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ELH 67.2 (2000) 589-615

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Market Indicators: Banking and Domesticity in Dickens's Bleak House

Gordon Bigelow

In 1858 Walter Bagehot, finance writer and editor of The Economist, published a review essay on the work of Charles Dickens. In it he writes:

Mr. Dickens's genius is especially suited to the delineation of city life. London is like a newspaper. Everything is there, and everything is disconnected. . . . As we change from the broad leader to the squalid police-report, we pass a corner and we are in a changed world. This is advantageous to Mr. Dickens's genius. His memory is full of instances of old buildings and curious people, and he does not care to piece them together. 1

Bagehot claims here that Dickens's strength is in representing the discontinuity of modern urban life, the clashing juxtapositions, and the odd simultaneity of unrelated events in every second of the urban clock. 2 But for Bagehot this discontinuity of simultaneous lives is merely a semblance, a surface effect that belies a hidden order. The "disconnectedness" of events and objects in Dickens becomes, as Bagehot's argument in the review develops, not a condition of history but rather a quirk of Dickens's imagination itself, a symptom of his "irregular genius" (D, 80). Thus the seeming disunity of the city is "advantageous" to Dickens's "irregular" mind. While Dickens exhibits a "detective ingenuity in microscopic detail," his works have no "mark of unity" (D, 84). It's not that the city has no order then, even though its life can appear quite random to the observer; it's just that Dickens is unable to perceive the "symmetry and unity" (D, 85) which bind this seeming chaos into a functioning whole ("he does not care to piece them together"). Bagehot's dissatisfaction with Dickens is a crucial one, for it illustrates two typical views of the process of capitalist modernization in this period. Is modern life, typified by the experience of the city, in fact a chaotic patchwork of random and unrelated events, or is there, as Bagehot would argue, some underlying principle which organizes the systems of modern life in symmetrical fashion?

Bleak House (1852-53) deals with the lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a complex inheritance case that involves characters from every class of English society. In its early chapters the novel flaunts a seeming [End Page 589] fragmentation, as it depicts a bewildering number of new characters and scenes that are related only through the various tangents of the lawsuit:

What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town . . . the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! 3

These rhetorical questions assure the reader that there is in fact some "connexion" which will be uncovered as the narrative progresses. But while on one level the detective plot of the novel posits a solution to all these mysterious ties, on another the novel theorizes a fundamental discontinuity. The function of inheritance law is to insure that writing accurately transmits power and property, but in Bleak House the written documents of the Court of Chancery become endlessly confused. While the documents are meant to represent, and thus to guarantee, the circulation of property, the legal papers simply create a circulation of their own, one which moves chaotically, never progressing toward a solution to the case. In Chancery then, writing constantly defers judgment, rather than settling differences. When the one document that might solve the case--a definitive will--does finally come to light, its content proves wholly irrelevant because the case has already consumed the estate in legal fees. The omniscient narrator concludes that "the one great principle of the English Law is, to make business for itself" (B, 603). But the failure of the law to do anything...


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