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Charles Dickens

Last edited 7 October 2022

Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was one of the most important Victorian novelists, a milestone in the development of the genre of the novel and one of those writers with a very keen interest in the law. Brought into contact with the law at the early age of 12, when his father was imprisoned for debt, forcing him to earn a living as another of thousands of orphans and street children, Dickens nourished a lifelong interest in, but also contempt of the law. Accordingly, almost all of his major works show a great concern for legal issues, the justice system, questions of equity and new motions and statutes passed during his career. This general interest in the law and its particularities has made Dickens a foremost author for anyone interested in the correlation of law and literature and his works were appropriated by legal historians at the beginning of the 20th century as a source for an historical account of Victorian jurisprudence. Dickens must therefore be regarded as a touchstone for law and literature twice over.

1. Early Dickens – Crime and Punishment

When Dickens began his career as a novelist in the 1830s, the Victorian constitution of the law entered into a proclaimed age of reform and the continuing changes in the law find their way into his major works over the next 30 years. His interest in the law is manifold and ranges from institutional shortcomings in Chancery through the ethics of capital punishment to the personality of the lawyer. His appeal to the wide audience of the Victorian middle class signifies his complex treatment of these matters as legal reforms bore down on many personal lives, including his own. Nevertheless, the discussion of the law in his works far exceeds a general kind of social criticism and it is worthwhile to distinguish in this context between the early, the middle and the late Dickens.

Both The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837) and Oliver Twist (1837–1839) belong to the early Dickens and they approach the law with a great deal of sympathy for the individual that has to confront the system. It is significant that both novels enter the courtroom for astute parodies of both civil and criminal trials, an aspect in Dickens’s work that would virtually disappear in subsequent works until the late Dickens seems to renew his interest. The aspect that the early Dickens seems to foreground most emphatically is the helplessness of man before the law. While this is a source of comedy in The Pickwick Papers, one cannot help but understand that the power of the system and the officials who know how to use it best pose a considerable threat to the innocent. Dickens seems to take a generally negative view of the law and the charade that ensues in his first literary representation of a trial consequently places an enormous emphasis on the possibility of twisting the truth, twisting language, twisting perception. Mr Pickwick’s role as a defendant in a breach of promise trial is both ridiculous and serious as Dickens means to reveal the power of manipulation in a court that relies on its own conventions too systematically. While the judge is asleep, the king’s counsel manages to convince a jury through flattery and outright lies that Pickwick’s residence as a lodger in Mrs Bardell’s establishment is evidence for a marriage proposal, the promise, he is supposed to have broken. Citing notes such as “Dear Mrs B. – Chops and Tomato sauce” or “Don’t trouble yourself about the warming-pan” (PP, 444/445) as insinuations of an inappropriate, even sexual nature, Buzfuz concludes that such utterances can only mean that Pickwick considered himself as good as engaged to Mrs Bardell. Serjeant Buzfuz’s rhetoric is a perfect parody of sensationalist argumentation before the court – a practice Dickens was very familiar with, having worked as a court reporter in his twenties:

Pickwick, gentlemen, Pickwick, the ruthless destroyer of this domestic oasis in the desert of Goswell Street – Pickwick, who has choked up the well, and thrown ashes on the sward – Pickwick, who comes before you today with his heartless Tomato sauce and warming-pans – Pickwick still rears his head with unblushing effrontery, and gazes without a sigh in the ruin he has made. Damages, gentlemen – heavy damages – is the only punishment with which you can visit him; the only recompense you can award to my client. (PP, 445)

Serjeant Buzfuz’s extraordinary rhetorical power convinces both judge and jury and wins the case for Mrs Bardell, leaving Pickwick indeed with damages to pay, and the verdict quite destroys his spirited and innocent nature. The disillusionment he experiences of having hoped to see justice in court and coming out of it with quite the opposite almost ruins the character. Dickens unabashedly creates sympathy for Pickwick’s helplessness before the court, only marginally managing to maintain the comedy of his story in view of the all too real power imbalance and injustice that he knows many of his readers are familiar with – especially as the parody resonates with an infamous contemporary example:

[F]or Dickens’s contemporaries, the sexual dimension would have been underscored by an unmistakable allusion to recent news, a notorious trial on which Dickens had reported for the Morning Chronicle just weeks before. ‘The memorable trial of Bardell against Pickwick’ recasts the action brought by the Hon. George Norton against Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, alleging ‘criminal conversation’ – that is, adultery – with Norton’s wife, the Hon. Caroline Norton. (Adams 2009, 233)

Regardless, perhaps, of the fact that Lord Melbourne and Caroline Norton were indeed guilty of having an affair, Dickens matches Buzfuz’s manipulation of the jury and the close-reading of the notes left by Pickwick on the real case, having picked up on the specific argumentative strategy brought forth by Norton’s attorney (Adams 2009, 234).

The early Dickens makes a consistent point of the fact that the law and justice are not synonymous in theory and hardly ever in practice. His second serialised novel, Oliver Twist, owes enough to melodrama to see the bad people punished and the good, first and foremost Oliver, rewarded. Yet the conscious reiteration of a rather moralistic literary mode just about still in fashion in the 1830s does not stop Dickens from a severe critique of the law and its representatives, who are quite blind to the truth. In a cynical play on the idea that Justice is blind, characters acting in and for the courts in Oliver Twist cannot see what is right in front of them. The distribution of justice that creates the well-deserved happy ending for the protagonist is left to civilians such as Mr Brownlow, the boy’s voluntary guardian, while the real villain of the novel, Mr Bumble, the country parson, who makes sadistic use of the New Poor Laws in place since 1834, almost deliberately exchanges wrong for right. As a representative of the authorities, Bumble’s abuse of the boys in his parish is presented as all but criminal and the poetic justice of melodrama lets him finally be judged by a law that might be questionable in Dickens’s eyes, but serves the irony of destroying Bumble just as well:

