'LESSER BREEDS WITHIN THE LAW': DICKENS AND MINOR LEGAL OFFICERS
Professor Angus Easson
It is appropriate that Barnard's Inn should be the venue for a series on Legal London, as this magnificent hall is the last and remarkable vestige of what was once one of the Inns of Court, the training ground for lawyers, though Dickens's description of Barnard's Inn as he knew it is, I'm afraid, scarcely complimentary. In Great Expectations, Pip, just up from the country to begin life in London thanks to his mysterious patron, meets first with 'an exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justice', who shows him Newgate prison and where the gallows was kept, 'giving me to understand that "four on 'em" would come out…tomorrow…to be killed in a row' (ch.20; pp.189-90: see end for editions used). Shuddering, Pip thinks himself 'well rid of him for a shilling'. He is then conducted by Wemmick, clerk to the lawyer Jaggers, to lodgings in Barnard's Inn, 'the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for Tom-cats' (ch.21; p.196). The shabby buildings have gone, as, I imagine, have the tom-cats, and we are here together in happier surroundings, but with shadows of Dickens's legal London around us and hints in that drunken 'minister of justice' of Dickens's fascination with the minor legal figures of the nineteenth century. They weave their way through his work and I can only hope this evening to fish up a few from those vast shoals.
Dickens's own experience of the law came to him early. His father, John Dickens, was committed to the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison on 20 February 1824 for a debt of £40, an episode inexorably linked for Dickens to his wretched consignment, aged twelve, to work in a Blacking Warehouse. John Dickens, with a fine rhetorical flourish, declared as he was taken to the Marshalsea 'that the sun was set upon him for ever' (Forster, p.13), though in David Copperfield (1849-50), early scenes of which draw on this biographical episode, the child betrayed, Dickens rather than his eponymous hero, adds that 'he was seen to play a lively game at skittles, before noon' (ch.11; p.221). His father's imprisonment was later used inLittle Dorrit (1855-7) to great effect and without that rather petty sense of triumph in the game of skittles. Dickens was employed in a lawyer's office, Mr Edward Blackmore's, from 1827 to 1828, aged 15 to 16, where his duties included keeping the petty cash accounts – he was clearly in the lowest of the grades of lawyers' clerks given at the opening of ch.31 ofPickwick Papers (1836-7) – not the articled clerk, nor the salaried clerk, nor the middle-aged copying clerk, but one of the 'office lads in their first surtouts, who feel a befitting contempt for boys at day-schools, club as they go home at night, for saveloys and porter, and think there's nothing like "life"' (ch.31; p.375).
From the attorney's office Dickens passed to law reporting in Doctors' Commons, which Steerforth in David Copperfield describes as 'a place that has an ancient monopoly in suits about people's wills and people's marriages, and disputes among ships and boats' (ch.23; p.403), adding, perhaps with an edge of Dickens's own acerbity, 'it's always a very pleasant, profitable little affair of private theatricals, presented to an uncommonly select audience'. Dickens continued his direct connections with the law, for many years being on the books of the Middle Temple (Letters, VII, 569), with a view to being called to the Bar, and even thinking of becoming a Police magistrate. Indirectly, Dickens tangled with the law throughout his life, whether in the snares of publishers' contracts early in his career or by taking a publisher to Chancery for a piracy of A Christmas Carol (1843), a venture in which his victory was largely Phyrric.
Dickens was of course fascinated by crime and by law and from early on visited prisons in England and abroad and watched a public execution, of Mr and Mrs Manning at Horsemonger Lane Jail, in November 1849, a sight 'inconceivably awful', not for the death of the notorious pair so much as 'the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd' (Letters, V, 644). He was taken around Newgate prison in 1835 to gather material for 'A Visit to Newgate', one of the Sketches by Boz (1833-6), and generally reckoned himself by the 1840s to be 'free' of most jails, as he noted in 1841 when seeking permission to visit Tothill Fields Prison, curious to see the Boy Jones, a 17 year old apothecary's errand-boy, who had for the third time entered Buckingham Palace by night and was arrested while eating cold meat from the Palace larder, Jones claiming his only purpose 'was to hear the conversation of her Majesty and Prince Albert, in order to "write a book"' (Letters, II, 246n). Such a reason, or plea in mitigation, sounds curiously familiar still. Thanking the jail's governor, Augustus Tracey, Dickens praised his 'humanity and goodness' (Letters, II, 270), suggesting a marked contrast from what he had expected from a prison governor. While Tracey was not, surely, a 'lesser breed' within the law – wherever we draw the line and wherever we place prison governors – we should note that disparity between experience and expectation, as with Pip's ironic view at Newgate of a 'minister of justice' who is both dirty and drunk, a disparity or polarity that fascinated Dickens and which he increasingly explored as his art matured. So much, then, for Dickens's legal credentials.
