Dickens’ “Bleak House”: The Bleak State of the Victorian Legal System

 Bleak House is a novel that contains a complicated web of subplots, major characters, and minor characters; however, one main theme carried throughout the novel is the Victorian legal system, specifically the corruption of it.  The court that Dickens references in his hefty novel is the Court of Chancery, one of the two main British courts of the time.  The Court of Chancery was a court of “…equity, or property issues, rather than law and used different principles to arrive at judgments” (“Bleak House: Essay Q&A”).  Originally, this judicial court was founded around the medieval period as a branch of the King’s Council.  The other law court of England called the Court of Common Law was, at this time, seen as insufficient at providing adequate justice for the people, so the king, also referred to as the “fountain of justice”, established this new court which was allegedly supposed to be founded on principles of “conscience, morals, fairness and equality”.  Unfortunately, by Charles Dickens’ times, the judiciary system was already knee-deep in corruption and it came under scrutiny “…because of outrageous delays, moribund and inflexible rules, corruption and excessive fees.  Hence, ironically, Chancery had become the perpetrator of the judicial abuses it had been established to remedy” (Fowler).

“Michaelmas Term” is mentioned in the first sentence of chapter one and refers to one of the four times a year that the Court of Chancery is in assembly.  This period lasts from November 2 through the 25th and also referred to the times when the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were in session (“The Victorian World of Bleak House”).  Presiding over the Court of Chancery is the Lord Chancellor who resolves cases without the aid of a jury and bases his decisions solely on written evidence given to him by lawyers (Dickens 990).  The court is also composed of twelve Masters in Chancery who are essentially clerks that aid and advise the Lord Chancellor. The head of the Masters of Chancery is the Master of Rolls, sometimes known as Vice-Chancellor, who records the proceedings of the court and who is aided by six other clerks (“Court of Chancery”). The particular place where the Court of Chancery meets in the novel Bleak House is called Lincoln’s Inn Hall which is one of the four inns of courts and is located in Holborn, a region in central London.

The case taking place throughout Bleak House is titled Jarndyce and Jarndyce and it is known as a “scarecrow of a suit” which “…has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.  The parties to it understand it the least…” (Dickens 16).  Although this case is fictitious, it is believed that Dickens likely based this lawsuit on real court cases.  One case called Jennens v Jennens lasted 117 years from 1798 to 1915, meaning that this case was in its fiftieth year when Dickens published his novel.  This case dealt with a man named William Jennens who was extremely wealthy, but, when he died, his estate and wealth became a complicated debate of “who gets what” in the Court of Chancery which lasted over a century.  In the end, Jennens estate and wealth were eventually lost and depleted due to the substantial amount of lawyers’ fees it has accumulated (“William Jennens”).

Another possible case that may have inspired Dickens was a writer named Charlotte Smith who was involved in a litigation concerning her father-in-law’s estate.  This case lasted a lengthy 36 years, and, because of Smith’s inability to receive her rightful inheritance in a timely manner, Smith had a difficult time raising her seven children.  The value of the estate also decreased as the years went on for, in 1776, the property was valued to be £36,000, but, in 1792, the value decreased drastically to £20,000 (Turvey).  These two cases, with the severe injustices done in each by the Court of Chancery, would have been perfect inspiration for Dickens’ own made-up litigation of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Although we had a very hard time finding negative criticisms about Dickens’ potential exaggeration of the Courts of Chancery in Bleak House, we did discover an interesting article regarding a legal historian and his opinion on the courts.  Sir William Seare Holdsworth was a professor of English Law at Oxford University and is often considered one of the greatest historians of English Law, known for his 17 volume history of the English legal system.  In 1928, Holdsworth published a book titled Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian in which he argued that Dickens’ depiction of the courts are incredibly important for two reasons: “In the first place, they give us information which we can get nowhere else. In the second place, these pictures were painted by a man with extraordinary powers of observation, who had first hand information” (Fowler).  Holdsworth and other legal historians have cited Dickens’ experience as a clerk in a legal office, and his actual enrollment in Middle Temple (one of the legal inns that Dickens writes about in Bleak House) as a law student in 1839 as evidence of Dickens’ firsthand information about the legal system (Parker).  Furthermore, Holdsworth argued that Dickens’ illustration of the court system in Bleak House was so incredibly accurate that historians should draw upon Bleak House as a primary source when analyzing English law and legal institutions of Victorian England.

Although the original purpose of the Court of Chancery was to be a court of fairness and equity, the actual proceedings of the court were quite different.  In actuality, the excessively lengthy duration of lawsuits and the substantial amount of money it cost made the British judicial system a near laughing matter which is illustrated by the description of the court case in Bleak House: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke.  That is the only good that has ever come of it” (Dickens 17).  Dickens is also quite straightforward with his dislike of the British judiciary throughout Bleak House, and, in the first chapter, he gives his readers the ominous warning to “Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!” (Dickens 15).

Works Cited:

“Bleak House: Essay Q&A.” Novelguide. Novelguide, n.d. http://www.novelguide.com/bleak-house/essay-questions. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Fowler, Russell. “A History of Chancery and Its Equity.” Tennessee Bar Journal. 25 Jan. 2012. n. pag. http://www.tba.org/journal/a-history-of-chancery-and-its-equity. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“The Victorian World of Bleak House.” PBS. PBS ONLINE®, n.d. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/bleakhouse/dickens_victorian.html. Web 16 Oct. 2014.

“Court of Chancery.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Sep. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_of_Chancery. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“William Jennens.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Apr. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Jennens. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Turvey, Jessica. “Slim Chances in the Court of Chancery: Law in Bleak House and “The Oldest Chancery Suit in the World”.” Dickens to Elliot. 10 Nov. 2013. https://dickenstoeliot.wordpress.com/tag/charlotte-smith/. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

David Parker, ‘Dickens, the Inns of Court, and the Inns of Chancery’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010).

Harper, Fowler V. “Book Review: Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian.” Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository. Yale Law School, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“William Seares Holdsworth.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. England: Penguin Classics, 1996. Print.


Blog post written by Rachel Campbell

Group 6 members: Rachel Campbell, John Panus, Kelsey Teglash, Nikkel Gohel, and Peter Cala

New Interpretive Question:

  • How does Dickens use the literary technique of having two distinct narrators to criticize the judicial branch of 19th century England throughout his novel? How does the criticism offered by Dickens’ third person narrator compare to the views of his other characters and the situations they are placed in?

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