On a raw November afternoon, London is enshrouded in heavy fog made harsher by chimney smoke. The fog seems thickest in the vicinity of the High Court of Chancery. The court, now in session, is hearing an aspect of the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. A "little mad old woman" is, as always, one of the spectators. Two ruined men, one a "sallow prisoner," the other a man from Shropshire, appear before the court — to no avail. Toward the end of the sitting, the Lord High Chancellor announces that in the morning he will meet with "the two young people" and decide about making them wards of their cousin.
This first chapter makes Dickens' social criticism explicit and introduces one of the book's principal themes: the ruin that the Chancery Court has made and will continue to make of many people's lives. Court costs and lawyers' fees have already exhausted all the inheritance money in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The case has gone on for so many years and has "become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means." Rather than producing clarity and justice, the court — like much of the workings of the law in general — produces a fog that obscures, a fog that creates confusion and depression in which people are lost. The "little mad old woman" is one of these; the prisoner and the Shropshire man (Gridley) are others. The effect of presenting them is to persuade us that Dickens is right: The High Court of Chancery is an institutionalized abuse of the law.
Since "the two young people" (Ada Clare and Richard Carstone) and their cousin (Mr. John Jarndyce) will soon figure prominently in the story, Dickens prepares us for the eventual meeting. Their names are not given here; they would mean nothing to us at this point, and Dickens strengthens his attack on the court by implying that the Chancellor, though he is "Lord" and "High," is, as usual, too negligent and uninterested to be able to recall their names.
Chapter 1 moves ponderously, dramatizing the inaction of Chancery and the stagnation of the lives that wait for its decisions. There is nothing here to satisfy a taste for fast-moving action. To stick with Dickens, we have to adjust to his method, which is to offer a feast in description and in language, rather than in a rapidly developing plot.