I have just said that we may not know where to draw the line between great and lesser law officers, though the concept of training in or practising the law may help, or of officers against other ranks. Dickens ranges, of course, from the Lord Chancellor, head of the legal system, down to the most humble and most despised officers, though humble and despised are not necessarily the same. In Bleak House (1851-3) the Lord Chancellor presides, the law incarnate, in 'foggy glory', at the great Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but when he lays aside his robe of office, he becomes human, as Esther Summerson sees him when he speaks to the wards in Chancery: …and there, plainly dressed in black, and sitting in an arm-chair at a table near the fire, was his lordship, whose robe, trimmed with beautiful gold lace, was thrown upon another chair. He gave us a searching look as we entered, but his manner was both courtly and kind. (ch.3; p.39)
Perhaps the most despised, though by no means humble of legal officers, at the end of the chain from the Lord Chancellor, is the public executioner, a necessary functionary when pains and penalties are enforced, but no more loved or admired on that account – not for nothing in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is he named Abhorson.
Barnaby Rudge (1841) is a novel where Dickens both emulates Walter Scott in writing historical fiction, laying claim to seriousness after the slightness of Boz's Sketches and the frivolity of Pickwick, and sets out his radical credentials as a critic of a society (his own) only beginning to break from the authoritarian shackles of the eighteenth century. There is a savage irony, fully exploited by Dickens, in his depiction of the 1780 Gordon Riots with their obscurantist cry of 'No Popery!' by people conspicuous for their lack of religious fervour or even religious interest, the riots themselves being led, in the novel, by Hugh, a wild man, half beast, by Barnaby, an idiot, and by Dennis, the public hangman. Dennis is based, though not in detail, on Edward Dennis, the executioner from 1771 to 1786, the original indeed being pardoned for his part in the riots and confirmed in his state functions, a situation not without ironies of its own, though Dickens chose to ignore those possibilities real life offered him.
Dennis lends himself most literally to galgen or gallows humour, in a dark comedy based on the mind-set of a legal official who takes up the 'No Popery!' cry since the Pope will bring down the British Constitution that employs him, of which he is a part and pillar. In the great scene of Newgate Prison broken into and destroyed, Dickens puts forth his power – as he wrote to a friend, 'I have just burnt into Newgate, and am going in the next number to tear the prisoners out by the hair of their heads' (Letters, II.377) – the energy of the mob here lights up what has been, in terms of the fiction so far, a slow burn: 'A shout! Another! Another yet, though few knew why, or what it meant. But those around the gate had seen it slowly yield, and drop from its topmost hinge…Pile up the fire!' (ch.64; pp.583-4)
At first, Dennis is an immense help, directing the rioters by his knowledge to the various parts of the prison: but (and it is a crucial 'but'), 'this functionary of the law reserved one important piece of intelligence, and kept it snugly to himself' (ch.65; p.589). Dickens, delighting in contrast, emphasises the turbulence in the rest of the building, the freeing of prisoners, general destruction, against a quiet quarter where Dennis, settled on a bench and sucking the head of his stick, has taken up his post of guard and guardian outside his especial care, the condemned cells: It would have been strange enough, a man's enjoying himself in a quiet manner, while the prison was burning, and such a tumult was cleaving the air, though he had been outside the walls…Indeed, Mr Dennis appeared to think it an uncommon circumstance, and to banter himself upon it… (ch.65; p.589)