‘It was all Mrs Bumble – she would do it –’ urged Mr Bumble; first looking round to ascertain that his partner had left the room.
‘That is no excuse,’ returned Mr Brownlow. ‘You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and, indeed, are the more guilty of the two in the eye of the law, for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.’
‘If the law supposed that,’ said Mr Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is a ass – a idiot. If that is the eye of the law, the law’s a bachelor, and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.’ (OT, 500)

It belongs to a frequently recurring Dickensian irony that Mr Bumble has a point, of course. He may be the most hated character in the novel – even taking first place over the roughly drawn villain Fagin for his more realistic and more systematic villainy – and it is quite necessary for the story that Bumble be punished, yet his insistence that the law suffer from a lack of ‘experience’ is a point that Dickens would frequently make throughout his career. Bumble already touches upon the difference between the law and natural justice, between institutionalised justice and equity that would take precedence in Dickens’s later works.

Bumble’s punishment may be satisfactory for all readers, but these same readers cannot help but notice that there is indeed something wrong with such a law. It is quite wonderful that it is his marriage that causes Bumble’s downfall, for he has sought it out of an exclusively materialistic design, yet the coincidence that a faulty system may sometimes punish the right people is exactly that – a coincidence. Dickens tries to make this clear by giving the Artful Dodger, a pickpocket and conspirator, a voice in court. The historically legal punishment of hanging is not employed, of course, but the novel suggests that the Artful will be transported to the colonies. Such fate, the reader cannot help but imagine, might give the charismatic boy’s successful career quite a boost and one cannot feel sorry for it. He might be just as successful and winning in the colonies as he has been for the reader. It is the Dodger, therefore, who speaks the most insightful diagnosis of English law. Asked whether he would like to make use of the ability to defend himself – being denied a barrister, of course – Jack Dawkins naturally refuses:

‘Do you mean to say anything, you young shaver?’
‘No,’ replied the Dodger, ‘no here, for this ain’t the shop for justice; besides which, my attorney is a-breakfasting this morning with the Wice President of the House of Commons, but I shall have something to say elsewhere, and so will he, and so will a wery numerous and respectable circle of acquaintance as ’ll make them beaks wish they’d never been born, or that they’d got their footman to hang ’em up to their own hat-pegs ’afore they let ’em come out this morning to try it on upon me. I’ll –’
‘There, he’s fully committed!’ interposed the clerk. ‘Take him away.’ (OT, 423)

In Oliver Twist, it is the criminals who have the most astute understanding of the fact that the law does not distribute justice. The Dodger may be convicted for his felonies, but it is impossible not to understand that his assessment that this is not the shop for justice is quite accurate.

In the world of Oliver Twist, one of Dickens’s most famous and most beloved novels, the law governs strictly, but justice is sparse. The New Poor Law that overshadows the plot, for it preconditions Oliver’s situation as a parish boy, who almost starves to death, lends the grimmest aspect of jurisdiction to the novel. The cynical nature of the law, which was basically intended to make being poor so ‘unattractive’ as to prevent people from being it, was all too real in Dickens’s world in the 30s and the law’s victims were visible to all, who dared to look:

Oliver’s ‘Please, sir, I want some more’ (ch. 2) gives a voice to the voiceless, and stands as an icon of social injustice even for those now unaware that Dickens’s satire was topically ridiculing the more dubious features of the New Poor Law of 1834. This new dispensation aimed to make a pauper’s life less appealing than that of the least well-off laborers. Notoriously, it prescribed a meagre workhouse diet as a deterrent to supposed shirkers, the report of the Poor Law Commission having claimed that half to two-thirds of all able-bodied workers seeking relief were ‘cases of indolence or imposture’. (Cheadle 2011, 308)

Such overt criticism is typical of the early Dickens, who goes to great lengths in implementing the horrid consequences of the Poor Law to wring emotions out of his audience. The specific wish to create sympathy and even tears that lets him continue an 18th-century melodramatic mode in his early works nevertheless does not divert from the seriousness of a type of jurisdiction that enables the stark division of the rich and poor in Victorian society. This division is represented in institutional practice that confirms the inferiority of those that suffer from society’s laws rather than redeem them. While Pickwick’s tragicomedy before the law is resolved through deference – he finally agrees to pay the damages –, he can only escape injustice through his considerable pecuniary means. The poor characters in Oliver Twist have no such option; they can only rely on the benevolence of the wealthy.

Steering towards his intended happy ending, Dickens pushes his little hero into the open arms of the well-to-do middle class and kills the most condemnable of his criminal characters. It is perhaps owing to the melodramatic mode that in this early work, he does not shy away from capital punishment. Fagin’s last night before his execution has established an iconic place in literary history for its psychological insight into the mind of a man on death row and there is no momentum in the novel that would leave the reader guessing as to whether Fagin’s death sentence is just. It is certainly noticeable, however, that Dickens seems to become increasingly uncomfortable with the severity of the law in this respect. Although he involved himself first in campaigns for the abolishment of capital punishment, he somewhat counterintuitively changed his stance later for the abolishment of public executions (Schwan 2011, 301).

