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Why Dickens Matters


Charles Dickens, Bleak House,
Harper’s Magazine, April 1852 – October 1853


Harper’s Magazine was launched with many literary aspirants, but with one fully recognized literary giant, whose works it published faithfully over several decades. That, of course, was Charles Dickens. Two of his short pieces were published in the first number of Harper’s in June 1850, and the relationship continued from that point. Harper’s built its subscription rolls on demand for his works, and Dickens was paid handsomely for what he produced – some £4,000 for Bleak House, £1,000 each for A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend, £1,250 for Great Expectations, £250 for Little Dorritt. To give some meaning to these sums, this is more than the purchase price that James Roosevelt (FDR’s grandfather) paid in 1867 for Hyde Park (then called Springwood), an important Hudson Valley estate. By the time of the Civil War, Harper’s had brought a good deal of Dickens into print–recollections, short stories and novels.

There really isn’t any doubt as to which work was the masterpiece of this period, however: that surely was Bleak House. This is certainly not Dickens’s most popular work, but for its ponderous depth and substance, its intricate polyphony of plotlines, its fascinatingly diverse parade of characters, it has no serious competitors for first place among all his novels.

It’s tough to sketch a plot line for Bleak House because there are in fact a great many plots running in tandem. But at its core lies the great Chancery case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a “scarecrow of a suit” surrounding a great estate and involving a number of wills, each poorly drawn and unclear. “The lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth.” (ch. viii) The matter festers for a generation before the Lord Chancellor, making little ostensible progress, but allowing the various counsel to enrich themselves in the process. And in the end, as a solution is at last found to the vexing question of the deceased’s intent, the case is closed–all the assets of the once great estate having now been consumed in costs. The law case seems a vehicle to prove a proposition that Dickens stated often, claiming it as the product of his youthful apprenticeship as a law clerk: “The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.” (ch. xxxix) But it also is the thread that ties the lives of the core characters of the novel; it brings them together with enough promise, greed, deceit, envy and mistrust to fill a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

The Court of Chancery should, of course, be a light of truth and justice on all of this. But that it certainly is not. The image that Dickens chooses, very appropriately, is not light, but fog:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights . . .

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are the muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery . . .

[T]he Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it, and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give–who does not often give–the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!” (ch. i)

One really need read no further to know Dickens’s attitudes nor how this novel will unfold, at least in Chancery. Dante’s warning was never better wielded in English literature. Indeed, it may be that the principal character of this novel is not human, but rather the artifice of humans: the Court of Chancery itself, an embodiment of the legal profession. This point, Dickens lays in the mouth of another suitor whose life is ruined by the twists of Chancery, “the man from Shropshire,” Mr. Gridley:

“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you–is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied–as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I?–I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ He is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here–I may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!” (ch. xv)

Dickens lays out the sordid and vainglorious totality of the legal profession in the early days of Queen Victoria. It includes some of the coldest and most reprehensible figures to populate the Dickensian landscape. They all keep carefully within the limits of social respectability, and, needless to say, the law. They are the zealous guardians of tradition, class privilege and wealth. And under the pretense of serving their clients, they are very busy about amassing their own private fortunes. None quite matches the pious villainy of Mr. Tulkinghorn, a solicitor so famed even the Lord Chancellor acknowledges his presence in the Chancery court. And beyond this there is the distasteful Mr. Vholes, who specializes in separating his clients from their last pound-note, only then to proceed to collect from well-intending relations of his victims. The only ray of hope for this group is provided by the brilliantly named Mr. Guppy, who seems driven to do right (though assuredly not too much), even as he quakes in the presence of the great Tulkinghorn. Dickens leaves us all to worry for poor Mr. Guppy. Does he have what it takes to survive in a tank filled with such sharks?

But what is the fog that enshrouds these benighted humans? Is it the law? In a sense, certainly. The lawyerly populace of Bleak House are like the priestly cast of a degenerate religion. They keep reflexively to the letter of the law. But the spirit of the law, the animating beacon–that has gone dead. The quality that goes missing is simple. It is justice.

There is no justice for the wards in Jarndyce, nor for Captain Howdan, dead from an overdose of opium, nor for Mr. Boythorn nor his nemesis, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, but most importantly there is no justice for those who live on the periphery of this great new society of wealth, property and consumerism.

For this proposition Bleak House presents us with the poignant tale of Joe–he is robbed of all other names–the forgotten persecuted victim of Tulkinghorn and his detective marionette, Inspector Bucket. Joe, the good-natured orphan, who demands nothing yet is constantly assailed by the guardians of “society,” by its constabulary and lawyers. It is melodrama perhaps, but necessary–and it culminates in Joe’s death, a painful, protracted death of double pneumonia, muted only in the last hours by the warmth of friendship kindled by John Jarndyce and his entourage. A death sounded in the most memorable and affecting lines of the novel: “Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.” (ch. xlvii)

One can forgive much to take in such a rich portraiture. And certainly Bleak House has its faults. The two distinct narrative voices are very confusing. It veers dangerously into the saccharine, the melodramatic. It is overstuffed with unnecessary detail. It shows no respect for economy of phrase and language. And is it not in fact too complex! It is a great challenge keeping track of all these characters (many with a Tobias Smollett-like crudity about them) and intricate subplots. Difficult for a modern reader–but imagine following this novel in monthly installments over a year!