He may lead a mob, he may break into a prison, but to Dennis there need be no contradiction between being a rioter and being a hangman. Crying 'No Popery!' and executing the condemned are both excellent constitutional duties: 'Mr Dennis, who had been bred and nurtured in the good old school, and had administered the good old laws on the good old plan' (ch.65; p.590), is deaf to the pleas of the condemned men, who, scenting liberty, fear the flames, however near a constitutional death may be. Dennis's obliviousness to their cries and pleas is starkly comic, more especially in his indignation when the mob, Hugh at their head, finding these cells, bursts in upon him. 'Holloa!' cried Hugh, who was the first to look into the dusky passage: 'Dennis before us! Well done, old boy. Be quick, and open here, for we shall be suffocated in the smoke, going out.' 'Go out at once, then,' said Dennis. 'What do you want here?' 'Want!' echoed Hugh. 'The four men.' 'Four devils!' cried the hangman. 'Don't you know they're left for death on Thursday? Don't you respect the law – the constitootion – nothing? Let the four men be.' (ch.65; p.592)
But Hugh indeed respects nothing. The men are released, against all constitutional principles and Dennis, stung by Hugh's interference, later betrays Hugh and his confederates to the military. Dennis indeed regards Hugh more in sorrow than in anger, after this act of treachery: '…I'm sorry for it, brother,' he added, in a tone of resignation…; 'but you've brought it on yourself; you forced me to do it; you wouldn't respect the soundest constitootional principles, you know…' (ch.69; p.626)
Dennis's Constitution is the letter of the law, though he is not so firm a believer when he himself is found guilty and is about to be himself a subject of the hangman – or perhaps rather, his faith is so great that executing him can only be a mistake, for the Constitution would never do it. Carried to the Press room where his irons are to be struck off, before stepping out to the gallows, Dennis pleads, in humiliating contrast to Hugh and Barnaby: 'Gentlemen, good gentlemen,' cried the abject creature,… 'Governor, dear governor – honourable sheriffs – worthy gentlemen – have mercy upon a wretched man that has served His Majesty, and the Law, and Parliament, for so many years, and don't – don't let me die – because of a mistake.' (ch.77; p.693)
Alas! Constitutional principles take their course, another hangman can always be found, and Dennis goes to his constitutional fate, unlamented by his fellows or the readers.
Dickens's earliest successes were with the comedy and realism of Boz'sSketches and Pickwick, and though 'A Visit to Newgate' and the Fleet scenes in Pickwick are dark enough, he only gradually came, combining comic observation and abundance with a skilfully controlled pathos, to develop a fuller sense of individual and social complexity. His handling of the same law officers, bailiffs and bailiff's man, in an early and a mature novel respectively, illustrates the point. In Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) (which has its harrowing scenes of Dotheboys Hall, but is essentially a comic novel with strong melodramatic elements), we are entertained by the misfortunes of the dressmaker, Madame Mantalini. When the bailiff and his man arrive, they are described as figures of fun for the reader, however sordid, though objects of distaste to Kate Nickleby: Kate busied herself in what she had to do…when she started to hear a strange man's voice in the room, and started again, to observe, on looking round, that a white hat, and a red neckkerchief, and a broad round face, and a large head, and part of a green coat were in the room too. (ch.21; p.259)
The man having confirmed it is indeed Madame Mantalini's, beckons in his companion, …a little man in brown, very much the worse for wear, who brought with him a mingled fumigation of stale tobacco and fresh onions…Kate's very natural impression was, that these engaging individuals had called with the view of possessing themselves, unlawfully, of any portable articles that chanced to strike their fancy. (pp.259-60)
But they are on lawful business and it is soon clear that Mr Scaley and Tix are the bailiff and his man, come to collect a debt run up by Mr Mantalini or, failing monetary satisfaction, to take an inventory preparatory to a sale of assets. They admire the plate-glass mirrors, even while regarding with equanimity Madame Mantalini, as she falls simultaneously into a chair and a fainting fit: The professional gentlemen…were not at all discomposed by this event, for Mr Scaley, leaning upon a stand on which a handsome dress was displayed (so that his shoulders appeared above it, in nearly the same manner as the shoulders of the lady for whom it was designed would have done if she had had it on), pushed his hat on one side and scratched his head with perfect unconcern, while his friend Mr Tix, taking that opportunity for a general survey of the apartment preparatory to entering on business, stood with his inventory-book under his arm, and his hat in his hand, mentally occupied in putting a price upon every object within his range of vision. (p.261)
