Law Meets Literature: Bleak House and the British Court of Chancery

By the early nineteenth century, the British Court of Chancery had become synonymous with procedural dysfunction and injustice.  This was especially so for the middle classes, who could not afford to bring a claim lest they end up having their entire fortunes swallowed up by the process.

This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Court of Chancery, 1808.

However, though “the evils of Chancery were well known and had been exposed over and over again,” the 1852 publication of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House shone an even brighter light both on the Court and on the lives ruined by its corruption and dysfunctionality.

Even this many years later, when one hears of the Court of Chancery, it is difficult not to think of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that black hole of a case at the center of Bleak House; the greatest of Chancery suits and “a monument of Chancery practice.”

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Bleak House, 1852
(Serialized Edition).

The character of John Jarndyce explains that his case is nothing more than an issue “about a will, and the trusts under a will,” but that:

“…the lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth.” 

All that was left now were the costs, he explained, and “all the rest, by some extraordinary means has melted away.”  All, that is, except for the lives affected by the case having lingered so long in Chancery.

In showing the lives destroyed by a case which amounted to nothing more than a dispute over a will, Dickens revealed the slow grinding procedures of the Chancery Court and the myriad attorneys whose livelihood depended on the Court’s inefficient function.  He compared taking a case to Chancery with being:

“Ground to bits in a slow mill…roasted at a slow fire…stung to death by single bees…(and) being drowned by drops.”

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.

Dickens and the Law

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).

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Charles Dickens, 1852.

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.”

The Court of Chancery

The Court of Chancery was created to settle cases involving disputes about legacies, trusts, and mortgages.  However, the process by which a plaintiff might seek relief was so convoluted and tangled that a simple dispute could drag on for decades.

Lincoln's Inn (Old Hall, Chapel, and Chancery Court), 1830 by Thomas Shepherd.

Lincoln’s Inn (Old Hall, Chapel, and Chancery Court), 1830 by Thomas Shepherd.

The problems arose not out of the complaint and answer, but the office fees, charges by solicitors and fees to the Commissioners, and requirements that all parties purchase copies of documents.  Additionally whenever a death occurred, supplemental bills became necessary to reconstitute the circle of litigants.  The enormous amount of documents a single suit could produce was added to by the abuse of officials and clerks who were paid by fees for each piece of work done.

The documents in Jarndyce and Jarndyce were the stuff of legend.  Dickens wrote that upon the announcement of the Jarndyce case in court there was a “bringing in of great heaps, and piles, and bags full of papers” and that once the “twenty-three gentlemen in wigs” had argued for a bit and had the case “referred back,” the copious documents were “bundled up again before the clerks had finished bringing them in.”

To top it all off, the process by which the court functioned was so technical and its procedures were so slow that “the length of time taken to decide even uncontested cases amounted to a denial of justice.”  This was a system ripe for abuse and certainly in need of reform.

Fog and Confusion

Dickens introduces London and the Court of Chancery by calling up images of fog.  “Fog everywhere,” he writes.  “Fog up the river…Fog down the river…Fog in the eyes and throats.” This fog is more than just a spooky literary device.  It is a symbol of the murk and confusion associated with Chancery itself.  Dickens writes that the “dense fog is densest” on the approach to the court.  People who once thought clearly, who once saw clearly, become befuddled and:

“Well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance…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.”

At the very heart of this interminable fog sits the High Chancellor, with “foggy glory around his head.”  The Chancellor presided over the Court of Chancery and, rather than make it a sensible and efficient institution, Dickens’ seems to view that the Chancellor perpetuated the confusion and muddle.

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Gateway to Lincoln’s Inn, 1895
by Herbert Railton.

However, as he describes the Chancellor as a man looking into a lantern with no light in it, we can almost believe that Dickens does not hold him solely accountable.  He appears as someone who is, perhaps, hamstrung by the procedural ineffectiveness of the Chancery system; someone who cannot or will not exercise the full amount of his authority under the weight of such entrenched abuses.

