Charles Dickens’s Bleak house: Benthamite jurisprudence and the law, or what the law is and what the law ought to be.
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Welch, Brenda Jean.
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Dickens’s foggy world of the nineteenth-century Chancery Court is famous, and infamous, for keeping its litigants in a constant and never-ending state of legal confusion, costs, and “conglomeration” (Bleak House 1873 I: 1: 15, 13), and many readers remember Dickens’s indictment of the Law: “The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself” (III: 39: 153). Not surprisingly, then, Bleak House was popular with its audiences, layperson and legalist alike, for the attack it made on the great social institution called Law, and, also not surprisingly, interest in Bleak House remains. We find in Bleak House several intriguing areas of the Law, three of which I specifically address in this dissertation because they still resonate: marital relationships, parent-child relationships, and legal advocacy and professionalism. In this study, I analyze Bleak House in the context of the then-existing Laws that governed marriage, parenthood, and the legal profession and also analyze the novel and the Law in light of the legal philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. My study is similar to Anita L. Allen’s analysis of Jane Eyre (“The Jurisprudence of Jane Eyre”) in which she says, “Lawyers can contribute to the study of literature by illuminating the legal philosophy, that is, the jurisprudence, in works of literary fiction” (180). I agree with Allen’s belief that “Scholars who extract and elaborate the jurisprudential dimension of literature have something important to add to scholarly efforts to understand works of fiction, their authors, and their authors’ intellectual milieus” (181-82). When considering Bentham’s philosophy, we need to know and understand the Laws that operate in Bleak House in order to appreciate Dickens’s efforts to expose and censure the Law. The laws governing marriage, parenting, and the legal profession involve legal fictions that I argue Dickens rightfully uses to demonstrate his concern for a legal system that is tempered by Equity, unlike Bentham’s concern for a legal system that can do without separate Equity jurisdiction, which can more fully provide people with a sense of justice that dispenses with the wastefulness and wantonness of inequity.