Mr Scaley and Tix are scarcely more, to the reader, than figures of fun – the brokers' men in the pantomime of the Mantalinis' life, domestic and professional. But Dickens, enlarging his view and refining his art, saw increasingly opportunities to expand the significance of a character out into the whole fabric of a work. In Bleak House, twelve years afterNickleby, Esther Summerson finds the feckless Harold Skimpole in the hands of the bailiff's man, known at first only by his employer's name of Coavinses, Coavin being the bailiff and keeper of a lock-up, where the debtor might be held to allow payment to be sought before imprisonment. At first, Coavinses seems little more than another inflection of Scaley or Tix, a man in 'a white great coat, with smooth hair upon his head and not much of it' (ch.6; p.86). He snorts, says little, is unpersuaded by Harold Skimpole's questioning – was he not disturbed in conscience or digestion by the thought of depriving Skimpole of his liberty? – he denies emphatically that he was. Skimpole most agreeably urges him, 'Don't be ruffled by your occupation. We can separate you from your office; we can separate the individual from the pursuit' (p.89). Esther doesn't comment – she doesn't need to – on what is revealed about Skimpole – his financial irresponsibility, his pose of being a child to whom the world owes a living, and it is a point against him (yet another point against him) when we learn later of Coavinses' death, and learn of it casually, because Skimpole reveals, oh so casually, in passing, that he has the bailiffs in again – and that Coavinses has been arrested by the great Bailiff (ch.15; p.222), Death, leaving three children, information doled out by Skimpole as he idly strums a piano. The glimpse we had inNickleby of Tix as a family man was again comic rather than distressing, as Scaley told him, 'Mr Tom Tix, esk-vire, you must inform your angel wife and lovely family as you won't sleep at home for three nights to come, along of being in possession here' (pp.261-2). Coavinses – or rather as we now discover his real name, Neckett – lived in lodgings which we see, again through Esther's eyes – up three flights of stairs, where Charley (Charlotte), now responsible for Tom and Emma, locks in her orphaned siblings while she goes out to work. The landlady Mrs Blinder reveals both the suspicion with which legal officers were regarded and how also we have 'all of us one human heart', part of Dickens's theme of interdependence in Bleak House. Neckett, she declares, '…was nothing but a follerer [not even a bailiff, but a bailiff's man]. When he first came to lodge here, I didn't know what he was, and I confess that when I found out I gave him notice. It wasn't liked in the yard. It wasn't approved by the other lodgers. It is not a genteel calling…and most people do object to it.' (ch.15; p.228)
But she forgives Charley the rent, now, and even those who most joked against Neckett when alive, tapping their shoulders as he went by, in that dreaded notification of an arrest for debt, 'came forward with a little subscription' (p.229)
What Harold Skimpole touches on, in the first interview with Neckett – 'Don't be ruffled by your occupation. We can separate you from your office' – is part of a polarity that fascinated Dickens. We have seen it already in Bleak House in the distinction between the befogged obscurantist who is the Lord Chancellor sitting in court and the courtly and kind gentleman who meets Richard and Ada and Esther. Such polarity is no great secret, no great revelation. It has long been set forth in such things as the doctrine of the King's two bodies, distinguishing between the monarch and the man, and lies at the root of King Lear's outbursts over the beadle who hotly lusts to use the whore he lashes 'in that kind / For which thou whipp'st her' (IV.vi) and over the nature of justice and thief – 'change places and handy-dandy', which the justice, which the thief? And the lessons that Lear learns, though painfully gained, are of the simplest kind, measure rather of the depth of Lear's ignorance than the profundity of the revelations. It is Dickens's subtle use of such polarity, indeed, that must fascinate, rather than any claim on his behalf of a startling truth.
