serious instance of it in Bleak House.
Dickens also chooses not to give us an intimate portrait of the lady. We see little of her inner life; the concrete details of her memories, thoughts, feelings, moods, sensations are not presented. Such portraiture, barren of the concrete, of details, is called “externality” of characterization. Does it mean that Lady Dedlock remains, for us, unknown, unreal?