In Oliver Twist, the bad are punished and the good rewarded, but the fact that the law is arbitrary and anything but a warrant for justice is already palpable and this stance towards the laws of his society gains in complexity over the course of Dickens’s oeuvre. It is no coincidence, therefore, that he steers away from characters so bad that they may be deserving of capital punishment – a topic Dickens himself was obviously conflicted about: a morbid fascination with the gallows returns repeatedly throughout his work, yet he argued specifically against executions open to the public in letters published in the Daily News in the 40s (Hartley 2012). Convinced that hanging as a punishment might be sufficient as a deterrent for some criminals, but not for others, Dickens wavers on the subject of capital punishment for years. Michael Slater, in the best biography to date, concludes:

For his final position on capital punishment we may turn to an 1864 letter asking a correspondent to distinguish when quoting him between public executions and capital punishment. He comments, ‘I should be glad to abolish both, if I knew what to do with the Savages of civilization. As I do not, I would rid Society of them, when they shed blood, in a very solemn manner but would bar out the present audience. (Slater 2009, 249)

The view that there are some who are bad by nature and cannot be reformed characterises the early works especially. The outstanding villains in the criminal underbelly of London in Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes and Fagin, are drawn as unequivocally evil and hence both die. Fagin by legal trial and execution; Bill in flight. He accidentally chokes on a rope in his attempt to come down a roof top, thereby coming to his end by chance rather than law, but the novel suggests that he is deserving of the punishment of hanging either way. One has to note, however, that while Dickens may present characters as irredeemable, he avoids further scenes of capital punishment in his later works. Possibly coherently with his views that executions should not be a public spectacle, he moves away from such sensationalist scenes as Bill Sikes’ public, though accidental, hanging, pursued by a gleeful mob, and leaves the punishment of those deserving of death to further accidents of nature, murder by others or suicide. Ralph Nickleby, the villain in Dickens’s subsequent novel Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839), hangs himself intentionally as the only viable option in a storyworld that must punish him somehow – trial and transportation, as in the case of the Artful Dodger, is far too mild a punishment. Jonas Chuzzlewit, a murderer in Dickens’s late early work, Martin Chuzzlewit (1842–1844), poisons himself in what the novel presents as justice: “They dragged him out, into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman could have done no more, and could do nothing now. Dead, dead, dead.” (MC, 593)

Villains are as clearly identifiable and hence punishable by death in Dickens’s early works due to the melodramatic mode: “Melodramatic aesthetics offered Dickens a specific set of characteristics fundamental to his anti-intellectual marginalization of ‘psychology’ and interiority: melodrama publicizes the private, privileges spontaneous emotions, and marginalizes the mind” (John 2001, 8/9). When Dickens moves beyond the Manichean plots of the melodramatic convention in his late works, questions of good and evil gain increasing complexity. Magwitch, his ominous criminal father-figure of Great Expectations (1860–1861), is, strictly speaking, a murderer too, as he overcomes his adversary Compeyson in a deadly struggle, yet his ambivalent role in the protagonist Pip’s life saves him from capital punishment through an early natural death. The same is true for Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865), whose maniacal pursuit of Eugene Wrayburn and circumstantial murder of Rogue Riderhood are made understandable as expressions of his violent self-hatred. He, too, comes to an accidental end, before any judge or jury can sentence him. Moral judgement of those who go wrong is not as simple as it is in the early Dickens. He begins to explore the villains’ psyches and reasons for their violent natures. After the gruesome judgement of his early works on characters such as Sikes and Ralph Nickleby, Dickens returns to the spectacle of capital punishment only once. In A Tale of Two Cities (1859), his historical novel about the French Revolution, executions are conveniently transferred to the Continent and his hero Sydney Carton marches voluntarily – if somewhat unbelievably – to the Guillotine. The horror of the serial killings executed by the French is pointedly contrasted with Carton’s Christ-like self-sacrifice. He accepts capital punishment as a means to save the next generation for England that shall spring forth from the union between Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay, whom Carton replaces on the scaffold. Dickens seems to suggest that the savagery of public executions is at this stage owing to the unnatural violence of the revolution on the Continent.

2. Middle Dickens – Law and Equity

The growing sophistication with which Dickens engages in questions of law and justice in his works leads to an increasing concern not only with the execution of justice but with its institutional implementation. His middle novels most severely take on the lack of responsibility society fosters through its deference to administration – a horror that quite negates the idea of natural justice. This turn towards the bureaucratic aspects of the law seems to have been motivated at least in part by Dickens’s own experiences in the Court of Chancery in his copyright suit over A Christmas Carol in 1844, which did nothing but bury him in the legal costs of the proceedings. Copyright law was still extraordinarily unhelpful for Victorian writers in the 1840s, who saw their texts not only change into pirated versions, but also faced very many stage adaptations of their novels that they were powerless to obstruct:

[T]he 1814 Copyright Act, which protected an author’s actual text, gave Dickens no recourse against even flagrant imitation. In fact, when Dickens took Lloyd to court over The Penny Pickwick, Lloyd won the case by arguing that no one could confuse the two texts. (Humpherys 2011, 33)

In the 1840s, Dickens tried the Court of Chancery in as many as five cases of copyright violations, which greatly increased his mostly negative experience of legal practice: “The 1840s were a seminal period for Dickens’s engagement with, and understanding of, the civil law as well as the criminal system” (Schramm 2011, 288). Thus, his personal experience did not change his understanding towards a more optimistic or affirmative stance. He writes: “I shall not easily forget the expense, and anxiety, and horrible injustice of the Carol case, wherein, in asserting the plainest right on earth, I was really treated as if I was the robber, instead of the robbed…” (Paroissien 1985, 650/651). His exclamation in that same letter, “that it is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law” finds itself almost verbatim in the first instalment of Bleak House in 1852 in a scything insertion: “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!” (BH, 4). There can be little doubt that the novel’s famous phrase was more or less a direct consequence of Dickens’s own confrontation with the equity court (Schlicke 1999, 71).

