In this extract from Charles Dickens: An Introduction, Jenny Hartley explains how Charles Dickens (who turns 205 on February 7, 2017) used his novels as a form of social protest, tackling the ruling institutions and attitudes of Victorian Britain.
As Britain and her empire swelled in size and confidence, Dickens’s own belief in it diminished. For him the best of times were becoming the worst of times, Victorian high noon was dusk verging on midnight. Not that he was antiprogress. As Ruskin aptly said, “Dickens was a pure modernist— a leader of the steam-whistle party par excellence.” The titles he chose for fake book-jackets adorning his study door at Gad’s Hill succinctly express his attitude to the past: The Wisdom of Our Ancestors in seven volumes: 1 Ignorance, 2 Superstition, 3 The Block, 4 The Stake, 5 The Rack, 6 Dirt, 7 Disease. Articles in Household Words toured readers round modern factories and communication centres such as the General Post Office. But by the 1850s, rather than highlighting an issue like the workhouse or a vice like selfishness, Dickens was organizing his novels around his critique of the dehumanizing structures, ideologies, and bureaucracies of nineteenth-century Britain.
Dickens began work on Bleak House in 1851—the year of the Great Exhibition, showcase to the world for the wonders of industrial Britain. Dickens was less sure of the wonders of his nation. Bleak House was the first of a run of three novels (Hard Times and Little Dorrit followed) to tackle Britain’s ruling institutions and attitudes. His primary target in Bleak House is the legal system, exemplified by the incomprehensible and interminable Jarndyce lawsuit. “The little plaintiff or defendant,” the narrator tells us in the opening chapter, “who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world” (Chapter 1). Those effortless transitions between horses real, rocking, and incorporeal, and between “this world and the next”: what precipitous dimensions they open up.
The whole first chapter dazzles with its giddying shifts of scale expanding and contracting, converging and radiating, from the real fog of London to the “foggy glory” of the Chancellor’s wig and out to the “blighted land in every shire.” All involved in the legal system are doomed. The “ruined suitor, who periodically appears from Shropshire” and tries to address the Chancellor directly, face-to-face, has become a figure of fun. “‘There again!’ said Mr Gridley, with no diminution of his rage. ‘The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system’” (Chapter 1).
If “The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself” (Chapter 39), other institutions are equally culpable. Religion, in the shape of the clergyman Mr Chadband, is self-regarding, greedy, and greasy. “A large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system,” he spouts “abominable nonsense” (Chapter 19). Philanthropy, as embodied in Mrs Jellyby, is looking the wrong way, towards Africa instead of the inner city. The aristocracy, exemplified by Sir Leicester Dedlock, is “intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable” (Chapter 2). As George Bernard Shaw commented in his 1937 Foreword to Great Expectations, “Trollope and Thackeray could see Chesney Wold [where the Dedlocks live]; but Dickens could see through it.” And that central institution of care and protection, the family itself, proves woefully inadequate. Everywhere in the book are abandoned, neglected, and exploited children, and some appalling parenting. The legal system, it becomes clear, is metonymic, synecdoche for something rotten in the state, the rottenness of the state itself. This is the prosperous nation which cannot educate its children, cannot look after its poor, cannot keep its cities clean, and cannot bury its dead properly.
In this vexed world there are no simple solutions. Quietism, staying as aloof as possible, is the path chosen by John Jarndyce as he provides succour to the defenceless. But his scope is limited, and his unworldliness lays him open to being duped, for instance by the calculatingly irresponsible “I’m just a child” Harold Skimpole. It is, surprisingly, the cottagey haven Mr. Jarndyce establishes outside London to protect his young wards, which is called Bleak House, and where Esther becomes infected with the smallpox coming out of the London slum. So it turns out that there is no good place in this novel which is un-bleak.
Featured image credit: “London lantern” by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.