Reformist Critique in the Mid-Victorian 'Legal Novel'--Bleak House

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Author: Kieran Dolin
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2002
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,609 words

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[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Dolin focuses on Dickens's criticism of the court of Chancery and its inheritance laws as exhibited in Bleak House.]

A reviewer of the first number of Bleak House anticipated that Jarndyce and Jarndyce would "doubtless be a famous cause--and take its future place beside the Common Pleas case of Bardell v Pickwick in the Law Reports of Fiction."1 This prediction has proved true in the long term.2 When the serialization of the novel was completed, the same reviewer criticized Dickens for failing "to keep the mighty mystery of Iniquity and Equity perpetually before the reader," and for giving, instead, "the first concern and sympathy ... to Lady Dedlock's secret."3 These remarks provide a compact starting-point for a critical and historical discussion of the representation of law in Bleak House. In the first section of this chapter I explore the mid-Victorian evolution of a subgenre based on "the Law Reports of Fiction," and argue that although Bleak House emerged from this generic field, its critique of the English legal system and nomos is more profound than that of The Heart of Midlothian. The specific focus of this critique, the Court of Chancery, had become a national scandal, obstructing inherited notions of justice and resisting attempts at reform. The sense of contradiction expressed in the phrase, "the mighty mystery of Iniquity and Equity," is emplotted in Bleak House, which presents the stories of the institution's victims as evidence of the need for reform, but which also recuperates part of the tradition of Equity as an alternative to Chancery. That alternative is best embodied in Esther Summerson. Esther's recovery of family represents, it is argued in the last part of the chapter, a type of world-building which is set against the destructive and entropic tendencies of Chancery.


The existence of two major Victorian connections between literature and law is indicated by these phrases, "the Law Reports of Fiction" and "the mighty mystery of Iniquity and Equity." The former phrase expresses the reviewer's expectation of the realistic presentation of legal proceedings, while the latter evidences the contemporary dismay at the injustices wrought by the Chancery Court. The two phrases may be thought to point in opposite directions, one towards the law as it is, the other towards the law as it should be. However, such a dichotomy would be over-simplified, for the allusion to The Pickwick Papers suggests a realism alloyed with comedy and satire, while the wordplay of "Iniquity and Equity" bespeaks an awareness that error and evil may likewise be illustrated through comedy and satire. In this context, the "mystery" of Chancery is not insoluble: rather the institution may be understood and remedied.

As a formulation, "The Law Reports of Fiction" seems to derive from the title of The Pickwick Papers, chapter xxxiv, "Is Wholly Devoted to a Full and Faithful Report of the Memorable Trial of Bardell against Pickwick." The hyperbole of this title, however, invokes an eighteenth-century tradition of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420046536