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Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Bleak House is one of Charles Dickens's most famous novels, published as a serial in 20 monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. The action revolves around a fictional court case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, regarding an inheritance dispute. Such cases were dealt with by the Chancery Courts of England, a legal system that Dickens satirizes and criticizes harshly throughout the novel.

Bleak House's importance lies in its scathing critique of what Dickens felt was a great injustice perpetrated by greedy officials. The officials made profits from the constant delays and fees associated with the English judicial system as cases stretched out over many years. The novel not only entertained Dickens's readership but also brought this corruption to light on a national level.

1. Several real court cases inspired Bleak House's legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Dickens was inspired by several court cases in writing Bleak House. The most notable one was that of author Charlotte Smith, whose inheritance case took 36 years in England's court system. The phrase "Jarndyce and Jarndyce" was used in the legal world to define a complex case that required absurd amounts of time and money to rectify.

2. Inspector Bucket was inspired by a detective Dickens knew personally.

Dickens's personal friend, Inspector Charles Frederick Field, was the basis for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Field worked for Dickens as undercover security in 1851, an experience that encouraged Dickens to use Field as literary fodder. Before Bleak House, Field appeared in a journalistic article by Dickens entitled "On Duty with Inspector Field."

3. Neurologists believe members of the Smallweed family in Bleak House suffer from an extremely rare disease.

Grandfather Smallweed, an extortionist moneylender who lends to Mr. George, is part of a family whose odd physical characteristics have led some scientists to determine that they may have suffered from the condition known as Progeria. This condition makes the body appear to age more rapidly than usual. Dickens's descriptions of the Smallweeds appearing as "little old men and women" match the symptoms of the rare disease, although victims of it rarely live anywhere near as long as the villainous Grandfather Smallweed.

4. Bleak House helped spur British legal reforms.

In Bleak House Dickens so vividly portrayed the absurdity of the Chancery Courts in England—which clearly stalled cases to prolong legal payments and often took decades to settle cases—that reforms to the courts were enacted in the years following the book's publication.

5. Dickens's summer house was renamed "Bleak House" after the author's death.

Dickens visited the home in Kent every summer for 22 years, and its views of the English Channel inspired him to write Bleak House. Originally called "Fort House," the beautiful manor was renamed "Bleak House" after the author's death in 1870.

6. Dickens clashed with scientists over the plausibility of Krook's spontaneous combustion.

The author insisted that Krook's spontaneous combustion featured in his novel was, in fact, possible, despite scientific evidence against it. Although some forms of matter, such as compost piles, can generate enough heat to ignite at random, scientists generally agree that any human combustion requires an external flame.

7. A historian used Bleak House as a primary source of legal history.

The legal historian William Searle Holdsworth wrote a book entitled Charles Dickens as Legal Historian, in which he claimed that Dickens's depictions of England's Chancery Courts were so true to life that Bleak House could be considered a primary source to draw upon.

8. Dickens had his own problems with the Chancery Courts of England.

The author worked as a junior clerk for the courts at age 15 and later as a court reporter. He also became entangled in an expensive, drawn-out case involving the rights to his novel A Christmas Carol (1843). These experiences with the courts led him to write, "The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself."

9. Esther Summerson is the only female narrator to appear in any of Dickens's literature.

Esther Summerson narrates the proceedings of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case and is the only woman whom Dickens features in such a role in any of his novels. Some have criticized her character, however, such as author Charlotte Brontë calling her "weak and twaddling."

10. A rediscovered film from 1901 featuring Jo, the street sweeper, is the oldest cinematic representation of a Dickens character.

The film, entitled The Death of Poor Joe, focuses on Jo, who ties together story lines in Bleak House. It was rediscovered in 2012, exactly 200 years after Dickens's birth. Only one minute in length, the film shows the death of Jo in a churchyard, freezing in the snow. A British Film Institute film curator, Bryony Dixon, found the film by accident while researching early films about China.

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