Dickens’ first experience with the law probably came in 1824 when his father, John Dickens, was arrested for debt and imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison. After six months John Dickens was released , but Charles stored up events, people, and impressions in his memory and transformed them into materials for novels, particularly Little Dorrit. He showed that we live in an arbitrary, brutish world and that the law, as Mr. Bumble so famously put it, “is a ass–a idiot,” responding to the statement that as a husband he is responsible for his wife’s actions because he was present when she disposed of the jewelry that would have identified Oliver. Mr. Brownlow says that Bumble is in fact “the more guilty of the two, in the eyes of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”
Dickens gained much first-hand information of the operation of the law when, at age 15, he began a clerkship in the law office of Charles Molloy, and afterwards in the offices of Ellis and Blackmore. Edward Blackmore later recalled that several of the incidents and characters encountered in his office became well-known in Pickwick and in Nicholas Nickelby.
Soon becoming bored, Dickens taught himself an extremely difficult short hand system and became a law reporter, transcribing cases in Doctors’ Commons, the Court of Chancery, and police courts. In 1939 he registered as a student barrister at Middle Temple but never followed through. I am not convinced that Dickens actually aspired to the legal profession, rather this was probably a kind of safety net, in case his writing career failed, for this was still early in his career, and he was worried about working his popularity to death. Also, he may have had in mind the review of Abraham Hayward in the Quarterly Review, which said, “Mr. Dickens writes too often and too fast. . . . He has risen like a rocket, and he will come down like a stick.”
While writing Oliver Twist, he slipped into the court of the notoriously harsh Mr. Laing, magistrate in the Hatton Garden Police Court. Laing subsequently appears as Mr. Fang, who is eager to send little Oliver off to prison before Mr. Brownlow arrives to testify that another boy was the thief, not Oliver.
As a reporter Dickens covered the trial of the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, accused of having an illicit affair with the beautiful Caroline Norton. The case was dismissed when it was discovered that it was based on the flimsiest of gossip and supposedly incriminating letters between the two that proved to contain no implicaton of impropriety. This case inspired him to write Mrs. Bardell’s breach of promise trial against Mr. Pickwick. The appearance and names of Mrs. Bardell’s lawyers, Dodson and Fogg, reveal much about them: Fogg “was an elderly, pimply faced. . . man; a kind of being who seemed to be an essential part of the desk at which he was writing, and to have as much thought or sentiment.”
At the lower end of the profession is Soloman Pell, the attorney for the Insolvent Court, who had no fixed office, his “legal business being transacted in the parlours of public houses, or the yards of prisons.” Equally low and, in this case, loathsome is Sampson Brass, whom Dickens describes as “an attorney of no very good repute. . . a tall, meagre man, with. . . a cringing manner but a very harsh voice.” Brass is Quilp’s creature and legal advisor in The Old Curiosity Shop. He engineers the arrest of Kit Nubbles on a trumped-up charge of theft. Fortunately, through fear and vindictiveness he finally turns against Quilp and betrays him.
Did Dickens in fact hate the law and lawyers? Not at all. He was friendly with several leading legal figures of the day, including Chief Justice Cockburn, Baron Bramwell, Mr. Justice Willes, Lord Denman, Lord Chief Baron Pollock, and Lord Campbell. His long and close relationship with Serjeant Talfourd, later Mr. Justice Talfourd, provided him with legal advice in both his personal affairs and also on the legal aspects of his writings. He dedicated Pickwick Papers to Talfourd and used him as a model for Tommy Traddles in David Copperfield. And we must not forget that Dickens’s most intimate friend and advisor, John Forster, was trained in the law and entered the Inner Temple, one of the inns of court for barristers. But he got his living as a man of letters, as critic, editor, biographer, and historian. What we can safely say is that Dickens hated certain types of lawyers.
He did not hesitate to use the law, taking publishers and authors to court over plagiarism and copyright infringement. He suffered from the shortcomings of the Chancery Court when in 1844 he successfully obtained an injunction to prevent piracies of A Christmas Carol. The defendants promptly declared themselves bankrupt, leaving Dickens to pay his own considerable legal fees.
Bleak House is, of course, Dickens’s great indictment of the most blatant failures of the legal system. He establishes this with the second paragraph:
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified 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. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”
He immediately makes clear that the fog is a metaphor for the Court of Chancery: “The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are 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.”
