A Dickens and legal history round-up

In the English-speaking world some authors have truly contributed to the world’s most acclaimed literature. When an Englishman wants to say something which rings in the mind long afterwards, he can choose at will in the works of Shakespeare, in the majestic English of the King James Bible, or turn to a nineteenth-century writer, and in particular to Charles Dickens (1812-1870). On Internet and in real life – the sequence is deliberate! – his bicentenary has been celebrated on February 7, 2012. For this celebration the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography granted temporarily free access to the biographic article on Dickens, which is normally only accessible for subscribers at this link.

Charles Dickens by Frith, 1859

Charles Dickens in his Study (1859) – painting by William Powell Frith; London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Is it possible for legal historians to avoid the impression made on Dickens by his fathers’ imprisonment in the Marshalsea Prison or to get a better understanding of English law without always referring only to Bleak House? Surely no lesser luminary than William Searle Holdsworth (1877-1944) paved the road to this novel with his Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian (1928; reprint Union, N.J., 1995). The American 1929 edition has been digitized at the University of Michigan. The subject had been treated earlier by Thomas Alexander Fyfe, Charles Dickens and the Law (London 1910; digitized at the Internet Archive). The Law and Lawyers of Pickwick: a lecture by Frank Lockwood, also available online, appeared already in 1894. Without forgetting these well-trodden paths it is surely possible to bring Dickens and law together in many of his publications, often on the background, but certainly time and again as forceful and inimitable as elsewhere in his oeuvre. With fifteen years Dickens worked as a solicitor’s clerk, and later as a court reporter. Later on his friend and first biographer John Forster could help, too, from his legal background. This post is an Internet round-up for Dickens and legal history, with also a small Dutch tribute.

A Dutch tribute

In 2000 Jan Antoni Ebbinge Wubben defended at Utrecht University his Ph.D. thesis on Literatuur en recht: Charles Dickens en gevangenschap wegens schulden [Literature and law: Charles Dickens and debt imprisonment]. Remco van Rhee’s review in the Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 71 (2003) 465-467, is rather critical of this Dutch writer in the field of law and literature. I had expected this thesis would be present in the Igitur digital repository of Utrecht University. Instead I can only find one article in Dutch by Ebbinge Wubben in The Dutch Dickensian Special. He points for instance to Dickens’ omission in The Pickwick Papers to mention the fees to be paid for the salary of the jailers of the Fleet Prison, an omission due to the fact that the Marshalsea Prison was exceptional having salaried jailers, and that he did not remember from his own experience the payment of fees. In his review Van Rhee wrote that the thesis by Ebbinge Wubben was one of the first Dutch contributions in the field of Law & Literature. I am indebted to Ton Lenssen for his comment with information about his own work in this field.

As a former president of the international Dickens Fellowship Jan Lokin, until 2009 professor of Roman law at Groningen University, is as no other Dutch legal historian able to portray the position of Dickens in the Victorian society and to assess the relation between his works, English law and society at large. Audiences of the Studium Generale, the general program of Utrecht University, had the luck to hear Lokin during Autumn 2011 in four lectures on Dickens, just ahead of the bicentenary. You can watch the four lectures online, download a collection of blog posts on his lectures and look at an overview of Dickens’ works with short remarks on literary influences on Dickens and his impact on modern authors. A Dutch firm will launch this month cd’s with recordings of these lectures. Among Dutch magazines the Groene Amsterdammer presented on January 4, 2012 a number of articles about Dickens. The presence of a list of Dickens ten best novels is in the best unorthodox tradition of this journal, but in the end everyone will have his of her favorites and dislikes according to personal taste and appreciation. The journal offers the possibility of a week-long online access to these articles, otherwise only subscribers can view them online. All this is in Dutch. If you would like to watch four lectures in English online you might enjoy the four lectures given at Gresham College, London in 2006 on Dickens and the law.