The simple division between man and office, between actor and role, is perhaps most strikingly exemplified in Wemmick, clerk to the lawyer Jaggers, in Great Expectations, a pattern of formality and discretion at work, the relaxed humane family man at Walworth, with his elderly father (the 'Aged P') and turretted and flag-poled house, who shifts chameleon-like, going home from work or coming back to it – Pip recalls returning from an overnight stay with Wemmick: Our breakfast was as good as the supper, and at half-past eight precisely we started for [the City]. By degrees, Wemmick got dryer and harder as we went along, and his mouth tightened into a post-office again. At last, when we got to his place of business and he pulled out his key from his coat-collar (ch.25; p.232)
– he seemed totally oblivious of Walworth, Aged P, and turret with flag-pole.
In Little Dorrit (1855-7), with which I want to begin to draw towards a close, the seemingly minor character of Bob, the turnkey, low enough in the legal and social scale, however important to the security of the Marshalsea debtors' prison, demonstrates that if Augustus Tracey as governor could be humanitarian at Tothill Fields Prison, so too can a jailer. Bob is 'on the lock' when William Dorrit is brought a prisoner to the Marshalsea and sees Dorrit's daughter, Amy, Little Dorrit herself, born and growing up in the prison. She, the child of the Marshalsea, as William Dorrit is known as the prison's Father, wonders about the fields she has never seen: 'Does anybody open them, and shut them? Are they locked?' The turnkey was discomfited. 'Well,' he said. 'Not in general.' 'Are they very pretty, Bob?'… 'Lovely. Full of flowers. There's buttercups, and there's daisies, and there's' – the turnkey hesitated, being short of floral nomenclature – 'there's dandelions, and all manner of games.' (I.7; p.74)
Soon, these two curious companions make a series of Sunday excursions into the country and Bob turns his mind to leaving his money to Amy, but tied up in such a way that her father could not touch it. He seeks advice from those familiar figures in debtors' prisons, insolvency agents, about how to do it and how to secure it to Amy. Suppose, he asks, 'a man wanted to leave his property to a young female, and wanted to tie it up so that nobody else should ever be able to make a grab at it…?' (I.7; p.75) The answer, legally, is to settle it strictly on the 'young female', but against her being tender-hearted and a brother or a father or a husband coming over her, there is no defence in law – 'So, the turnkey thought about it all his life, and died intestate after all.'
Of course, in Bob's polarity, between function and humanity, there is also a reflection of the difference between prisons for criminals and prisons for debtors. In the Marshalsea of Little Dorrit at least, Mrs Blinder, landlady of the Necketts, might have reassured herself that the atmosphere wasgenteel, however shabby, with the ironic comedy of society in the prison imitating, reflecting, yet not being so very different from the rich and polite gentility of the Merdles and of society at large in England and Italy – handy-dandy, in this respect, which the justice, which the thief? And Dickens exploits this satirical mirroring when he comes to one of the great climaxes of Little Dorrit, which I want to take as my final example this evening.
Bob the turnkey dies early on, but he is not forgotten by Dickens, though he may be by the reader: he is a significant presence, a ghostly revenant, after Mr Dorrit has come, in a fairytale-like reversal of fortune, into great wealth and been released from the Marshalsea. Travelling abroad, Mr Dorrit and his other children, Tip and Fanny, seek to deny the prison; the prison, though, cannot be so shrugged off – the shadow, the taint, is upon Dorrit, and though Bob is not a social pariah, like a hangman or a bailiff's man, he is a representative of the Marshalsea, as the prison casts its long shadow, like a noose, to recapture and reclaim William Dorrit, despite all his denials and suppressions. Mr Dorrit, it seems, is at the height of his success, accepted in society (even if that rather doubtful society that congregates in Rome), his daughter Fanny married, himself contemplating remarriage, his money placed with the great banker Merdle, the Midas of the modern age 'who turned all he touched to gold' (I.21; p.252) (he proves also to be the greatest swindler of the age).