Villainy in Dickens’s middle works is not so much a question of personalised depravity anymore, but of collective failure. Single characters are less responsible for the evil that makes the lives of his main characters harder. Instead, Dickens takes on institutional villainy and systematic injustice and the law consequently becomes one of his key protagonists. Conveniently tapping into a deeply flawed Victorian legal system, he weaves the entire plot of Bleak House (1852–1853) around the failings of Chancery, making ‘the system’ his prime antagonist. Influenced by his own experience and the almost proverbial failure of the equity court, Dickens constructs the novel’s plot so as to expose the tragic consequences for all those who get involved in Chancery, but it must not be forgotten that his earliest victim of this system occurs not in Bleak House, but as early as The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837). The so-called Chancery Prisoner is incriminated in the Fleet for debt caused by the Court itself and the system has almost literally swallowed him up, leaving him more dead than alive, and in legal limbo:

‘If I lay down at the bottom of the deepest mine in the world; tight screwed down and soldered in my coffin; rotting in the dark and filthy ditch that drags its slime along, beneath the foundations of this prison; I could not be more forgotten and unheeded than I am here. I am a dead man; dead to society, without the pity they bestow on those whose souls have passed to judgement.’ (PP, 553)

He dies, of course, only a few chapters afterwards and the novel leaves no doubt that anyone would have to answer Mr Pickwick’s shocked question “has this man been slowly murdered by the law for six months?” (PP, 582) in the affirmative. The episode in the early novel is somewhat unrelated to the general plot structure and constitutes just a first attempt to test the dramatic possibilities of the victims of Chancery in the novel. In the 1850s, Dickens returns to the subject in full sway, killing his characters off one by one according to the degree of their entanglement in the web of Chancery.

Bleak House is Dickens’s most profound literary representation of a legal system in deep disarray. Hence, it is a classic, possibly the most classic text in law and literature studies. While it has often been claimed that extraordinarily many Victorian novels make a subject of the law (Dolin 1999, 73), Dickens’s novel stands out even among their number for its complex engagement with the overbearing opposition between law and equity. The Court of Chancery, the institutional manifestation of equity that has persisted in England since the 16th century, has come to a halt due to the administrative and bureaucratic burden that results from excessive documentation. In Bleak House, more than in any of his other works, Dickens partakes in the critical discourse of his time concerning institutionalised law:

His celebrated denunciations of the complexity, mystification, hypocrisy, and self-serving inefficiency of the legal system reflected the events of his time, often following the charges already levelled in parliamentary reports and debates, newspapers and magazines. (Schlicke 1999, 323)

The fog that features so prominently at the beginning of the novel introduces with little subtlety the helplessness and loss of vision in both the literary and the metaphorical sense all Chancery suitors experience. The opening chapter could not be more provocative nor less explicit about the evil nature of Chancery and its representatives. The court is the “most pestilent of hoary sinners,” lawyers make “a pretence of equity with serious faces as players might” and Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the lawsuit at the heart of the novel, “has been death to many, but it is a joke in the profession” (BH, 4–6). The bureaucratic horror of the suit produces suffocating masses of paper while the solicitors are “groping knee-deep in technicalities” (4). Jarndyce and Jarndyce consumes itself in worthless documentation, in the end materially presenting its destruction through the waste it has caused:

…great bundles of paper began to be carried out – bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes, which the bearers staggered under, and threw down for the time being, anyhow, on the Hall pavement, while they went back to bring out more. (BH, 730)

John Hamilton Baker confirms Dickens’s historical accuracy: “Chancery pleadings had become verbose and complex, and the use of minutely drafted interrogatories served only to hinder proceedings. The documentation produced by most Chancery suits was elephantine.” (Baker 1979, 97). At the same time, Dickens’s treatment of the law exceeds and contradicts historical accuracy simultaneously. J. Hillis Miller argued in his first influential reading of the novel that the excessive documentation in Chancery reveals that “[t]he villain is the act of interpretation itself” (Miller 1990, 189). While Dickens’s graphic emphasis on the suit’s material form vividly imagines the 19th-century horror of documentation, it is all the more important to recognise that even though his dramatisation of Chancery may have been historically accurate, his critique of the system was not. After all, the equity debate of the first half of the 19th century had already led to a variety of amendments that led to a greater efficiency in Chancery at least as early as 1850, so a couple of years before Dickens even began his serialisation of Bleak House. It is impossible to argue, therefore, that Dickens’s novel paved the way for a reform of the legal system – instead, it might seem that he exploited a subject that had ceased being topical. William Holdsworth attested in 1929 that the account of a legal system in need of reform in Bleak House was entirely accurate (Holdsworth 1929, 43), but contemporary reviews of the novel suggest otherwise. George Brimley wrote in The Spectator in 1853:

This great suit is lugged in by the head and shoulders and kept prominently before the reader, solely to give Mr Dickens the opportunity of indulging in stale and commonplace satire upon the length and expense of Chancery proceedings, and exercises absolutely no influence on the characters and destinies of any one person concerned in it. The centre of the arch has nothing to do in keeping the arch together. (Collins 1971, 283)

Brimley’s critique has echoed frequently in 20th-century criticism of the novel that equally argued that Dickens’s attempt to make Chancery “the main focus of evil in the novel” came at the expense of a unifying structure needed for such a voluminous novel (Donovan 1962, 177). A related, but not identical critique came from those actually competent in the profession of the law.

Dickens’s alleged intense dislike of the law was initially countered by a personal interest in the profession. He planned on entering the Bar should his career in journalism not prove prosperous enough and even registered as a law student as late as 1839, when his success as a writer was obvious enough through the immense popularity of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby (cf. Slater 1999, 46 and 139). He already had experience in the wider context of the law, which is why legal scholars such as Holdsworth tend to credit Dickens with a profound understanding of the ins and outs of the law:

Dickens’s practical acquaintance with the law in the offices of Charles Molloy, and Ellis and Blackmore, had given him an extensive knowledge of the lower ranks of the legal profession. He knew well the sheriff’s officers, the law stationers, and the hack copyists whom the law stationers employed. He had an equally wide acquaintance with many different types of attorneys and solicitors. (Holdsworth 1929, 43)

His friendship with Justice Talfourd stands out among a variety of such acquaintances and many have mused whether David Copperfield’s Tommy Traddles might have been inspired by this personal relation (Schlicke 1999, 324). Traddles is only one of a great variety of representatives of the legal profession in Dickens and their portrayals often exceed the stereotypical. It seems that Dickens did not always hate ‘the law’ as unequivocally as most interpretations of Bleak House would suggest. Thus, David Sugarman writes in Paul Schlicke’s Oxford Companion:

