At the center of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is a never-ending lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has ruined the lives of generations of a family. It has become a joke in court. When a lawyer observes that some event might happen “when the sky rains potatoes,” the Lord Chancellor says, “or when we get through Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
But of course the litigious society in Dickens’ 19th-century England is not a joke to the members of the family, nor to Dickens. Some of the characters in Bleak House resist the siren song of the lawsuit over the Jarndyce estate, others are seduced by the prospect of money. Among the resisters is John Jarndyce, the eccentric owner of Bleak House, who bowed out decades ago because of the effect on his skirmishing family members. He has little contact with his family; instead, he has selected his own extended family, which includes his two adult wards, Ada and Richard, their companion, Esther Summerson, and several friends, one of them definitely corrupt, the witty Mr. Skimpole, who claims he is a “child about money,”
In other words, the case affects nearly every character in the novel, some of whom lurk around court, sure that one day the case will be settled and they will get rich.
Dickens’s brilliant rhetorical sentences describe the consequences of the deplorable lawsuit. He writes,
This scarecrow of a case has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means…. The little plaintiff or dependent, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has given up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors have come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless.
Dickens manages to be serious, sad, and comical as he presents characters whose lives have been ruined by lawsuits. Miss Flite, a little old lady who is not as mad as people think, has spent her life in court. When she invites Ada and Richard, whom she regards as celebrities due to their involvement with Jarndyce and Jarndyce, along with Esther, one of the central characters, to her room, which is filled with cages of birds, she explains she will free the birds when her case is settled. But “They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again.”
Esther Summerson’s narrative takes up about one-third of the novel: she is an intelligent, sympathetic character who takes good care of her fast friends, Ada and Richard. With depth and wit, she describes life at Bleak House, the kindness of their guardian, and their meetings with his eccentric friends, among them Mrs. Jellyby, who works days and night to help some cause in Africa, while neglecting her family; and Mr. Boythorn, a gruff, loud, but gentle friend who walks around with a pet bird on his head (more birds!), and is suing his neighbor, Lord Dedlock, about an easement. Lord Dedlock is suing Mr. Boythorn about the same. Esther’s humorous, very personal chapters are my favorite in the book
This novel is so brilliant in every way that I recommend you cozily sit down with a cup of coffee and the book. It will keep you happy for a month.
And may we all be free of lawsuits!