Esther is raised by Miss Barbary, Lady Dedlock's spartan sister / When Miss Barbary dies, the Chancery lawyer "Conversation" Kenge takes charge of Esther's future on the instruction of hisclient, John Jarndyce. Jarndyce becomes Esther's guardian,
Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock is also a beneficiary under one of the wills in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Early in the book, while listening to hersolicitor, the close-mouthed but shrewd Mr. Tulkinghorn, read an affidavit aloud, she recognizes the handwriting on the copy. The sight affects her so much that she almost faints, which Tulkinghorn notesand thinks important enough to investigate. He recognizes that Lady Dedlock has focused on the affidavit's handwriting, and seeks to trace the copyist. He discovers that the copyist was a pauper knownonly as "Nemo" and that he has recently died. The only person to identify him is a street-sweeper, a poor homeless boy named Jo.
Lady Dedlock also investigates the matter, disguising herself as herFrench maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. In disguise, she pays Jo to take her to Nemo's grave. Meanwhile, convinced that Lady Dedlock's secret might be a threat to the interests of his client, Sir LeicesterDedlock, Tulkinghorn begins to watch her every move, even enlisting the aid of the maid, who detests her.
She waits to confront Esther with this knowledge until Esther has survived a bout with anunidentified disease (possibly smallpox, as it permanently disfigures her), which she contracted from her maid Charley (whom she devotedly nursed back to health). Though they are happy at being...