[T]here is also another Dickens, the one who contemplated practising at the Bar, who wanted to become a stipendiary magistrate, who was a friend of judges, lawyers, stipendiary magistrates, detectives, and prison governors, who witnessed murder trials and public executions, who idealized the New Police, who supported the authorities’ ‘firm’ treatment of mobs, who frequented criminal districts, prisons, and madhouses, who became a warm supporter of flogging, and whose son Henry became a successful lawyer and later a judge. (Schlicke 1999, 323)

To his contemporaries, however, it seems that Dickens’s ‘expertise’ in the law was far from satisfactory. His severest critic, the highly influential James Fitzjames Stephen, derided the literary author for what he perceived to be a lack of insight into the law. According to Michael Slater, Stephen “delighted to lambaste Dickens in The Saturday Review from the mid 1850s on”: he “crushingly (and snobbishly) observed in 1857 that Dickens’s ‘notions of law, which occupy so large a space in his books, are precisely those of an attorney’s clerk’” (Slater 2009, 29). Stephen had also reviewed Bleak House in 1852, writing with disdain, Dickens “knows absolutely nothing of law or politics” (Collins 1971, 349).

Such ‘legal’ critique of literary texts was far from uncommon – Wilkie Collins would have to defend his portrayal of the legal background of The Woman in White quite substantially – yet it points to the fact that Dickens certainly prioritised the systematic shortcomings of the law for their function in his plots and not necessarily for historical accuracy. One need not dispute that Dickens was extraordinarily committed to improving the conditions of his society, but what kind of legal reform he has in mind – if any – is a difficult question, not least because of his consistent differentiation between institutional and ‘natural’ justice. Furthermore, the sheer impact of the law on 19th-century society in multifarious forms made for a fruitful fictional playground as Jan-Melissa Schramm has argued: “It suits Dickens’s agenda for the moral aggrandizement of fiction to argue that the law is inattentive to the ‘romance of life’, and this is a critique that he sustains throughout his fiction” (Schramm 2011, 281). The Victorian legal system, institutional equity, the Court of Chancery and all their representatives can easily be employed as personified villains and an overpowering evil on account of which one can create heroes and heroines, who withstand the corruption of the law and maintain their personal integrity. Kieran Dolin has made the important distinction that in Dickens, “equity acts in personam”: “the elevation of the individual in the narrative system is an embodiment in the form of the value of personal action in the social system” (Dolin 1999, 86/87).

Given that Dickens seems to wish that responsible individuals will heal an irresponsible system and that he therefore creates the dichotomy in almost all of his novels, there are characters invested with symbolic meaning on either side of the divide. Heroes and heroines are those who take responsibility against the apathetic nature of the system – villains are those who rely on the very same. In Bleak House, the lawyer Tulkinghorn turns out to be a villain, since he is “taking no more responsibility than necessary” (BH, 13). The antiquated, arrogant and quite unreasonable figure of Sir Leicester as an embodiment of the aristocracy, on the other hand, represents the anachronism of the system itself, for “Sir Leicester has no objection to an interminable Chancery suit” (BH, 12). Sir Leicester and Chancery belong to the old world, the aristocratic world that Dickens has so few compliments for in his entire oeuvre. They are part of a system that is not only outdated, but almost criminal and most certainly unjust in its powerful oppression of those further down in the social hierarchy. Hence, a minor character named Gridley, who is stuck in Chancery, functions as a porte parole about the evils of the system:

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 […], I will have something out of someone for my ruin, by fair means or foul! He is not responsible. It’s the system. (BH, ch. 15, p. 185)

Gridley is a later version of the Chancery prisoner in The Pickwick Papers and he, like many others in Bleak House, dies in consequence. The passage has laid the groundwork for many of the most important interpretations of Bleak House, for it could not expose the unconscionable conduct of those who represent the law any clearer: “Chancery practice presents us with a paradigm of the ways in which civilized men are responsible for one another, and fail in that responsibility.” (Fradin 1966, 98). The great evil of the portrayal of the legal system lies not in technical, but in institutionalised neglect, what Bruce Robbins has called “organised, legitimated irresponsibility”:

It is by means of their profession that the Chancery lawyers evade the responsibility for their actions, that they shoot their daily arrows in the air without being obliged to consider on whom the arrows are falling. (Robbins 1998, 143/144)

The aristocracy and the profession seem to work together in a slightly unlikely alliance to embody all the negative effects of a system firmly in place. Accordingly, critics have found equally symbolic characters that represent responsibility in all its greatest aspects, especially when it comes to taking responsibility not just for their own, but also others’ actions. The shining example in Bleak House as identified by the two most in-depth analyses of equity in the novel is Esther Summerson, as both Kieran Dolin and Gary Watt have argued:

As an answer to ‘the Condition-of-England’ question, Bleak House portrays English society ‘in Chancery,’ dominated by and characterized by the dead hand of the court. Against this, Dickens sets the new ‘progress’ of Esther Summerson and through her, the reclamation of the ideals of equity. (Dolin 1999, 95)

Such new progress is embodied in Esther, Gary Watt argues, as a symbol of natural justice. For Watt, Esther ‘Summer-sun’ represents a way out of the legal fog, the triumph of “the clarity of daylight” over “the documentary obscurity of the law”: “The story of Bleak House is the story of the emergence of Esther Summerson, as the sun emerges from the clouds.” (Watt 2009, 173/174). Given the idea that equity is a form of ‘natural justice’, it is of course highly intuitive to look for human characters rather than impersonal symbols of equity, as Watt argues:

When it comes to elucidating the relationship between law and equity, equity is usually the part that is depicted with human personality […]. Equity tends to be depicted as the personality of one who intervenes or declines to intervene in the normal course of the law. […] Ultimately, the figure of equity is, and must be, the human figure. We should not concern ourselves with an equity that is not concerned to reveal the human face behind the mask of legal abstraction. (Watt 2009, 167/168)

While Dickens foregrounds the critique of the Victorian legal system by giving it the function of a murderous antagonist in his novel, his criticism extends to society at large for its avoidance of personal responsibility. Nevertheless, Bleak House is his most profound exploration of the law of his time and thus a canonical text in law and literature research.

