In Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, the king’s son Mamillius is asked what story he would like. He replies:
A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
For me, Dickens is best for winter, so when I was asked to choose and defend my favourite book at the East Midlands Salon Balloon Debate, it had to be Dickens’ Bleak House.
The first word of Bleak House is ‘London’. Samuel Johnson said ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. I think the same goes for Dickens as a writer of London. Dickens immerses us in the novelty and mystery, the energy and misery of the nineteenth century city.
And having put us in London, Dickens immediately plunges us into the mud and fog surrounding Chancery and English law, the focus of his social satire in Bleak House. The mud is ‘accumulating at compound interest’, we are told, in keeping with the world’s leading capitalist city. The fog is ‘cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of [a] shivering little ’prentice boy’, while the gas light ‘has a haggard and unwilling look’. In Dickens’ London, the buildings and elements feel alive. So even before we enter Chancery and are introduced to the slow workings of the law, we already have a picture of the murkiness and mire of litigation.
Bleak House’s plot is framed around the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, an inheritance dispute. The case has lasted so long its original parties have died, and those who have inherited the case have grown old in turn. When the final judgement is pronounced there is nothing left of the original inheritance, dissipated on litigation fees. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is proverbial as a bad legal action and a cautionary tale against litigation taking over your life.
Bleak House is not just a satire of law, but of false morality, whether in the form of fashionable convention, religiosity or philanthropy divorced from personal concern and care for others.
Dickens’ social commentary is animated. His is a world full of right and wrong, heroes and villains. Where individual conscience and care for others matters. Dickens judges individuals’ actions and metes out justice without impunity. Villains get their just desserts, the fallen are redeemed, and the virtuous are rewarded. Dickens even sentences one villain – Krook – to spontaneous human combustion in a poetically and theatrically satisfying end.
So what of his characters? Who to choose? The ruthless Tulkinghorn? The sponger Harold Skimpole? The wasted Miss Flite, consumed by Jarndyce and Jarndyce? Sir Leicester Dedlock with his aristocratic gout?
Two of my favourite characters are the philanthropist Mrs Jellyby and the road-sweeper Jo.
Mrs Jellyby is a tyrannical egotistical philanthropist ‘who devotes herself entirely to the public… and is at present… devoted to the subject of Africa…’ Absorbed in her ‘telescopic philanthropy’, she is oblivious to the cares of those around her, and incapable of saving and looking after anybody, not even herself. As Dickens mischievously comments, ‘Mrs Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.’ Dickens’ satirical portrait of Mrs Jellyby questions the humanitarian character of her humanitarianism – questions that remain relevant to the international humanitarianism and global disaster management of our own day, as I explored in Global Disaster Management and Therapeutic Governance of Communities for a recent issue of Development Dialogue.
Dickens’ critique speaks to the concerns of many aid workers over the humanitarian sector becoming overly bureaucratic and losing a sense of personal compassion.
Unlike his Mrs Jellyby, Dickens cares about individuals in the mass, and wants to retrieve them from anonymity. This concern is shown in Dickens’ portrait of Jo, which demands that we care about the road-sweeper:
It must be a very strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets… To be hustled, and jostled, and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business here, or there, or anywhere… To see the horses, dogs and cattle, go by me, and to know that in ignorance I belong to them, and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend!
Moreover, Jo’s road-sweeping has a moral and social redemptive dimension, metaphorically clearing away the murk and mire represented by Chancery.
In summary, Dickens’ interweaves his social satire of law and society into a plot of mystery, romance, comedy, and pathos, and above all, character.
Image by David Dixon