Its plot hinges too perilously on an absurd fiction–the spontaneous combustion of the well-named Mr. Crook, the law-stationer. Like a figure from Balzac’s Comédie humaine, Mr. Crooks’s surroundings merge into his persona; his office, we learn, is a “storehouse of awful implements of the great torture of the law.” (ch. x). A bit too much cheap gin is all it takes, Dickens thinks, to provoke a self-immolation. This, alas, is literary quackery.

But apart from plots and messages, this novel can be appreciated simply for the beauty, the originality of its language, the brilliance of its expression, the mastery of dialect and its use to color characters. In rereading it this last week, I paused on a line of Mr. Snagsby’s in chapter xi: “not to put too fine a point on it,” he says. A wonderful phrase I’ve used a hundred times and, indeed, it was born in these pages.

This novel also covers the intriguing geography of the dark alleyways and internal courtyards between Holborn and Fleet Street–in Dickens’s age, and today, the “dark valley of the law.”

In a sense, Dickens is ridiculing the Chancery Court system as it existed in the early 1840’s. By the time he wrote, society would gladly have accepted these criticisms. Should we then dismiss the book as a quaint historical novel, addressing long-irrelevant technical shortcomings? I think not. Dickens’s work stands alongside Victor Hugo’s Les misérables, another great masterwork of the nineteenth century, as an exploration of justice and man’s sad efforts to approximate it in a regime driven not by justice but by law. Both of these works look at the legal profession and the law courts and form an appropriately severe judgment. It is not the particular criticisms which are vital to us today, however. It is the critical facility: the need to recognize the Javerts and Tulkinghorns who still stalk our stage; who master the detail of the law but are blind to its purpose.


Dickens matters to us today, and of his work, Bleak House is the element that has the most important message. America today faces the gravest crisis to the integrity of its justice system of its history. Seven years ago, perhaps, we worried about the humanity of our prisons and the fairness of capital punishment, particularly as new advances in forensic technique showed the astonishing number of cases in which the innocent were convicted. Those are grave matters, but in the last few years they have been overtaken by a still more fundamental rot deep in the vitals of the justice system. The notions of fairness and impartiality are essential to the system’s integrity. But over the past six years, it has been infected with a virulent partisan disease which has crept slowly through the Department of Justice and ultimately has seized it from the head.

The prospect of politically directed prosecutions is something associated with tyrannical states and banana dictatorships. But under the rule of George Bush and Alberto Gonzales, it has become the reality of the “justice” that emanates from Washington. What America faces is something far more serious than a cold-hearted Lord Chancellor seated at the center of a system which subsists like a cold, raw fog. It is something more malevolent, more dangerous than that. And to the extent that the legal profession sit blindly in that fog and pursue their own wealth (which they do in America today, in a way that the Tulkinghorns could never imagine), oblivious to the infamies perpetrated in the name of justice and the law, they add to the disrepute of the whole. And they merit the contempt in which the political overlords of this sad new system hold them already.

Dickens has a distinct moral voice and vision; it is the sustaining force of his writing. He is driven by anger and passion. But there is no hatred in what he writes; instead there is generosity, even to those he tars. In the old Socialist world he was forever derided as the man bound by his “bourgeois morality,” incapable of articulating a critical positive vision. “Yes, this capitalist system is corrupt to its core, but Dickens has nothing to suggest to replace it.” But in fact of course Dickens is no radical or revolutionary; he does not reject capitalism, or industrialization. He only suggests that in this dramatic rush into modernity we not lose sight of common decency, and that we adhere to traditional and closely-held ideas of what is just. That is important precisely because it is not intended to appeal to an oppressed class, or to those who have achieved wealth, privilege and comfort. It is intended to provide a social bond which will hold society together by reinforcing its most fundamental values. This is the particular genius of Dickens.

And today America needs to think carefully about these same qualities, and foremost among them, justice. Do we still have shared notions of what is just? That seems almost a ridiculous question–but in the last six years, we have had a government which has taken a sledgehammer to the essential artifacts of our collective view of justice–to habeas corpus, the right not to be detained without charges, the presumption of innocence, and the notion that justice is administered equally to all. In the face of this the public at large has been silent, and the legal profession has emitted barely a whimper. But a far better thing it would have been, had the spirit of Dickens ruled the day. It would have meant resolute opposition, moral fortitude, and a loud and clear voice in response. That voice, alas, went missing.

“I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart,” says Dickens. There is a message deep in Bleak House that seems measured for the lawyers above all others. It is an admonition not to forget that the law is, in the end, really about justice – and if not that, it has lost the power to command our respect. The good lawyer will not be a Tulkinghorn, a Vholes, or even a Guppy. He will be someone more like Dickens himself, or perhaps his sensible, warm-hearted protagonist, John Jarndyce. Whatever the law permits or commands, he will not lose sight of his duties to his fellow men, and he will never close his lips.

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