Before I ventured to write about Dickens I had the impression a Dutch contribution would serve only to bring coals to Newcastle, but after a check in the Bibliography of British and Irish Legal History (Aberystwyth University) I have learned that you will not find there any article or book between 1977 and 2005 with Dickens in its title, and only two articles concerning the Marshalsea in Early Modern history. A check for the terms debt and imprisonment yields five articles which put debt imprisonment clearly into a wider perspective than just Dickens’ experience and his views of society and law. W.R. Owens and P.N. Furbank, ‘Defoe and imprisonment for debt: some attributions reviewed’, Review of English Studies 37 (1986) 495-502, neatly indicates another major figure in English literature, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). The Aberystwyth bibliography helps to give you guidance for Defoe with two more articles, P.J. Rawlings, ‘Defoe and street robberies: an undiscovered text’, Notes and Queries 30 (1983) 23-26, and M. Quilter, ‘Daniel Defoe : bankrupt and bankruptcy reformer’, Journal of Legal History 25/1 (2004) 53-73. The National Archives present since 2008 on their website a talk by David Thomas on Dickens and the debtors’ prison.

A virtual round-up

The Law and Humanities Blog is perhaps one of the more obvious points to look for information concerning the Dickens bicentenary. Christine Corcos has indeed written a short celebratory post in which she refers to a number of fairly recent articles in American law journals, and to the list of titles provided by Daniel Solove in his bibliography on law and literature. By the way, in this bibliography you will meet a selected number of other writers. On February 8, 2012, Corcos pointed to a tribute by Michael Ruse for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Corcos gave her post the title of a famous Dickensian indictment of law: The Law is a Ass – a Idiot. Ruse succeeds in showing it is not just Bleak House where Dickens brings a vivid picture of law, figures at courts and legal doings. Earlier the Law and Humanities Blog had already five other posts referring to Dickens. One of them mentions the study by Gary Watt, Equity Stirring: The Story of Justice Beyond Law (Oxford-Portland, Or., 2009). Among much else Watt proposed a new theory about the naming of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in the Chancery case in Bleak House.

With nearly thousand pages Bleak House is certainly one of Dickens’ most substantial novels, but to me his greatness and his very position as a classic writer is that you can read and reread his work, and change your opinions about them without losing your admiration. In Kant & Co: literatuur als spiegel van het recht [Kant & Co.: literature as a mirror of law (Amsterdam 2011) Hans Nieuwenhuis, one of the Dutch lawyers to write often about the relation between law, literature and philosophy, stressed the fact that literary works about law in its many forms gain their importance by the interplay between the author’s imagination and creative powers, his perceptions of law and his philosophical position. In the case of Dickens – absent in Nieuwenhuis’ latest volume of essays – the philosopher looming in the background is probably Jeremy Bentham and his utilitarianism.

Dickens did not only write novels. In his American Notes (1842) he describes his impressions of the United States where he visited a number of prisons. Scholars have judged his description as biased. Perhaps the degree of bias is exactly what makes them so interesting. The idea to compare Dickens’ views and remarks with the views expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville is not new, but it helps indeed to put both men into perspective. Did the two ever meet each other? Hugh Brogan opened in Alexis de Tocqueville. A Life (New Haven-London, 2004) a chapter with a scene from The Pickwick Papers where a Count Smorltork is introduced “gathering materials for his great work on England”.

Dickens versus Lawyers

Money had great importance for Dickens, and in this field the memory of his father’s debt certainly haunted him. You can read in the London Gazette of December 24, 1824, the official announcement of John Dickens’ insolvency. In the New York Times Joseph Tartakovsky wrote on February 7, 2012 a brief essay with the nice title ‘Dickens v. Lawyers’. Dickens was keen in defending the rights to his work and pursued several times infringements in court. The New York Times offers in the Times Topics section a well-stocked overview of its own articles and pieces concerning Dickens since the mid-nineteenth century, combined with a selection of links to major institutions for Dickens’ heritage. The author of the essay notes that Dickens introduces legal subjects in eleven of his fifteen novels, another reason not to focus only on the novel with the portrait, nay indictment of the Court of Chancery. Bleak House appeared in serialised installments between 1852 and 1853. In 1842 the Court of Chancery Act was passed by Parliament which cut an end to some of the red tape and overlong procedures.

