First Kill All the Chancery Courts:  An Essay on Charles Dickens’s ‘Bleak House’

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Today I finished Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Eight hundred eighty pages serialized in the usual nineteen parts between March 1852 and September 1853. It was not an easy read but it was worthwhile. Bleak House was written after Oliver Twist and David Copperfield but before A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. It is considered by many as Dickens’s most mature work. G.K. Chesterton said that that “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book, but perhaps it is his best novel” – adding:  “When Dickens wrote Bleak House he had grown up.”

I decided to read Bleak House because it is on many lists of the best 100 novels ever written, and often ranked higher than David Copperfield, which I loved and which Dickens favored among all his books (probably because it was so autobiographical). It is also usually ranked higher than Great Expectations, which I devoured in high school.

Reading Bleak House is a feat not just of endurance but of concentration. It’s often tough going because of the great number of characters, many of whom seem initially unrelated to the main narrative. It’s a complex story that does not move along a clear narrative trajectory but rather back and forth in time, meandering in circles, rife with sub-plots. This complexity may help explain why many critics rank it so high in the canon of western literature.

Dickens is best known for the marvelous characters that he created, but he was also a passionate reformer who focused on social ills in the England of his day. We learn about the country’s orphanages and poor houses from Oliver Twist. We also understand from Dickens the scandal of debtor’s prisons, where Dickens’s father was held at one time, and which his son described so well in Little Dorrit. In Bleak House, Dickens attacks the courts and lawyers. The vehicle Dickens uses for his scathing attack on the High Court of Chancery is the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a tangle of wills and disputed inheritance, which goes on for decades. (Warning:  Minor plot spoiler ahead.) Ultimately the costs run up by the court, the lawyers, the notaries, the clerks, and paralegals devour the estate. Everything in the novel revolves around this case and its effect on the many brilliantly drawn characters in this book.

The heroine of Bleak House is Esther Summerson, an orphan, whose guardian, John Jarndyce, brings her to Bleak House where she becomes the housekeeper. Esther also frequently narrates for the reader. As the story develops, it becomes clear that the other key character of the novel, Lady Dedlock, a beautiful, imperious woman, is Esther’s mother. Before Sir Leicester Dedlock had married her, she had an affair with a young Army officer and had a daughter by him. Lady Dedlock believes the child to be dead, and she marries Sir Leicester, and they live on his estate at Chesney Wold.

But Esther is indeed alive and has been raised by Lady Dedlock’s sister, who treats her with cold disdain, as if it is Esther’s fault that she has been illegitimately born. When Lady Dedlock’s sister dies, John Jarndyce begins to look after her and brings her to Bleak House along with two other wards, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, who are about the same age as Esther. The three of them – Jarndyce, Ada and Richard – are beneficiaries of the estate of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, should the case ever be settled by the Chancery Court.

Dickens never delves into the case itself and the claims and counterclaims involved. But Jarndyce and Jarndyce is ever present as the story unfolds. Jarndyce manages not to let the case grab his attention, and he has little hope that it will ever be settled or that he will inherit something. On the other hand, the young Richard Carstone becomes obsessed with the case, what Dickens calls the Cause, and it destroys him. Believing that he should inherit a significant amount of money, he is not able to settle down successfully to any given  profession, and he ultimately devotes his full time and effort to working with his lawyers to win the case, going deep into debt in order to do so.

The picture that Dickens paints has special resonance for me, as there are certainly parallels to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case here in the U.S. legal system. When I was president and chief executive officer of Boston Private Bank & Trust thirty years ago, we decided to grant unsecured credit lines of $50,000 or $100,000 to those whom we judged creditworthy clients. When the great New England real estate recession of 1989 arrived, a number of clients who had borrowed under these generous terms got into financial trouble and were unable to repay their debts. There being no debtor’s prisons in Boston, we went to our lawyers and asked them to sue clients who were either unable or unwilling to pay back the loans, because it seemed our only hope of getting our money back. However, we soon learned from our lawyers that to prepare the case, go to court, win a jury trial to attach the client’s property, and then sell the property in order to repay the loan was a lengthy and uncertain process. First, juries are notoriously fickle and often side with the borrower. Moreover, the whole process from beginning to end might take two years or longer and would cost the bank $100,000 or more to collect on a bad loan of perhaps $100,000. Shades of Jarndyce and Jarndyce … Our remedy after learning this distressing information was to just write off the bad loans, and in the future grant only secured loans.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the U.S. legal system involves lawyers working on contingency fees. They represent clients who don’t pay their hourly rates; they are paid only from their cut of a judgment when they win the case. This leads to the scandal of lawyers continually trolling for clients on TV to join class action lawsuits dealing with every conceivable perceived injustice – allegedly faulty products, drugs with side effects, affirmative action, and on and on. Interestingly enough, the British came up with a way to limit the scourge of contingency-fee lawyers by making the loser pay the legal fees of the winner (which means lawyers drumming up cases have a potential down side for losing to balance the potential boon for winning). The British have also mandated reasonable settlements, as opposed to the recent award of $8 billion against Johnson and Johnson in a case where a man sued the company over the side effects of   the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal.

In any event, Dickens saw the Chancery Court System as a great social ill and was scathing in his indictment of it in Bleak House.

Another observation about Bleak House is the total absence of prurience and sexual innuendo. There’s plenty of opportunity for it. After all, the story starts with an affair by Lady Dedlock with a young Army officer resulting in Esther’s birth. Later Esther is brought to Bleak House as a young woman of perhaps 18 by her middle-aged guardian, and over time they show great affection for each other. In fact, John Jarndyce later in the book proposes marriage to Esther, who develops into a charming, gracious, humble, and lovely woman. Esther and her soulmate, Ada Clare, love each other deeply, and Dickens frequently describes their affectionate kissing and hugging, as they look out for each other. Ultimately Ada and Richard, who have lived in Bleak House together for many years as teen-agers and young adults, marry. If this were written now in our sex-drenched culture, there would be intimations or actual descriptions of sexual harassment, trysts, and lesbian sex. What a blessing to see how Dickens deals eloquently with such relationships in a culture where sexual promiscuity is not presumed to be lurking behind every corner.

Bleak House is a great novel – replete with honor, duty, kindness, tragedy, pathos, and love. It is indeed one of Charles Dickens’s best books and deserves to be placed in the pantheon of Dickens’s other great works.

Cover of the first serial version of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House, published in March 1852. Illustration from the New York Public Library Berg Collection, via Wikipedia.

Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $4.1 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.