“In Chancery”: Chapter One of “Bleak House”

(On her website, Mimi Matthews writes of Charles Dickens’s portrayal of the Court of Chancery in Bleak House:

“His timing in rendering such criticism was less than perfect.  The same year he serialized Bleak House, the Court of Chancery was embarking upon a period of radical change.  In 1852, an Act of Parliament altered the methods of taking evidence, substituted salaries for fees, and abolished a great many other useless expenses and offices.  This is not to say that Bleak House is any less instructive for lack of timing.  Taken as if the events in the novel happened on or about 1827 (acknowledged as being the very worst period of the Court of Chancery), the novel is a window into a faulty and corrupt system and the lives destroyed by it.

Charles Dickens’ criticism of lawyers and the courts was informed by his own experience with the legal system.  In 1827, at the age of fifteen, he went to work for the law office of Ellis and Blackmore as a junior clerk.  It was there that he saw the darker side of the law, evidenced in places like Fleet Prison, Newgate, and the Marshalsea (where his own father was imprisoned for debt).

Dickens later taught himself shorthand and became a court reporter in the Lord Chancellor’s Court.  Perhaps it was during this time that he began to formulate his opinion of the Chancery Court, leading him to eventually write:

“The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.  There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.  Viewed by this light, it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it.”

Dickens became further acquainted with the Chancery Courts when he petitioned for an injunction against someone who had published imitations of his novel, A Christmas Carol.  He was successful in his suit, but had to pay the costs.  The suit ended up costing him more than any damages he was able to collect.  When another episode of copyright infringement occurred, Dickens decided that it was less expensive to tolerate it than to go to court again.  In a letter to his own attorney, he wrote that:

“It is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.” “.)

From Chapter One:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather….

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery…

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here — as here he is — with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be — as here they are — mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be — as are they not? — ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire…

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