by Charles Dickens, (edited by George Ford and Sylvere Monod). New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. 986pages. Paperback. $22.75. ISBN: 9780393093322.

Reviewed by R. B. Bernstein, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law, New York Law School. Email: Rbernstein [at]


The first time that I encountered Charles Dickens’s BLEAK HOUSE was in the spring of 1978, in my first-year civil procedure course at Harvard Law School. The grand master of procedure, Professor Arthur R. Miller, was stalking the lecture hall, discussing an issue of complex litigation, holding us in rapt attention. In passing, he mentioned “a real Jarndyce and Jarndyce situation.” Suddenly the spell broke, and he was aware of it. He looked at his 150 confused students and repeated, with emphasis, “Jarndyce and Jarndyce,” hoping to jog our memories. Then he demanded, “How may of you have read BLEAK HOUSE?” Only a handful of students raised their hands; I was not among them. He raised his hands like Moses getting ready to part the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments” and proclaimed, “All of you should read BLEAK HOUSE. Anyone engaged with law should read BLEAK HOUSE. It is the one indispensable book.” As an obedient law student, I marched to Harvard Square, bought a Penguin Classics edition of BLEAK HOUSE, and started to read. Three days later, I finished the book, dazed and awed. I understood why Professor Miller had been so insistent.

Fifteen years later, as I began to draw up the reading list for my first Law and Literature at New York Law School, I knew that three books had established their right to be included on the reading list: Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; Herman Melville’s BILLY BUDD, SAILOR (AN INSIDE NARRATIVE); and BLEAK HOUSE.

For fifteen years, I have taught that course, concluding each semester with a close reading of BLEAK HOUSE. This vast, somber book serves a vital purpose in the course as I’ve structured it. My approach to the relationship between law and literature has four major themes. First, language and stories are the tools of law. Second, the legal profession is the priesthood of law. Third, legal proceedings (including but not limited to trials) are the rituals of law. Fourth, just governance is the goal of law. Having established those themes, I use BLEAK HOUSE to demolish that thematic structure. (Indeed, the best way to use BLEAK HOUSE in a Law and Literature course, however it is structured, is as the concluding reading, so that students have an entire semester to read it alongside the other scheduled readings, and thus have a fighting chance to complete the book by the course’s close.)

My use of BLEAK HOUSE is not an exercise in intellectual nihilism. Rather, throughout the course I make clear that, when my students become practitioners, they will have to cope with the lawyer-hatred that has pervaded Western culture since Jesus of Nazareth declared, “Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade [*314] men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers…. Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered” (Luke 11: 46, 52 [King James Version]). Lawyer-hatred is as constant a force in American culture, indeed in the culture of most Western nations, as what the eminent legal historian John Phillip Reid calls law-mindedness. In that light, Arthur R. Miller remains as right now as he was in that classroom in 1978--BLEAK HOUSE is the one indispensable book. It is the ultimate indictment of law, lawyers, and the legal system in the English language.

Charles Dickens wrote BLEAK HOUSE between 1851 and 1853. Like all his longer novels, it appeared as a succession of monthly parts containing four chapters (the last part was a double-part of eight chapters), and issued as a complete book only after the serialization was complete. It is one of his darkest books, coming after his personal favorite DAVID COPPERFIELD and launching the series of searing novelistic examinations of English society that continued with HARD TIMES and LITTLE DORRIT. It is unique among Dickens’s novels in using two intertwined narratives, each with a distinct narrator, and it is also unique as the only work in which Dickens used a female narrator, Esther Summerson. The critic J. Hillis Miller has declared that those who would make the strongest case for Dickens as a literary craftsman look to BLEAK HOUSE to clinch their case. (Miller 1971)

Dickens had several goals. First, of course, was supporting his wife and family by writing novels that would be popular with his expanding readership. A gripping mystery story, spiced with a vehement and dramatic denunciation of the bench and bar, was tailor-made for that readership. (In this connection, we should bury the canard that Dickens “wrote by the word,” with its attendant implication that he padded his books with unnecessary writing to increase his revenues. A moment’s thought, aided by familiarity with the English publishing scene in the 1850s, would demolish this legend, for no publisher would have tolerated padding, given that the readership Dickens sought to reach would have rejected a padded book as soon as they became aware of the problem.)

Dickens also had a harsher purpose in mind. He had come to see English society as pervaded by corruption and decay; in BLEAK HOUSE, HARD TIMES, and LITTLE DORRIT, he staged a series of literary demolitions, exploding such shibboleths as faith in the unwritten English constitution, praise for the rule of law and the efficiency of government, and fealty to the secular gospel of Utilitarianism. By 1851, Dickens had become an angry man, and in these novels but above all in BLEAK HOUSE, he used that anger with devastating effect.