Wolf Reuter, a German attorney specialising in labor law, blogged, too, on February 7 about Dickens. He neatly pointed to the fact that in Dickens’ time labor law was still in its infancy. He quotes in the title of his post Dickens’ verdict “The law is a bastard” from Great Expectations. Reuter refers to the special photo album on the website of the Daily Telegraph showing Dickens’s London around 1870, a world mostly vanished and hard to imagine nowadays but for the many movies and television series inspired by Dickens, which have made us familiar with the surroundings of old London and with the looks of Londoners. The Daily Telegraph has covered the bicentenary with a nice sprinkle of articles.

I had promised to guide you here to online resources on Dickens. One of the major gateways for British history is Connected Histories a number of databases with one search action, among them the proceedings of the Old Bailey. It soon becomes clear that you have to filter the search results most diligently because Charles Dickens and his father John Dickens did have their namesakes. However, one user has been so kind to create a kind of portfolio with five Dickensian search results. You can find more, in particular in the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers and in a number of pamphlets. The results with images from the British Museum is a valuable reminder that you cannot imagine Dickens without vivid illustrations such as the ones by “Phiz”. One can search these images also directly in the collection database of the British Museum. Strangely an advanced search at Connected Histories for Dickens as a surname and Charles as Christian name yields no results at all…

Nineteenth-century London

London Lives is one of the databases included at Connected Histories, but this project focuses on the period 1690-1800. A real search for online information about scientific literature on Dickens can start safely at the Institute of Historical Research, London. Its website indicates many directions for your research. The Centre for Metropolitan History, London, points for example to the project Locating London’s Past, where you can trace locations on a map from 1746. The links collection of this centre leads you to many other local and regional institutions with holdings on London’s history. The London Metropolitan Archives offer in particular online access to records concerning family and parish history. Perhaps the Guildhall Library has not so much to offer online, but it is good to remember its rich collection in English law reports. By the way, the web presence and visibility of these two cultural institutions within the very large City of London website is only just sufficient. King’s College London gives an online presentation of its Dickens collection, with among other items the Mirror of Parliament, a journal of parliamentary records for which Dickens wrote reports. Using British History Online you will easily find a few hundred search results for Charles Dickens in the digitized source editions available at this website. The National Register of Archives lists 43 archival collections with materials from or pertaining to Dickens. In particular letters can surface anywhere or form the subject of a celebratory text. The Old Library of Trinity Hall, Cambridge holds a letter by Dickens about the study plans of his son Henry who did go to Cambridge to study law, a letter well worth a blog post.

Another resource deserves highlighting here, the Newgate Calendar, one of the bestselling books in England between 1750 and 1850. The title Newgate Calendar is an umbrella term for a number of books appearing from 1702 onwards. The website mentions a fair selection of them and introduces them briefly. In these books you will find the tales about criminals imprisoned at the Newgate Prison, stories the British public loved and loves to hear and read until now. The stories told in them depict criminals, their trials and fate most vividly. In my opinion the success of Dickens’ portrayals of villains and victims has been considerably prepared by them, and also by the stories presented in British newspapers and broadside ballads, two subjects about which I have written here earlier.

