Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Essays on Selective Readings
October 5, 2017
“Thus, in the midst of the mud and at the heart of the fog,
sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.”
Charles Dicken (1812-1870)
Bleak House, 1853
We live in a litigious age. Bleak House is a reminder that many in the legal profession have long put personal interests first. “The one great principal of the English law is, to make business for itself,” Dickens wrote. Things haven’t changed. Last July, The New York Times reported about the artist Paul Klee’s painting “Swamp Legend.” It took twenty-six years for the courts to resolve an ownership law suit, and to reimburse the family from whom the painting had been stolen by the Nazis seventy-five years ago. The lawyers, we can assume, did not work pro bono. In the U.S. – again, exposed by the Times – was the story of a two-year odyssey in in the guardianship system. Susan Garland wrote of a daughter who sought permission to take her father to dinner. Before granting permission, the court-appointed guardian and lawyers racked up an “estimated $2,500 in fees.” Ms. Garland added: “The Government Accountability Office has found that state guardianship systems across the country are rife with exploitation.”
In England, it was the Court of Chancery that had jurisdiction over all matters of equity, trusts, wills and guardianships. In Bleak House, Dickens uses the fictional case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce to make his point, to expose the corruption of the courts and the lawyers who feed off them. In his introduction, he wrote of a case: “…there is a suit before the Court which was commenced nearly twenty years ago; in which from thirty to forty counsel have been known to appear at one time; in which costs have been incurred to the amount of seventy thousand pounds.” (That would be roughly equal to $10 million today.) His view of lawyers is caustic: “…in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.”
There are plots within plots, and even subplots within subplots. In the first chapter, Dickens sets the wintery scene: “As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth…” “Smoke lowering down from chimneypots, making a soft black drizzle…” “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…”.
Bleak House is one of Dickens main novels, a sweeping evocation of England in the 1830s, told through the eyes of the estimable and empathetic Esther Summerson, Dickens only (I believe) female narrator. Ms. Summerson does not know her parents’ identity, only that her birth is “no cause for celebration.” As a young woman, she becomes a guardian of the decent and kind John Jarndyce, along with two other principal characters, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, both of whom are beneficiaries under the will in question. Through her, the reader is witness to birth and death, apathy and elation, misery and joy. Esther Summerson’s origins are hinted at, but kept from the reader until the novel nears its conclusion, when they are gradually unwrapped, providing answers to questions that had pestered but eluded the reader.
All is not bleak in Bleak House, though. Tragedy and drama are tempered with comic relief. Two such characters: Mrs. Jellyby, “A lady of very remarkable strength of character…devoted to the subject of Africa…the cultivation of the coffee berry…and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.” Mr. Skimpole: “I turn my silver lining outward, like Milton’s cloud, and it’s more agreeable to both of us. That’s my view of such things, speaking as a child!”
Dickens is read for his characters, his stories, and his fictional depiction of inhumane conditions of the poor and the mean-spirited, demeaning individuals who take advantage of the unfortunate. His novels convey messages of wrongs that need righting. His success could be seen not only in the number of books he sold, but in the passage of reform measures.
Bleak House is one of Dickens’ longer books, but well worth the time.