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  • "[O]ur legal fictions":Law Reform, Jurisprudential Concerns and Benign Aspects of the Law in Charles Dickens's Bleak House
  • Maria Ioannou

It is as commonplace as it is true to say that Bleak House (1852–53) is a scathing attack on the law and the legal system. To the best of my knowledge, the least condemnatory reading is that of Brenda Welch, who considers that the novel is asking for reform of the legal system and profession (48, 58–59). Still, says Welch, what Dickens offers is a reformist message, not a plan; he calls for the education of lawyers to the duties of the profession (60). In fact, there are moments in the novel where the legal system appears beneficent; these, as I shall argue here, serve an overall function that has been overlooked. That is, to connect Bleak House in general with the field of jurisprudential enquiry – the study of the role, content, form and quality of the law – which was gaining ground in nineteenth-century Britain and in Victorian legal thought.

To establish these arguments, I first discuss the legal background to Bleak House, for example the proposals for reform and the actual reforms which happened from the 1850s onwards, using, inter alia, material from the periodical press. Then, I consider the appearance of the field of jurisprudence in Victorian Britain, as well as (briefly) landmarks of Victorian case law. Finally, I examine benign examples of the workings of the legal system in Bleak House, suggesting the ways in which the novel is associated with a jurisprudential and philosophic, rather than monolithically condemnatory, response to the law.

Critical Readings of the Legal System in Bleak House

Criticism of the law and legal system in Bleak House has been extensively documented and discussed by scholars, and is exemplified numerous times in the novel. To quote directly, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!" (13; ch. 1), "here" meaning the Court of Chancery. The [End Page 131] only way by which people can give a "coherent scheme" to the "monstrous maze" of English law is by realizing that its "one great principle … is … to make business for itself" (573; ch. 39). Bleak House is sharply topical, referring to the "decay" and "entropy" of the Court of Chancery, among others (Gill xix). For Andrew Sanders, "Dickens's experience as a legal clerk was to give him a consistent antipathy to the servants, functionaries … and practitioners of the English Law. This antipathy was to reach its apogee in Bleak House" (12). The novel's "sustained critique of the Court of Chancery" is at "the centre of its attack on … moribund and deadlocked social institutions" such as the Law and Parliament (Pykett 131). As J. Hillis Miller, writing on this novel, points out, "Dickens detests lawyers, the legal system, and most legally operative speech acts" (56). For Jan-Melissa Schramm, Bleak House is a penetrating critique of the Court of Chancery, in which "Dickens located a powerful symbol for the absurdity of bad governance" ("Dickens" 221).

What is more, the novel seems to expose forms of sinister, systemic malfunction. As Suzanne Daly has recently noted, Bleak House contains features of "documentary violence" (23), that is, violence emanating from written paperwork, and perpetrated mainly by Mr. Tulkinghorn, Mr. Vholes and Smallweed (33). Although brutal, physical violence is present in the novel (for example, in the murder of Tulkinghorn and the domestic abuse at the brickmaker's home), Dickens does not portray that violence directly; rather, he focuses on the aftermath. What is happening in Bleak House is an "emergent species of wrongdoing," now known as "indirect or structural violence" (21). The "conceptual framework and attendant vocabulary of indirect violence" did not exist at Dickens's time, yet Bleak House is full of instances of such violence, as when Nemo's handwritten document, a packet of letters and the promissory note in the possession of George construct "a fatal trap for Lady Dedlock" (22).

In addition, and apart from villainy, direct or indirect, the law exhibits absurdity and ridiculousness. This is evident in Sir Leicester's and Boythorn's legal sparrings. The measures taken by the two landowners...


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