Law in Victorian literature

Dickens is not the only author from the Victorian Age to write into his novels accounts of the workings of the law. Anthony Trollope does look at Anglican ecclesiastical law in the novels of his Chronicles of Barsetshire. Reading William Thackeray and Thomas Hardy is every bit as interesting, and with them you are reading some of the greatest novelists. Yet Dickens has made a deeper impression than any of them. Many critics have reproached Dickens with attacking social evil and situations just after they had been changed fundamentally. Critics have also often said Dickens was not accurate in his descriptions of legal matters. Even if this is true, they miss the point that Dickens did not want to write legal or social reform proposals, but in a way he did help to promote public interest and support for them. In his marvellous book on the Victorian age The Victorians (London 2002) A.N. Wilson gets rid of a lot of small talk about Dickens. Wilson is sure that deliberately or not Dickens showed the fabric of human society in its overwhelming impact during the Industrial Revolution, often through the eyes of children or powerless persons who cannot see things clear. He shows the abruptly modern dislocation of people in new urban environments, and the inscrutable and ruthless way some of the few mighty and rich dealt with the poor part of Benjamin Disraeli’s two nations.

Dickens can be sentimental, but more often he is most gripping. For me Dickens’ novels show every now and then a rule of law developed into a rule unto itself and a bane for those trapped by it. Not the cold dissection and description of situations as a sociologist would do, but a fictionalized representation of society and almost symbolic portrayal of the lives of ordinary and marginal people is Dickens’ goal. If lawyers still should read Dickens, others should do this as well, because it is life touched by the machinery of law that you can find in his writings. Dickens makes abundantly clear that the rule of law and its institutions can become a terrible thing when closed off from the real world.

More blog posts celebrating Dickens have appeared this week, and I have not traced nor mentioned all of them here. Let me end this post about the web celebrations of the Dickens bicentenary with a positive note: the interest in Dickens and his novels might be a sign that people still will make time for immersing them into the world of Victorian England. Thanks to the remarks of a helpful staff member of a bookshop in Utrecht I could say here more about Dutch legal historians and their views of Dickens. We will need the guidance of well-trained booksellers, librarians and industrious scholars to keep in touch with the lives and the legal life enshrined by Dickens.

More online exhibitions and resources

2 thoughts on “A Dickens and legal history round-up

  1. tonlenssen

    The above text – plus the review of the thesis of Ebbinge Wubben – gives the impression that the “Law and Literature – movement” in the Netherlands is only of the 21st century. This is not so. (As an aside: this review writes: “Het proefschrift van Ebbinge Wubben vormt, voor zover ik weet, een van de eerste Nederlandse proefschriften die zich expliciet in de traditie van ‘Law and Literature’ plaatsen.” How many “eerste” Nederlandse proefschriften die zich expliciet plaatsen in de traditie van ‘Law and “Lieterature” are there? A first can be only one, as many seconds in sports know very well. Furthermore Jeanne Gakeer had already defended her thesis on the father of the Law and Literature movement James Boyd White in 1995.) I myself have delivered a lecture on “law and literature” already in 1992 for the Nederlands-Belgische Werkgroep 17e eeuw, as a general introduction to a lecture by Arthur Eijffinger about Grotius, which can be read at http://ton.lenssen.nl/Dll/Mechelen.htm. I also wrote a review of “Poetic Justice. The Literary Imagination and Public Life” (1995) by Martha Nussbaum which is a fallout of her course about law and literature at the University of Chicago in 1994. (Click on http://ton.lenssen.nl/Dll/Poetic%20Justice.htm.) Then again in 1996 I published in the Nederlands Juristenblad a review of A.S. Byatt’s “Babel Tower” (1996). (Click on http://ton.lenssen.nl/Dll/Byatt3.htm.) In all these texts I referred rather extensively to secondary literature on the subject of law and literature. I would like to draw the interested reader’s attention to “Law & Literature” (1988, 1998 or 2009) by Richard A. Posner for a treatment of the subject in a non-chronological way from Homer to the present day.

    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Thank you for these corrections! I should have been more suspicious about the claim to be the first in any field. My apologies for not immediately referring to your publications. I will add a sentence to my post alerting to your contributions.


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