The Lord Chancellor was a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and President of the House of Lords.  He was supported by the Chancery Court officers, the Master of the Rolls, and several Vice Chancellors.  But the real murk and fog came into play with some of the lesser court offices – especially those of the “masters.”  Dickens includes them all as corrupt, supporting players in Bleak House, writing that:

“From the master, upon whose impaling files reams of dusty warrants in Jarndyce and Jarndyce have grimly writhed into many shapes; down to the copying-clerk in the Six Clerk’s Office, who has copied his tens of thousands of Chancery folio-pages under that eternal heading; no man’s nature has been made better by it.”

The masters were court officials who were paid handsomely for reviewing assembled evidence and reporting as to whether it was fit to bring before the Chancellor.

Solicitor and Client (Mr. Punch in Wig and Gown).

The master, in himself, had only the power appointed to him by the judge and an enormous amount of time and money could be wasted in a case as the master and judge referred matters back and forth between them.  In addition, the masters were able to review all items in their private chambers, assisted by chief clerks, who in turn were assisted by their own clerks and so on.  Idleness and inefficiency were the order of the day.  Making this system even more inefficient, no decision from the master was final and it might always be cycled back up to the Chancellor.  In writing about the abuses of the masters, Dickens said that:

“In trickery, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, botheration, under false pretenses of all sorts, there are influences that can never come to any good.”

He even intimates that the lowliest of office boys might have seen a benefit to delaying the litigants by telling them that the master was engaged or had other appointments.  The corruption was that systemic.

The abuses by the masters in the Court of Chancery were of particular concern to the reformers of the day.  Across the nineteenth century, the crown appointed bodies called Chancery Commissions to “investigate problems in the administration of the court and to recommend legislation” to put an end to, or remedy, the problems.

On their recommendation, legislation was enacted in 1833 (well before Dickens’ even began Bleak House) that provided for the Chancery masters to be paid by a fixed salary and stated that taking fees or gratuities was an indictable offense.  In 1842, many of what the Chancery Commission termed “useless offices” were abolished and, in 1852, Parliament enacted legislation eliminating the masters’ offices once and for all.

After these reforms, all judicial functions were to be performed by a judge.  If this had been the case during the Jarndyce matter, perhaps Bleak House would not be the novel we know today.  Instead of scores of underlings generating bags of documents, a single judge would have handled the matter entire and perhaps disposed of it before the “legion of bills in the suit had been transformed into mere bills of mortality.”

Lawyers Instigate Reform

Against the backdrop of Chancery Court dysfunction, Bleak House features a cast of lawyers and law clerks that run the gamut from “shyster” to “narrow, mean, ignorant pettifogger.”  Dickens’ rather cynical depictions would lead one to believe that there was not a good word to be said for the legal profession and that those lawyers that existed in the nineteenth century were happy with the inefficiency of Chancery and glad to prosper from it.

Mr. Punch in Wig and Gown, 1908.

The Advertising Barrister
(Mr. Punch in Wig and Gown).

In reality, lawyers were the primary instigators of Chancery reform.  James Stewart, a nineteenth century barrister, writes about the abuses and dysfunction of Chancery with the candor of one who was as much a critic as Dickens was.  He points out the “glaring evils” in the system of equity that then existed and advocates for even greater reforms than the steps that had already been taken.  He also points out that “two judges of the Court of Chancery, and one of the most eminent of her Majesty’s counsel” had “been engaged, under the authority of the Lord Chancellor, in considering the whole subject of Chancery Reform.”

The Chancellor at the time, Lord Cottenham, not only called together the informal commission above, but was also behind the 1841 issuance of orders for regulations of suits, by which “some of the most grievous rules with respect to parties to suits in equity” were rectified.  Stewart writes that these orders not only regulated suits, but rectified some of the most “glaring evils in the present system of equity pleading” and had the added merit of being only an installment in what would be much greater reforms.

It is clear that not only was the Chancellor an advocate of reform and active in implementing new policy for the court, but so were other attorneys of the day who saw nothing but frustration, delay, and injustice in the inadequacy of the equity system.

Victims of Chancery

Arguably, the central theme of Bleak House is the damage that a Chancery suit could inflict on a human being.  Whether in the form of the doomed Richard Carstone, the angry Gridley, or the unbalanced Miss Flite, Dickens gives us the spectrum of what type of evil the court could visit on the lives of the people who mistakenly turn to it for assistance.

