Online Extras

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

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This is an online extra to our August 2013 cover story, 25 greatest law novels ever.

Everyone knows that among novelists and storytellers, Charles Dickens always does it better. And even when it came to the law—especially the injustices, absurdities and flat-out futility of the Court of Chancery—Dickens was like a mischievous court stenographer scribbling away with painfully hilarious depictions of the legal system at work.

Actually, regarding his Victorian masterpiece Bleak House, it’s not clear whether “work” can ever be attributed to judges, barristers and solicitors. Nothing ever really gets accomplished in Lincoln’s Inn or the Temple Bar, or on Chancery Lane. Despite its hefty word count and platoon of quirky characters and devious lawyers, nearly all of whom seemingly have something to do with the infamous case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the nuts and bolts of wills and estates never figure much in the plot line.

In fact, aside from the mention of conflicting wills, we have no idea what the case is ultimately about and why it was permitted to ruin so many lives and dissipate entire family fortunes. All we know is that the “rotten reed” and “family curse” of a case exists—in both name and annihilating fury. Anyone reading Bleak House expecting a tutorial on the rule against perpetuities is looking at the wrong book.

While light on the law, it does provide a vast life lesson on the reasons why one should stay away from lawyers and courtrooms. Bleak House is aptly titled; once one is drawn into a legal quagmire, the future becomes very bleak, indeed. Lawyers are nothing but purveyors of secrets and lies. They manipulate people with information that should otherwise remain privileged—for reasons of both private civility and the rule of law. Lawyers boast of acting in the interests of their clients when, in fact, the only interests they serve are their own. And courtrooms possess hypnotic appeal for those expecting judgment and resolution, and departing like zombies ready for tomorrow’s offering of another day of nothing.

Lives are lost and fortunes squandered while the churning bureaucracy of Chancery sputters and chokes like a slow-moving train destined for nowhere.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, where he is director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He also is the editor of Law Lit: From Atticus Finch to The Practice: A Collection of Great Writing About the Law. Rosenbaum’s favorite stage play is Macbeth.

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