Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens
“If all the injustice it [the Chancery] has committed, and all the misery it has caused, could only be locked up with it, and the whole burnt away in a great funeral pyre,--why so much the better...”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens, written in 1852, sets the benchmark for snarky remarks about the judicial system. In a 900+ page novel Dickens insults the British Chancery, equity, the common law, lawyers and all other law related matters with such finesse and dramatics that would leave any law student standing in awe.
Dickens, having been a law clerk, drew on his own misadventures with the courts to write this epic tale. The novel revolves around Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the longest and most confused court case imaginable. The case is based on a testator who left several versions of a will. The courts attempt to determine which the correct one is, leaving a fortune to the true inheritor. The unhappy characters that are forced to endure the case all befall some type of misery, whether it is death, sorrow or disease, demonstrating Dickens’ belief that the courts are poisonous, festering pits of sadness, that bleed you of all your money, all the while providing no recompense for the participants in any suit. Bleak enough for you?
As a law student who originally entered the profession hoping to help people, this was probably the wrong choice of book for me. While the system and the country and the time are different, Dickens’ stark writings about the slowness of courts, the excessive bureaucracy involved and the hefty costs of bringing a suit continue to ring true. Bleak House made me question whether a sense of justice is ever felt or if everyone involved just feels relieved that the case is finished. It’s a disheartening book to say the least.
Despite the harshness of the legal elements in the novel, it cannot be said that it induced boredom (despite the term ‘boredom’ being first used in this novel). The story is gripping and intricate, with many sub-plots and even more characters.
As you might expect of a classic, the book is beautifully written and the language flows easily. If I could find one fault in the book, it may be the main character Esther’s atypical, demure personality. Dickens falls back on stereotype of the perfect lady to complete her but it becomes overly grating to read about the perpetual perfection of anyone.
Overall, there is little to fault Bleak House and I recommend it to avid readers but maybe not the avid law student.
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