Richard Carstone is a ward of court in the Jarndyce case.  Though he never knew the original parties and still knows very little about the substance of what is going on, he has been made a party to it.  As John Jarndyce states:

“Through the years and years, and lives and lives, everything goes on, constantly beginning over and over again, and nothing ever ends.  And we can’t get out of the suit on any terms, for we are made parties to it, and must be parties to it, whether we like it or not.”

Attorney and Client: Fortitude and Impatience by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne) for Bleak House, 1853. (Image scan and text by George P. Landow. )

Attorney and Client: Fortitude and Impatience by “Phiz” (Hablot Knight Browne) for Bleak House, 1853. (Image scan and text by George P. Landow.)

John Jarndyce, having seen what the suit can do, discourages Carstone from ever attending hearings or seeking legal advice about the claim.  But, inevitably, Carstone is sucked in and begins to believe that the case will finally settle in his lifetime and that he will see some benefit.  He is encouraged in this belief by the predatory attorney Mr. Vholes.  Instead, Jarndyce and Jarndyce is absorbed in costs.  Devastated, Richard Carstone is found sitting in the corner of the empty courtroom “like a stone figure.”  Stricken with consumption and thoroughly worn out by the case, he dies rather melodramatically a short while later.

Mr. Gridley and Miss Flite are not affiliated with the Jarndyce case, but pursuing their own smaller claims in Chancery.  Each has had their life ruined by the Court and each has developed ways of coping with the constant stress of waiting for something to happen.  While Miss Flite has descended into madness, Gridley has escalated into a continuous state of rage.  Even when explaining the simple case that led him to Chancery, Gridley is overcome with “passion and heat” and accompanies his tale with “violent gestures.”

Like Jarndyce, Gridley’s case is about a will, but Gridley explains that:

“No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything…I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there, because the law forced me, and would let me go nowhere else.”

Gridley goes on to list the delay in distributing the proceeds of the will as “seventeen people were made defendants” and, after the passing of two more years, one of the masters even inquired “whether I was my father’s son – about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature.”

Gridley is made all the more angry because he feels certain that the lawyers and judges gain by his suit while he is losing from it.  He has been imprisoned for contempt of court, threatening the solicitor, and finally must go on the run.  In the end, much as happened with Richard Carstone, the stress of the prolonged court case drives Gridley to his deathbed.

The Little Old Lady by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne) for Bleak House, 1853. Image scan and text by George P. Landow.

The Little Old Lady by “Phiz” (Hablot Knight Browne) for Bleak House, 1853.
(Image scan and text by George P. Landow.)

Miss Flite does not lose her life as a result of the prolonged Chancery suit she is a party to, but she does lose her sanity.  Ever optimistic, she wakes each morning and attends court, hoping that there will be some development in her case.

“I expect a judgment,” she says throughout the novel.  “Shortly.  On the Day of Judgment.”

It is believed that Dickens inspirations for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, and also for Gridley’s case, came from real life suits that he had read about.  The William Jennings case, initiated in 1798, was still unsettled at the time Dickens was writing Bleak House and it appears to have been his model for Jarndyce.  Another case, which Dickens used as inspiration, “commenced before the close of the last century and in which more than double the amount of seventy thousand pounds” had been “swallowed up in costs” is mentioned by Dickens in the original preface to Bleak House, where he refers to the case as a “friendly suit.”

Gridley’s case was also based on a factual suit involving a will, a case where:

“There was but one defendant in reality, but seventeen according to the technical rule, and, after two years, it was discovered that an eighteenth should be added and the suit begun de novo.”

The case racked up costs in excess of £800 for a legacy valued at only £300.

It was not uncommon for an entire estate to be absorbed in costs.  It was also typical for anyone remotely connected to a case to be made a party to it.  This inefficient and time-consuming process and the havoc it wreaked on those of lesser fortunes who sought relief in Chancery was certainly one of the major driving forces behind the mid-nineteenth century reforms.

