Monday, February 6, 2012
This week marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth. When my law students ask for a summer reading recommendation, I tell them to read Bleak House, one of the great novels about law and arguably Dickens’s masterpiece. Of course, Bleak House is hardly a Grisham-esque celebration of lawyers, and perhaps for that reason it’s an especially worthwhile novel to read amid times of economic turmoil and cynicism about legal education and the legal profession. As he did to Utilitarianism in Hard Times, Dickens attacks the corruption, pettiness, and self-importance of law in Bleak House, vividly depicting the shrunken soul of Mr. Tulkinghorn and the buffoonish legalese of Mr. Guppy. Consider this passage describing Tulkinghorn’s chambers, replete with images of law's obscurantism:
The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache — as would seem to be Allegory’s object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is today, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school whom nobody can open.
But the most lasting characters in Dickens are those, such as Esther Summerson and John Jarndyce in Bleak House, whose kindness and generosity endure amid the dehumanizing world around them, another lesson I would hope a law student or lawyer would take from reading Bleak House to set off any despair about law's purposes. Catholic critics from G.K. Chesterton to Peter Ackroyd have rightly seen in Dickens a reflection of merry English Catholicism, summarized in this bit from Chesterton’s Charles Dickens (1906):
If we are to look for lessons, here at least is the last and deepest lesson of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to look for the portents and the prodigies. This is the truth, not merely of the fixed figures of our life; the wife, the husband, the fool that fills the sky. It is true of the whole stream and substance of our daily experience; every instant we reject a great fool merely because he is foolish. Every day we neglect Tootses and Swivellers, Guppys and Joblings, Simmerys and Flashers. Every day we lose the last sight of Jobling and Chuckster, the Analytical Chemist, or the Marchioness. Every day we are missing a monster whom we might easily love, and an imbecile whom we should certainly admire.
This is the real gospel of Dickens; the inexhaustible opportunities offered by the liberty and the variety of man. Compared with this life, all public life, all fame, all wisdom, is by its nature cramped and cold and small. For on that defined and lighted public stage men are of necessity forced to profess one set of accomplishments, to rise to one rigid standard. It is the utterly unknown people who can grow in all directions like an exuberant tree. It is in our interior lives that we find that people are too much themselves. It is in our private life that we find them swelling into the enormous contours, and taking on the colours of caricature. Many of us live publicly with featureless public puppets, images of the small public abstractions. It is when we pass our own private gate, and open our own secret door, that we step into the land of the giants.
Charles Dickens's work is one of the high achievements in our English language of the human spirit. For that reason, everyone—even lawyers, whom he subjected to such searching criticism in Bleak House—has reason to celebrate tomorrow the comradeship and joy that Chesterton offered as his final word on Dickens:
The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.