In celebration of Charles Dickens’ bicentennial this year, and as part of my participation in the Charles Dickens Month event hosted by Fig and Thistle, I am currently reading Bleak House by Dickens. Each and every Tuesday of January, I will share my reflections on the novel, as well as any themes I am really interested in. The quote in this post’s title comes from the first chapter of Bleak House, and refers to the dastardly Court of Chancery. So, this week, I am mainly interested in this court, and its purpose and history in Victorian England.
Synopsis of Bleak House from Goodreads:
Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens. A ‘great Victorian novel’, it is so inventive in its competing plots and styles that it eludes interpretation
Where I’m at in the Book: As with all of the classics I read, I have been doing historical background reading alongside the first chapter of Bleak House. I have only read the first chapter, which deals primarily with introducing the setting (a very foggy and muddy London), the Chancery Court, and the ongoing case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. To better understand the content of this chapter, and the book overall, I have been consulting What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, as well as Wikipedia entries on Bleak House and Charles Dickens.
The Court of Chancery
The disgust Dickens feels for the Court of Chancery is obvious from the get-go. His words describing the court drip with disdain. Even his description of the setting of London, where the court presides, paint a doom and gloom picture that echoes the tone of his overall feelings.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth. (2)
Imagine what Dickens might write if he was sitting on the steps of the Capitol!
[H]ere they are-mistily engaged in one of ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horse-hair warded heads against walls of words, and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. (3)
So, you’re telling me you don’t like lawyers? Why such an intense hatred for law and red tape? Here is where I start researching.
Dickens’ assault on the flaws of the British Judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and his experiences as a chancery litigant seeking to enforce his copyright on his earlier books.
Ah, so Dickens had spent some time in the Court of Chancery himself and had been burned. But, what exactly is the Court of Chancery?
In the early 1800s there were three kinds of law in England: common law, equity, and church, or canon, law. (127)
The law of equity was dispensed in the Chancery Court by the lord chancellor,[…] Chancery was where you got relief from decisions at common law that were strict or inflexible, […] Chancery would look to see whether your circumstances had put you at such a colossal disadvantage that the contract should be voided. (128)
So, the Court of Chancery sounds pretty good. If you don’t get justice in the Court of Common Law, you go to Chancery who will consider your circumstances. Apparently this was set up to help out the less fortunate–the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the insane, and the criminal. It sounds pretty good to me, so what’s the problem?
Chancery had become a bad joke by the mid-century.
It […] says something about the Chancery Court that the suit which helped inspire Bleak House, the Jennings case, began with an old man who left £1.5 million when he died in 1798 and had still not been settled in 1915, by which time the costs in the case had risen to £250,000.
Wow, they really couldn’t get much done! In the end, the lawyers’ fees almost equal the settlement sum! Here’s a really silly fact about the Chancery Court:
No evidence could actually be introduced in a Chancery suit–it was all done by questioning people. Nor could the parties or their lawyers participate in the questioning. If additional facts were needed to clarify a point, you were required to file a phony law suit in one of the common-law courts; for example, if you were trying to determine, say, whether a house mentioned in the case belonged to John Jones, you had to start a lawsuit in another court with one party alleging that he didn’t. You could not, God forbid, just produce a deed. (129)
Alright, I’m convinced- the Chancery Court was a terrible mess! Luckily, according to Wikipedia, Bleak House ended up spurring “an ongoing movement that culminated in enactment of the legal reform in the 1870’s”. Way to go Dickens! You were such a muckraker!
Well, I’m eager to read more snide comments by Dickens on the Court of Chancery, and see how the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case plays out. Hopefully, it doesn’t stretch on to 1915!
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (from the Complete Works, Centennial Edition). Published by Heron Books in Switzerland. (no date of publication; originally published in 1853).
Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. New York: Touchstone, 1983.