A Few Closing Remarks…

More than one hundred and fifty years after its first publication, Bleak House is still relevant, not only as an exceptional piece of literature, but as a snapshot into the dysfunctional court system of the nineteenth century.  However, it is helpful to view this massive work in light of knowing that there were many conscientious and honorable legal professionals, both in the court system and without it, who pressed for reforms that would benefit England as a whole and the middle-class in particular.

Au Revoir!, 1908 (Mr. Punch in Wig and Gown).

Au Revoir! (Mr. Punch in Wig and Gown).


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article  

Dickens, Charles.  Bleak House.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. 

Gest, John Marshall.  The Laywer in Literature.  London: Sweet & Maxwell Limited, 1913. 

Holdsworth, William S.  Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929. 

Langbein, Lerner, and Smith.  History of the Common Law.  New York: Aspen Publishers, 2009. 

Stewart, James.  Suggestions as to Reform in Some Branches of the Law.  London: V & R Stevens and G.S. Norton, 1852. 


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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8 thoughts on “Law Meets Literature: Bleak House and the British Court of Chancery

  1. Angelyn says:

    A masterful blog post, Mimi–I thoroughly enjoyed it! Sir Lester’s lawyer Tulkinghorn is by far Dickens’ most masterful villain. His most masterful hero? Why, Sydney Carton, barrister, in Tale of Two Cities.

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    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Angelyn! This article is the readers digest version of a much longer legal research article I wrote on the Chancery Courts. The full version mentions Tulkinghorn a great deal, as well as Mr. Vholes, and Guppy the law clerk. I wish I could have shared the whole thing, but I didn’t want to scare any readers away!!

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  2. nmayer2015 says:

    Excellent blog, Mimi. The Regency chancellor was Lord Eldon who rose to eminence from a middle class beginning. His brother also became a judge . Critics claim Eldon was slow to act and that the position of vice chancellor was created to deal with a backlog in 1813.. However, Lord Eldon is also noted as formulating a the rules of a court of Equity.
    The author Charlotte Smith hated lawyers because of the way they ate up the legacy left to her and her children. I think that case took close to a decade and she died before her children saw a penny of the money.
    Still, I think it necessary to remember that Dickens wrote a piece of fiction and that he exaggerated and drew out aspects of the law to make a point. Not that things weren’t in need of reform but just that Bleak House is not a report by a Parliamentary committee.
    The court of Chancery was a court of equity. It was supposed to see that things were managed more fairly than might be possible under a strict adherence to common law. It was established as the King’s Conscience. It was established before trusts but trusts became one of the main matters before it.
    IT dealt with guardians. Any orphan with property who didn’t have a guardian named by a father became a ward of the court which could appoint a guardian. Illegitimate minors had to have a guardian appointed by Chancery to marry by license and have the marriage be valid. Usually the church probate court could deal with legacies of money. Chancery dealt with legacies of real property and the two courts could and did disagree.
    Some cases could have to deal with the ecclesiastical courts. a Common law court, and Chancery.
    One reason things could take so long was the relatively short time the court was in session and the other activities of the Lord Chancellor. The House of Lords and , the privy Council were just two of the other activities he was involved with. Also, the way the people were paid encouraged them to look for ways to collect more fees.
    Court was in session from mid January to end of February, and then from about 30 days after Easter, or sometime in May. Then basically the month of June. Then about a month in autumn. In other words, it only heard cases for about 4 months a year, which was the usual time most courts except the Old Bailey were in session.

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    • Mimi Matthews says:

      “Still, I think it necessary to remember that Dickens wrote a piece of fiction and that he exaggerated and drew out aspects of the law to make a point. Not that things weren’t in need of reform but just that Bleak House is not a report by a Parliamentary committee.”
      Glad you enjoyed it, Nancy. Full disclosure: this was actually a substantial research paper I wrote in my final year of law school. It was supervised by the legendary Geoffrey Hazard. As such, the legal aspect of my research on the Chancery Courts is about as accurate as you can get. Naturally, it was shortened quite a bit before I posted it here, as well as being modified so that it would make sense to non-lawyers. In this sort of forum especially, I like to convey the drier bits of law and history to lay people through some literary mechanism. Bleak House is like the spoonful of sugar that makes the Chancery Court medicine go down. Thanks for your comment!

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