It may not come as a surprise that during this period of his creative output, Dickens follows such a profound narrative exploitation of the ins and outs of the Victorian law courts in a subsequent work, Little Dorrit (1855–1857), albeit in slightly different form. If the law is the source of evil in Bleak House, in Little Dorrit, it is the Circumlocution Office. Aptly named for never allowing the direct route to the solution of the appeal, it is a governmental maze that thrives on bureaucracy and people’s despair, governing by the principle of ‘How not to do it’:

It is true that How not to do it was the great study and object of all public departments and professional politicians all round the Circumlocution Office. It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering, How not to do it. (LD, 124/125)

The principle of irresponsibility enabled by the system reigns here not through the courts, but through the offices – yet, Dickens’s charge that people instrumentalise this system to shirk their own responsibilities remains the same. Accordingly, the Circumlocution Office causes quite a deal of suffering too – perhaps not entirely realistically – but perfectly moulded for Dickens’s purposes. People perish through the Office as they do through the Chancery court:

Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office, Unfortunates with wrongs, or with projects for the general welfare […], who in slow lapse of time and agony had passed safely through other public departments; who, according to rule, had been bullied in this, overreached by that, and evaded by the other; got referred at last to the Circumlocution Office, and never reappeared in the light of day. (LD, 126)

Dickens has his protagonist, Arthur Clennam, enter the maze for purposes of plot and satire, attacking the Office with as much hope of success as Don Quixote attacks his windmills. Yet, he is a hero for not silently submitting to the oppressive powers, but taking matters into his own hands. His subversion of the system is exactly what is called for in times where the bureaucracy gobbles itself up and the ruling power looks the other way. Hence, the title Dickens first conceived of for Little Dorrit was ‘Nobody’s Fault’. Like Bleak House, however, this critique of Victorian institutions was not only received well. James Fitzjames Stephen took offence again:

To do his best to persuade his neighbours that the institutions under which they live encourage and permit the grossest cruelties towards debtors and paupers – that their legislature is a stupid and inefficient debating club, their courts of justice foul haunts of chicanery, pedantry, and fraud, and their system of administration an odious compound of stupidity and corruption – is, perhaps, a sufficient responsibility for a man to assume… (Collins, 367–374)

Stephen’s critique of Little Dorrit, as of Bleak House, in fact, shows only too graphically that Dickens knew very well what he was talking about. Stephen’s scorn is quite obviously fuelled by the fact that Dickens hit the mark and if the novel was not well received during his time, it only goes to show that his criticism was quite appropriate.

In a stark contrast to the general possibility for characters in Little Dorrit to evade punishment, the prison looms large and omnipresent over the entire plot. The Marshalsea, the Debtor’s Prison, lies at the centre of the novel both literally and metaphorically as characters gravitate towards and from it. Dickens himself was of course unwillingly familiar with the prison, for his father had been forced to take up abode there for his pecuniary failings when Dickens was 12. His family’s misfortune, a direct consequence of his father’s apparent inability to handle his finances, put Dickens on the streets, forced to work for his own keep in a blacking factory – a time in his life that he kept hidden from his acquaintance for years and in the only account to his friend John Forster described as deeply traumatic. The fall from the respectable middle class is recaptured in all its devastating consequences for the child in a famous chapter of Dickens’s earlier David Copperfield (1850). In Little Dorrit, he takes the fictional possibilities further by conceiving of his heroine as a child born into the prison and of the psychological ramifications of years of imprisonment for her father: “Little Dorrit contains at once the point of view of imprisoning states of mind and the criticism of oppressive institutions, depicted in a truly Kafkian, inescapable way. The prison is at once actuality, symbol, and emblem.” (Orestano, 249). The prison is both a means of punishment in the novel and of evading responsibility. But it is also a home and a source of comfort to the incarcerated mind that fears liberty. There is a cheerful community within its walls, yet the Marshalsea oozes an eeriness that lets the protagonist shudder – and the reader with him.

The engagement with the prison theme is such that we can see the turn in his works to the late Dickens. For the first time in his career, the dark and sinister tones seem to outweigh the comic ones. Even Bleak House in all its Chancery horrors is, on the whole, a lighter novel than Little Dorrit. Moreover, the prison theme sticks: both subsequent novels, A Tale of Two Cities from 1859 and Great Expectations from 1860–1861, present long-time prisoners as major characters. While Manette has been shut up in the Bastille for almost all of his life unjustly, Miss Havisham has chosen her imprisonment seemingly voluntarily, but the more important point for both is that they have internalised their prison states to the point that they cannot exist without it. While Dickens has left the melodrama of his early works behind, the interest in crime and punishment remains the same – only that in these late works, it is more often than not the innocent who receive punishment, while the villain, the systematic villain at least, is off the hook. There is a greater degree of tragedy in his works as characters who serve metaphorical life sentences cannot rid themselves of their guilt and they all but die in the end. There is no salvation for those, who have been forced into accepting an identity as prisoner and there is no cure for their ailment – the fear of freedom. Posited against the horrific scenes of the Guillotine, as mentioned above, A Tale of Two Cities continues the theme of the imprisonment as another, equally insufficient option. The fact that at the end of the novel, Sidney Carton dies instead of Charles Darnay in a desperate attempt to save the latter’s life only underlines the horrors of punishing the innocent. Darnay is not guilty of the crime he has been sentenced for, but the fact that a human being entirely unrelated to him or the charges, dies, sardonically points out that ‘justice’ is indeed sometimes blind.