Mrs Merdle hosts a choice dinner in Rome, for a company characterised, not without a knowing glance, as 'very select': [The company] was principally English; saving that it comprised the usual French Count and the usual Italian Marchese…The table was long, and the dinner was long; and Little Dorrit, overshadowed by a large pair of black whiskers and a large white cravat, lost sight of her father altogether, until a servant put a scrap of paper in her hand, with a whispered request from Mrs Merdle that she would read it directly. Mrs Merdle had written on it in pencil, 'Pray come and speak to Mr Dorrit, I doubt if he is well.' (II.19; p.657)
Amy is going to him, when he got up out of his chair, and leaning over the table called to her, supposing her to be still in her place: 'Amy, Amy, my child!' The action was so unusual, to say nothing of his strange eager appearance and strange eager voice, that it instantaneously caused a profound silence. 'Amy, my dear,' he repeated. 'Will you go and see if Bob is on the lock?…Amy, Amy, I don't feel quite myself. Ha. I don't know what's the matter with me. I particularly wish to see Bob. Ha. Of all the turnkeys, he's as much my friend as yours. See if Bob is in the lodge, and beg him to come to me.' (pp.657-8)
William Dorrit, who throughout his life in the Marshalsea, twenty years and more, has pretended ignorance of how Amy has been the toiler and supporter of the family, who sought to deny the Marshalsea shadow once out of the prison, though deeply troubled by reminders and threatening manifestations, in London and on the nocturnal drive to Rome, has returned to the prison, never now to leave it again in life. Bob is not the trigger, but he is the reader's clue, in function and friendship, to the collapse of Dorrit's castles in the air, the means by which the reader understands the ghastly hand of reality, of a truth that Dorrit would not acknowledge but which will not be resisted, a hand that reaches from a past which is, like Bob, long dead, one which one might have thought was long buried and laid to rest. Bob walks again, in himself a wholly benevolent spectre, as Dorrit looks about the table and welcomes the dinner guests as fellow debtors as once he welcomed the insolvent pilgrims entering the Marshalsea: 'Ladies and gentleman, the duty – ha – devolves upon me of – hum – welcoming you to the Marshalsea…The space is – ha – limited – limited – the parade might be wider; but you will find it apparently larger after a time – a time, ladies and gentlemen…Those who are habituated to the – ha – Marshalsea, are pleased to call me its Father. I am accustomed to be complimented by strangers as the – ha – Father of the Marshalsea. Certainly, if years of residence may establish a claim to so – ha – honourable a title, I may accept the – hum – conferred distinction. My child, ladies and gentlemen. My daughter. Born here!' (p.658)
And so Dorrit is restored as father again to Amy, who tends him until his death, as she attended and loved him in the prison.
Mr Dorrit's collapse reinforces the novel's themes of imprisonment and insolvency; of a polite society which is at best decrepit, at worst in Merdle, criminal; of an England insolvent socially, economically, politically – an England that at the time of the novel's writing had suffered military disaster in the Crimea, had scarcely recovered from a devastating outbreak of cholera, spread by foul urban conditions, amidst a population kept, in Dickens's analysis, ignorant, oppressed, deprived. This great scene evolves from the tiny seed of Bob the turnkey, a figure seemingly without significance after his first appearances, early in the novel, yet planted there by Dickens, to be recalled by him now in a masterly and deliberate stroke – Dickens's genius in Little Dorrit was not improvisatory, as it often was in his earlier career, but far-seeing, in a climax wonderfully planned and wonderfully achieved.
Dickens's works, then, teem with lawyers, criminals, and a world of shadowy practitioners on both sides of the law. He was fascinated by that great legal machinery, in all its detail – like Sam Weller's knowledge of London, Dickens's knowledge of the law was extensive and peculiar – and was only too well aware of a gulf often fixed between law and justice, as he was of the divisions between legal function and the man who held the office. He describes the working of those lesser breeds within the law that I have been able no more than to touch on, finds them sources of comedy, pathos, and makes them part of the great web of fiction that he increasingly in his art developed and refined, made so richly complex in his exploration of Victorian England, representing a Legal London of which he both was part and was also part-creator.
Pickwick Papers, ed James Kinsley, Oxford, 1988 Barnaby Rudge, ed Gordon Spence, Penguin, 1973 Nicholas Nickleby, ed Paul Schlicke, Oxford 1990 David Copperfield, ed Trevor Blount, Penguin, 1966 Bleak House, ed Stephen Gill, Oxford, 1996 Little Dorrit, ed Angus Easson, Everyman, 1999 Great Expectations, ed Angus Calder, Penguin, 1965
Letters, ed Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, Clarendon, 1965-2002
John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed J W T Ley, Cecil Palmer, 1928
© Professor Angus Easson, Gresham College, 21 November 2006