Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Context


The Great Exhibition

Victorian England was characterized by a growing middle class, a growing empire, and a growing sense of scientific and social progress. To celebrate these achievements, England held a huge world's fair–like event called The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.

The Great Exhibition opened on May 1, 1851, and took place in London's Hyde Park in a 19-acre iron-and-glass structure known as the Crystal Palace. This building embodied the technological advances of the time. Sections were prefabricated in Birmingham—a center of the Industrial Revolution—and transported to London for assembly. The Birmingham and London teams kept in close contact via telegraph. In less than nine months the huge "palace" was complete, and the Exhibition opened on schedule. On display were roughly 100,000 items from more than 15,000 contributors throughout the world. The United States, for example, exhibited a McCormick reaper, a cotton gin, several Colt revolvers, some Goodyear rubber products, an "unpickable" lock, and two sculptures.

To anyone who has visited a county or state fair, The Great Exhibition might have seemed a bit tame. But in 1851 it was unique. There were soft drinks and other refreshments, public restrooms, and free samples of products like chocolates and cologne. Visitors could buy a one-day or season ticket. When the exhibition ended on October 11, more than 6 million people had visited.

With Bleak House, Dickens wanted to remind his readers that all was not right in England. As a journalist Dickens wrote many positive articles about the Great Exhibition, which celebrated England's progress. However Dickens resented its one-sided view of society, ignoring England's many ills. As early as January 1851, he wrote an article responding to the plans for the Exhibition. In it he asked, "Which of my children shall behold the Princes, Prelates, Nobles, Merchants, of England, equally united, for another Exhibition—for a great display of England's sins and negligences, to be ... set right?" During the Exhibition itself, he began working on the concept of Bleak House, which would explore societal woes the Great Exhibition ignored.

Victorian Courts

Even today the English legal system is based largely on common law, which is sometimes called customary law. It derives from the decisions of judges made over the course of centuries, unlike law that derives from legal codes and statutes created by legislators. Common law was administered by royal courts, and royal judges traveled around the country doling out the king's justice. Therefore common law seldom took local customs into account, which sometimes led to claims of unfairness. The common law courts became known for other unfair practices, too, such as long delays and preferential treatment for the rich and powerful, who could bribe or otherwise influence judges.

Slowly but surely law codes developed—especially in cases involving property—and were applied in the royal courts. Judges increasingly demanded written documentation; where formal proof was unavailable, fair decisions could not be reached. A law of equity (fairness) was needed. Administering equity law eventually fell under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chancellor, and the equity court came to be known as the Court of Chancery. The Chancellor and his subordinates did not need to refer to precedent or codified law; they decided cases based on arguments and did not have to justify their decisions. Judges' decisions and court arguments were gathered together and called case law to be published in books. Being a judge became a full-time job, as did being a barrister. Barristers had no relationship with clients; their job was to argue before the court. A solicitor interacted with the client, prepared the case, and hired the barrister.

In Victorian England, inheritance law was tricky, as Dickens illustrates with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce inheritance case in Bleak House. Cases involving large estates could last years. Inheritance law involved not only common law and equity law, but also civil (codified) law and canon (church) law. This was for reasons of both custom and greed. By custom, land holdings were kept intact by leaving them to the oldest male heir; this was the law of primogeniture. Because historically the king gave land to his supporters, real property (land and the structures on the land) lay under the authority of the royal (common law) courts. Personal property—property that could be moved around—was historically the province of ecclesiastical (church) courts. Because marriages and deaths were dealt with by the church, disputes regarding marriage contracts and wills fell under the church's jurisdiction. The church encouraged people to leave money, shares, and valuable objects to multiple heirs—including, of course, the church itself. Having multiple heirs to large estates led to controversy, and the equitable settlement of such controversies came under the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery. Finally, although marriage was within the purview of the church, children might not be: When an orphan inherited property but had no guardian, it fell to the Court of Chancery to look after the orphan's interests.

Bleak House drew not only on Dickens's early experiences with the British justice system through his father's arrests for debt and his work as a law clerk and court reporter, but also on his personal disappointment in the Court of Chancery. In 1844 he sued a publisher for printing a slightly revised penny edition of his novel A Christmas Carol, which had come out just three weeks earlier. Although Dickens won an injunction against his opponents, which prevented them from selling their version, he ended up having to pay the court costs when they declared bankruptcy; the court costs used up most of his profits from A Christmas Carol.

The Bleak House Illustrations

Illustrations were an important part of almost all of Dickens's major works. The English illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, known by the pen name Phiz, collaborated with Dickens for 23 years on 10 of the author's 15 novels, including Bleak House.

In general the purpose of illustrations in a Victorian work of fiction was interpretive. The artist sought to indicate characters' personalities, clarify thematic relationships, and emphasize symbols. The element of caricature that so often featured in the illustrations in Dickens's novels suited his frequent use of exaggeration, sarcasm, and irony when commenting on characters in the narration. Just as the author did in his text, Browne also used motifs to great effect in his images. For instance, in the first three illustrations featuring Esther (Chapters 3, 4, and 5), her face is completely or partially turned from the viewer. This motif returns after Esther's face has been scarred by smallpox.

Bleak House posed particular challenges for the illustrator. Browne's art needed to clearly depict scenes and characters; it also needed to represent the novel's symbolically dark atmosphere, which Dickens described in passages about fog, dismal weather, night, and dark city streets.

Browne's response was to use two distinct types of illustration: Victorian images and a technique called dark plates.

Victorian Images

Browne used typical early Victorian cartoon-like images that focused on showing characters' looks, body language, and positions within a given scene. A good example is in Chapter 14. The characters from the novel are depicted much as Dickens described them—in caricature: Prince Turveydrop stands in the center, kit in hand, demonstrating a graceful dance step for his students. But it is Mr. Turveydrop who seems to dominate the scene; with his tight clothes, primped wig, and perfect deportment, his large figure stands looking down his nose from the sidelines, with the rear view of his wig shown in the mirror behind him.

Dark Plate Technique

Browne also used a technique called dark plates, which is useful in depicting mood rather than plot or character. The technique emphasizes light and shadow over detail. Rather than creating patches of darkness in an otherwise light image by engraving limited areas of parallel lines on the plate that are close together or crisscrossed, Browne used a ruling machine to cover the entire plate with fine lines, thus making the whole image dark and indicating nighttime, dark weather, or a severe London fog. Only 10 of the 40 illustrations in Bleak House use this technique.

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