One does not have to look far to find indictment after indictment of the system. After introducing the attorney, Mr. Vholes–a “vholes,” by the way, is a type of rat, or in a card game, a situation in which the dealer holds all the winning cards–after introducing Vholes, the narrator says, “The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.” He then adds, sarcastically, “Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”
Central to the novel is the Jarndyce case: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out. . . there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.”
We have a catalog of characters destroyed by the suit, Richard Carstone, a ward of the court, being on center stage, with Miss Flite, driven mad by her obsession with the suit, also a prominent character. For Richard, the problem is that the distraction is so great that he cannot focus, trying one career path after another, never being able to settle, always thinking that he needs no profession because the case will soon be settled leaving him wealthy. All this despite warnings from John Jarndyce, who wisely keeps a safe distance from the case and does not allow himself even to think about it. But with the impetuosity of youth he dives in, destroying his life and ruining the life of Ada Clare, as he dies, leaving her a widow with his son, both of whom become dependent on the charity of the ever-patient John Jarndyce.
The plight of Gridley, known as “The Man from Shropshire,” must be included here, although he is not part of the Jarndyce suit:
“Mr. Jarndyce,” he said, “consider my case. As true as there is a heaven above us, this is my case. I am one of two brothers. My father (a farmer) made a will and left his farm and stock and so forth to my mother for her life. After my mother’s death, all was to come to me except a legacy of three hundred pounds that I was then to pay my brother. My mother died. My brother some time afterwards claimed his legacy. I and some of my relations said that he had had a part of it already in board and lodging and some other things. Now mind! That was the question, and nothing else. No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything but whether part of that three hundred pounds had been already paid or not. To settle that question, my brother filing a bill, I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there because the law forced me and would let me go nowhere else. Seventeen people were made defendants to that simple suit! It first came on after two years. It was then stopped for another two years while the master (may his head rot off!) inquired whether I was my father’s son, about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature. He then found out that there were not defendants enough — remember, there were only seventeen as yet! — but that we must have another who had been left out and must begin all over again. The costs at that time — before the thing was begun! — were three times the legacy. My brother would have given up the legacy, and joyful, to escape more costs. My whole estate, left to me in that will of my father’s, has gone in costs. The suit, still undecided, has fallen into rack, and ruin, and despair, with everything else — and here I stand, this day!
Mr. Jarndyce said that he condoled with him with all his heart and that he set up no monopoly himself in being unjustly treated by this monstrous system.
“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!”
Gridley had frequently been imprisoned for contempt and was seeking sanctuary from the law in Trooper George’s shooting gallery as Inspector Bucket was pursuing him. Before Bucket can arrest him, Gridley collapses and dies. Dickens stated in the preface to Bleak House that Gridley’s story was based on an actual case. Scholars have discovered that Dickens was probably referring to an 1849 pamphlet (The Court of Chancery: Its Inherent Defects as Exhibited in Its System of Procedures and of Fees, by W. Challinger.)
I have saved one lawyer for the end, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Lord Dedlock’s attorney. Where does he fit into the scheme of things? I have to admit that I have yet to come to terms with Tulkinghorn. What is his motivation in his unrelenting pursuit of Lady Dedlock’s secret? Is it, as he states, to protect the honor of the family he serves? Or, is it something more sinister? Does he in fact hate the aristocracy? He seems to have no warmth, no feeling for his fellow man. Clearly Dickens loathed Tulkinghorn, even to the extent of having him murdered. I hope that at the conclusion of my presentation we may have a discussion of this character to let you share your views.
Dickens’s attitudes toward the law and lawyers are complicated. While he had friends in the profession, people he genuinely respected, he presented lawyers pretty consistently in a bad light, to say the least. The only exception I can think of at the moment is Hiram Grewgious, Rosa Budd’s guardian and protector in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Although awkward and lacking social graces, he is courteous and kindly, a bachelor who views Rosa as a daughter. Dickens did not hesitate to go to law to seek justice, but he was aware of the slowness, the needless complication of the machinery that could destroy human lives. The statement of Jonathan Snitchey, an attorney in The Battle of Life, sums it up: “Think of the complicated laws relating to title and proof of title, with all the contradictory precedents and numerous acts of Parliament connected with them; think of the infinite number of ingenious and interminable chancery suits, to which this pleasant prospect may give rise.”