As both a lover of great literature and a probate lawyer, I put Bleak House by Charles Dickens on my “to read” list years ago. My father had mentioned it to me several times, noting with amusement that the estate lawsuit at the heart of the novel didn’t end until the money ran out. At 989 pages, it’s not what you’d call a weekend read, but I finally hunkered down and plowed through it. While it is anything but a positive reflection on lawyers and the legal system of nineteenth century England, it is wicked funny and a great read. (Plus, I can boast about it.) G.K. Chesterton is quoted on the back cover as saying it was “Perhaps his best novel…when Dickens wrote Bleak House he had grown up.”
The novel opens on the fog that engulfs the Chancery Court in London where probate cases were adjudicated. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been in probate for generations; people literally are born into the suit and die before it is resolved. Dickens is pretty vague about the particulars of the case. One character tells us, “‘Why, yes, it was about a Will when it was about anything. A certain Jarndyce, in an evil hour, made a great fortune, and made a great Will. In the question how the trusts under that Will are to be administered, the fortune left by the Will is squandered away; the legatees under the Will are reduced to such a miserable condition that they would be sufficiently punished, if they had committed an enormous crime in having money left them; and the Will itself is made a dead letter.”
Many of the novel’s characters are beneficiaries under the will and spend their lives waiting for the lawsuit to be resolved. One unfortunate young man, Richard, drives himself to an early grave in his obsession to see the suit completed. Miss Flyte, another beneficiary, keeps a series of birds locked up in a cage, intending to let them free when she is free of the lawsuit and receives her inheritance.
Dickens is merciless about the purpose of all the delay: “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. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.” Thus, as one character dryly remarks, “Equity sends questions to Law, Law sends questions back to Equity; Law finds it can’t do this, Equity finds it can’t do that; neither can so much as say it can’t do anything, without this solicitor instructing and this counsel appearing for A, and that solicitor instructing and that counsel appearing for B; and so on through the whole alphabet, like the history of the Apple Pie.”
Let’s just say it will not endear you to lawyers or the legal system; but mercifully, the 21st century American probate court little resembles its 19th century English counterpart. Our system is geared toward the timely resolution of disputes; and to the extent it fails, I have found that it is generally because angry litigants—not courts—want to use the legal system to wage Pyrrhic battles.
While the lawsuit in Bleak House forms the backdrop of the case, and gives Dickens the opportunity to train his savage wit on the English legal system, the heart of the story is not really about the lawsuit itself. Bleak House offers a wonderful panorama of characters and richly interwoven plots and subplots. It is partly narrated by Esther Summerson, one of the main characters, an orphan whose family origins are shrouded in mystery. It features unforgettable characters such as Lady Dedlock, the proud and aristocratic wife of Sir Leister Dedlock, who harbors a painful secret; Mr. Tulkinghorn, Sir Leister’s scheming lawyer who spends much of the novel hot on the tracks of Lady Dedlock’s secret, and whose death late in the narrative briefly turns the novel into a murder mystery; and Mr. Skimpole, the financially improvident rascal who remorselessly sponges off others while feigning a child-like innocence about the ways of the world.
Bleak House is well worth putting on your bucket list. And if you don’t want to invest the time reading it, I am informed that it was turned into a brilliant mini-series by BBC, though I have not seen it—yet. I’m putting it on my “to watch” list.