At the core of BLEAK HOUSE is a lawsuit – “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” – mired in the Court of Chancery. From its cinematic opening pages to its shattering conclusion, he deliberately leaves us in doubt as to what the case is about. We know that a member of the Jarndyce family made a will – in fact, he [*315] made several wills, all dealing with a large estate composed of various holdings of personal and real property scattered through England, including the once-valuable but now disease-ridden London slum known as Tom All Alone’s. The case may be an interpleader – the equitable device by which a “stakeholder” beset by multiple claimants to the same valuable property or “stake” deposits that “stake” in the Court of Chancery, which sorts out the claims maintained by the competing claimants. In modern interpleader, a stakeholder can choose to stay to pursue his or her or its own claim to the deposited property or be discharged by the court; in the days of “Jarndyce and Jarndyce,” the stakeholder did not have that escape hatch.

Dickens had already made great sport of the English legal system in his account of the lawsuit for breach of promise to marry, “Bardell v. Pickwick,” in his 1837 novel THE PICKWICK PAPERS. In BLEAK HOUSE, he focused on the historic division between law and chancery in the English judicial system, and took aim at the tempting target of the chancery courts. They had long been infamous as synonymous with legal delay – but Dickens’s deadly satire made Chancery a byword for all that was wrong with English law. Indeed, without giving away the novel’s climax, I can say that it sweeps away, with brutal finality, any shred of hope that the Chancery courts could produce any kind of justice at all. (On Dickens’s usefulness as a source for the writing of legal history, see Holdsworth.)

Four principal claimants to the property at issue in “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” appear in BLEAK HOUSE – John Jarndyce, the master of the house called “Bleak House,” who scorns the lawsuit and will have as little to do with it or his attorneys as he can manage; his young cousins and wards of the Court of Chancery, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare; and the formidable Lady Dedlock, wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock, baronet. At least as important are the lawyers who hover around these clients – “Conversation” Kenge, whose principal fault is his love of empty, orotund legal rhetoric celebrating the glories of Chancery practice; Mr. Tulkinghorn, the family lawyer who assiduously tends the interests of the Dedlock family and so becomes the master of a host of family secrets, the source of his power over his clients; Mr. Guppy, a law clerk and aspiring member of the bar who soon learns the power that legally-significant information can give him; and Mr. Vholes, the Chancery lawyer who ensnares Richard Carstone as his client and slowly, implacably bleeds him of every penny.

BLEAK HOUSE is masterly in its acidulous portrayal of these vultures of the law, but it is even more brilliant in its anatomization of a psychological ailment, which I call “litigation fever.” Litigation fever besets anyone enmeshed in a protracted litigation of any kind; it causes the past and future to drop away, leaving only the case as the total of the sufferer’s moral, mental, and psychological universe. Three characters in BLEAK HOUSE – Mr. Gridley, the “man from Shropshire,” Miss Flite, and Richard Carstone –suffer from various forms of litigation fever, all described by Dickens with painful and exact detail yet also with authorial compassion. This aspect of the novel, which goes beyond the cliches of [*316] lawyer-hatred to open a new and nightmarish world for the novelist, would justify BLEAK HOUSE as essential reading if nothing else did. Indeed, Mr. Vholes would have no real power over his client if Richard Carstone were not suffering from litigation fever feeding his wild fancies about the likely outcome of “Jarndyce and Jarndyce.”

Dickens supplements his denunciation of the false promise of law as a source of justice with attacks on other degraded and corrupted institutions. He mocks the “telescopic philanthrophy” of Mrs. Jellyby, which extends as far as the African coast yet manages to overlook the needs of her own family; the bullying philanthropy of Mrs. Pardiggle; the oily and insincere revivalist preaching of Mr. Chadband; and the interchangeable, corruptible politics of Parliament. Only Esther Summerson shows us what Dickens deems to be the true solution to the problems besetting all levels of English society – honest, modest, direct, face-to-face action to alleviate human suffering. Yet even Esther Summerson, the victim of a brutal and loveless upbringing, has not escaped the scars left by the world of BLEAK HOUSE.

Bernstein, R. B. (2000) “Legal History’s Pathfinder: The Quest of John Phillip Reid,” in Hendrik Hartog and William E. Nelson, eds., LAW AS CULTURE AND CULTURE AS LAW: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF JOHN PHILLIP REID. Madison, Wisconsin: Madison House, 10-37.

Holdsworth, William. (1928). CHARLES DICKENS AS A LEGAL HISTORIAN. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Miller, J. Hillis. (1971). “Introduction” to Charles Dickens, BLEAK HOUSE. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin English Classics.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, R. B. Bernstein.