3. Late Dickens – Lawyers and Storytellers

In Great Expectations, Dickens returns from the Bastille and the Marshalsea to Newgate, scene of Fagin’s unforgettable last night on earth. There is hardly a character in Dickens who is as unequivocally guilty and deserving of punishment as Fagin. Almost thirty years later, Dickens returns to the same scene with a criminal, who could hardly be more ambiguous. Magwitch is a criminal, but Magwitch is also Pip’s benefactor and father figure, so while he is properly sentenced for his return to Britain after having already been transported once for his crimes, he dies in prison before he can be punished. The ambivalence of Magwitch’s guilt or innocence, malevolent or benevolent nature, is such that the narrative displaces the potential guilt on its protagonist. Pip is as funny and as difficult a character, because all his thoughts and experiences – he is the narrator who shares his account with us – are fundamentally characterised by the fact that he feels guilty. Not quite knowing why or what for, Pip’s feelings of guilt are the strongest theme in the novel that takes place for a good part in the shadows of Newgate, suggesting to Pip, if not the reader, that this is where he is supposed to belong. Since his first encounter with Magwitch, the escaped convict, who makes him steal bread and wine for sustenance, Pip believes to have turned criminal himself due to the theft and continues to feel subpar for the rest of his life. Magwitch’s actual guilt has become a part of his identity, a shadow that follows him and shapes all of his important encounters in life. There is no question that Pip is guilty in the eyes of the law – funnily enough, the law itself plays a surprisingly small role in a novel that is all about crime and punishment.

It is remarkable that Dickens returns to the courtroom in these late novels. Since his parody of Buzfuz’s rhetorical manipulation of the jury and the Artful Dodger’s refusal to defend himself, the law has played a major part in the middle novels, but the courtroom has not. Even Bleak House mostly criticizes the proceedings in the Court of Chancery from the outside – possibly owing to the underdeveloped dramatic potential of a civil suit. However, in the late novels Dickens returns to the courtroom with a seemingly renewed interest not only in criminal law, but also in the figure of the lawyer. In his early works, lawyers are stereotypical representatives of evil, parodies of a profession that has always been mocked in British cultural history at least since Shakespeare. In A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, on the other hand, Dickens develops a new type of lawyer, who is more of a round and deeply duplicitous character. Stryver in the Tale is simply an early version of Jaggers in Expectations, who gains a surprisingly prominent role – considering that as a lawyer, he may be despicable per se.

Jaggers is a solicitor like all the other major lawyers in Dickens, but he notably transcends the position in the background that becomes the legal adviser. In fact, Jaggers is the only one out of all of Dickens’s lawyers who is seen dealing with criminals and prospective defendants, forging alibis and witnesses’ statements. Pip witnesses first-hand how Jaggers prepares a case by examining a potential ‘witness,’ who is brought forth to fabricate a story: “What is he prepared to swear?” (GE, 133), he asks, and dismisses both the client and the proposed witness, as if they had insulted him: “‘Tell him to take his witness away directly,’ said my guardian to the clerk, in extreme disgust, ‘and ask him what he means by bringing such a fellow as that’” (GE, 134). Jaggers’s professional conduct thereby reveals how he forms the ethics of lawyering with his own hands. He is susceptible to bribery, he produces fake witnesses and he bullies his opponents with outright aggression that wins him his cases:

[M]y guardian had a woman under examination or cross-examination […] and was striking her, and the bench, and everybody present, with awe. […] The magistrates shivered under a single bite of his fingers. Thieves and thief-takers hung in dread raptures on his words, and shrank when a hair of his eyebrows turned in their direction. Which side he was on, I couldn’t make out… (GE, 158)

Jaggers is a moral chameleon that represents more clearly than any of his peers in Dickens the moral duplicity of the law – the law is simply a matter of interpretation and Jaggers uses it to his best advantage. He is the typical stereotype of the mid-century lawyer, who achieves success through trickery, rather than truth (Birks 1960, 145ff.). Pip never pretends that Jaggers is not corrupt. In fact, he quite clearly taps into contemporary discourses on the corrupt lawyer, leaving no doubt that Jaggers is just such a one. Pip calls this conduct in court Jaggers “at it”, which echoes contemporary parodies of the barrister in Punch or The Times (Cocks 1983, 90ff.) and corresponds with the common prejudice against the Bar that had become prominent some twenty years earlier:

Allegations against the Bar in the periodical presses and daily papers were to reach their peak in the 1840s, with fictional representation of the rhetorical excesses of the Bar continuing for a further twenty years as authors responded to, and experimented with, the example set by their storytelling counterparts in courts of law. (Schramm 1999, 418)

Pip’s observation of Jaggers in court is more than satirical commentary, however, since it expresses Pip’s equal admiration for the bully, liar and fabricator. Jaggers’s duplicitous position within and outside of the law and his ability to adapt the moral or immoral stance most fruitful for the occasion and intended purpose, serve as an important excuse for Pip in his own moral and immoral conduct towards others. Jaggers is presented as a storyteller, imaginatively constructing stories for his clients that best serve his own purposes and as a storyteller himself, Pip does exactly the same. Pip uses the figure of Jaggers to allow himself to switch just as easily from wrong to right and back again; suggesting that this is not corrupt or morally duplicitous, but rather the necessary skill of a good storyteller. In his important study of the trial in The Pickwick Papers, Jonathan Grossman has made an astute observation that is just as relevant for the role of Jaggers in Great Expectations:

What Dickens slowly reveals […] is that the lawyer’s profession is not only caught up in manipulating interpretations but is also immersed in writing and reading, in orchestrating discourses, and finally in telling stories for money. Through the depiction of these characters Dickens exposes not only the law profession but also constructs an analogue to his own predicament as author. (Grossman 2002, 89)

Given the fact that Dickens seems deeply interested in the question of whether a person, who has to make up stories in court in order to succeed – as he sees it, at least – can be a good, a conscionable person, it only seems logical to split those characteristics of the lawyer in two. Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865), the last completed novel of his career, extraordinarily features two lawyers as protagonists. Lawyers are pushed to the margins in all of Dickens’s other works, because their profession does not seem to allow them heroic status. Even Mr Tulkinghorn of Bleak House, a deeply cynical and quite complex and important character, is nevertheless a minor character qua his profession. Our Mutual Friend, however, sees Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn in a symbiotic relationship and semi-heroic status at the centre of the plot. After thirty years of including the law and its representatives in his works, Dickens conceives of both differently once more. It is certainly a crucial feature of the conception of these characters, therefore, that both feel a profound disgust for their profession. In Our Mutual Friend, the law profession is a waiting game, a fiction within fiction. Mortimer Lightwood complains that he has been a solicitor for five years without any business; Eugene Wrayburn tells us that it has been seven years since he was called to the Bar and he has had no business; even Mortimer’s clerk is allowed to mention that he has been in the profession for three years and if he did not keep a fictional appointment book, “his mind would have been shattered to pieces without this fiction of an occupation” (OMF, 87). Nothing happens in the law in Our Mutual Friend, but this is a different nothing from the absurd standstill of things in Bleak House, because here, the lack of occupation is clearly ascribed to the lawyers’ own responsibility. They do not strive to make business for themselves, i.e. they refuse to follow the prejudice so often evoked in Bleak House that the law makes business for itself. It seems that their central position in the novel requires them not to be identified with the law in order to make them sympathetic enough. The novel’s hero, Eugene, openly declares “I hate my profession” upon his first appearance. Mortimer Lightwood responds “I hate mine” (OMF, 19/20). They are the first characters in Dickens who are in the law and complain about the law since Mr Micawber in David Copperfield (1850). They prove to have a conscience, which does not allow them to partake in the systematic irresponsibility that in Dickens’s eyes seems to be a vital component of the law and the legal profession.

As a professional storyteller himself, Dickens clearly saw the potential of the law and legal narratives for his own purposes. As a self-proclaimed reformer, the age of transition in the legal constitution of his country certainly provided him with enough opportunities for social criticism even for the length of thirty years. From the New Poor Law to the Chancery Procedure Act of 1852, the complete disarray of the Victorian legal system recurs throughout almost all his works, but there is still a palpable ambiguity towards both the law and the legal profession to suggest that his proverbial disgust was more complex than that. Dickens’s criticism has provided us with innumerable accounts and analyses of his vital role within the law and literature movements both in Britain and America. From William Holdsworth’s 1929 analysis of Dickens as a ‘legal historian’ to many newly published articles to this day, Dickens’s own fascination seems to reproduce critics’ interest in the matter. The complexity of Dickens’s attitude towards the law, however, shows not least in the fact that once upon a time, he had considered entering the bar himself. At the same time, Dickens was deeply influenced by notions of class and almost all of his novels show that while lawyers may be successful storytellers, they can only rarely be considered gentlemen. The profession does not range within the secure confines of the upper-middle class to which Dickens desperately felt he needed to belong, which is often considered a remnant of his traumatic experiences as a child thrown among the working classes out of dire need. For much of the 20th century, Dickens criticism saw him as a prototypical middle class writer and a proponent of his status. More recent analyses have foregrounded the fact that his own status of social belonging felt much more tangible and hence under threat for Dickens himself than we have hitherto appreciated. Instead of simply perpetuating a normative Victorian class discourse, Dickens is often seen these days as a man who constantly needed to reassure himself of the status of gentleman as the defining social role in this historical moment:

All of these Victorian class discourses employ a vocabulary of social exclusion and inclusion. The complexity of the Victorian conception of the gentleman is a result of the way it operates in class discourse as an indicator of social inclusion. […] The rise of the middle-class narrative distinguishes a ‘new’ class in the middle precisely in order to envision the inclusion of this class in the nation. (Vanden Bossche 2018, 502/503)

The lawyer, or at least the lawyer in Dickens, holds no part in this equation. It seems that in his last novel, the lawyers express disgust for their profession not least to indicate that they are gentlemen nevertheless. However, as gentlemen, they cannot thrive in a profession that requires moral duplicity, for since the occurrence of the word in the English language, it has always been inextricably linked not only with social rank, but also impeccable moral behaviour towards others (Vanden Bossche 2018, 503). Accordingly, lawyers make excellent villains in Dickens, at least in the sense that they seem to have no attachment to the truth, but they are hardly included in the social communities of his novels. Their role in society is far too ambiguous and as a man deeply concerned with his own rise in social rank and an impeccable reputation for most of his life until his divorce, Dickens may have considered the legal profession beneath him. The treatment of legal representatives in almost all of his novels certainly suggests an eager desire not to identify with this particular sphere. However, Dickens’s long-standing and deeply complex engagement with the laws of his time also makes him one of the most important writers for the law and literature discipline and the richness of his literary representations does not suggest that he will ever be a less significant figure for law and literature.


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Further Reading

Rosemarie Bodenheimer (2007): Knowing Dickens, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Robin Gilmour (1981): The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel, London: Allen & Unwin.

Suzanne Daly (2015): Belligerent Instruments: The Documentary Violence of Bleak House, Studies in the Novel 47:1, 20–42

D. A. Miller (1988): The Novel and the Police, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hilary Schor (2000): Dickens and the Daughter of the House, Cambridge: CUP.

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Franziska Quabeck fquabeck[at]uni-muenster[dot]de
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Franziska Quabeck (2022): Charles Dickens, in: Thomas Gutmann, Eberhard Ortland, Klaus Stierstorfer, eds., Encyclopedia of Law and Literature (last edited 7 October 2022),
doi: 10.17879/12009578172


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