What the Dickens does Bleak House have to do with Black Lives Matter or Brexit?

In another of her occasional thought-provoking literary articles, Stella Backhouse turns her thoughts to Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, with some surprisingly modern results. Do let us know what you think!

[Editor’s note: if you haven’t read Bleak House, it is for my money one of the finest novels in the English language. Give it a go.]

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Bleak House is a novel about a fast-changing society and its relationship with the past. If that sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because many of the debates that shaped Britain in the second decade of the twenty-first century have centred on our own relationship with the past: how does it inform our attitudes to the present?; who owns it?; and why does reclaiming it matter so much? Questions like these underpin both the Brexit saga and the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in 2020. But what’s so striking about Bleak House is that while we in our day continue to agonise about the presence of the past in the here-and-now, Dickens in 1853 had a solution that was startlingly different and very simple: forget the past. Consign it to history. Move on. The present and the future are all that matter now.

If modern readers know anything about Bleak House, they know that it’s the novel in which Dickens’ impatience with the workings, machinery and practice of the law achieved its fullest expression. The Court of Chancery, where the interminable disputed-will case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has ground on for decades, is reviled as nothing more than a dead-weight of self-serving bureaucracy that that might be ripe for lampooning, were it not for the fact that entire lives are swallowed up by it, and slowly digested into blighted prospects, madness and untimely death. But it’s not the only example. What Dickens is portraying more broadly is a society that has outgrown its institutions. The law, religion, politics and what we would now call welfare provision: in their current state, all of them are unfit for purpose – all of them belong as firmly in the past as the megalosaurus that so arrestingly waddles up Holborn Hill on the opening page. This is a society crying out for renewal.            

The past and its institutions are a cage. The characters in Bleak House who do well are the ones who escape it and make their bid for freedom; the characters who do badly are the ones who stay locked within its grip. So while John Jarndyce does well because he has always steered clear of the law suit that bears his name (and also renounces his long-held plan of marrying Esther), Richard Carstone does badly (and eventually dies) because he cannot overcome his obsession with it. And while Lady Dedlock dies because she fears that exposure of her past will dishonour her husband’s family, Esther – her illegitimate daughter – is unashamed of her origins and never lets them hold her back. Her strength of character eventually overcomes her prospective mother-in-law’s insistence on lineage, and paves the way for her marriage to Allan Woodcourt.

But it’s even more than this, because what Dickens is envisioning is nothing less than a new type society – one based not on ancestral right and privilege, but on usefulness and ability to contribute. The contrast here is between the activity of the present and the inactivity of the past. Sir Leicester Dedlock’s very name is suggestive of stasis and standstill. Significantly, he appears to have no children; but he does have a cousin who is so exhausted, after long days of lounging around doing nothing, that he hasn’t even the energy to clearly articulate the English language. This, says Dickens, is the past.

The future belongs to people who are active. People like Esther. People like the detective Mr Bucket, with his finger pointing resolutely forward. People like Allan Woodcourt, a doctor but also the hero of a shipwreck. And even people like the semi-comic young lawyer Mr Guppy. Unlike the distinctly sinister older lawyer Tulkinghorn (who also ends up dead), the presciently yuppie-ish Guppy is motivated not by the desire to preserve at all costs the position of vested interests (and thereby have them in his power), but by a refreshingly independent mixture of professional curiosity, shrewd opportunism and the desire to impress a lady.

Although he doesn’t succeed in his ambition of marrying Esther, I’ve always felt that Guppy’s proactivity and “enquiring mind when it comes to evidence” will see him right in the end. He has shown himself to be active, and in this new world, that’s what counts. Indeed, one of Dickens’ biggest frustrations with the Court of Chancery is that those who become embroiled in it are prevented from leading useful lives. Richard tries and fails to make a go of three different careers before the suit completely absorbs him; rather than going off his head in London, Mr Gridley’s time would be far more productively employed in farming his Shropshire acres.

Dickens also appeals to readers’ own memories to support this new vision. There has been debate about the period when Bleak House is set. Published in parts from 1852 to 1853, the action has been assumed to take place some fifteen or so years earlier, just before the so-called ‘Railway Mania’ of the 1840s. This is because no one in Bleak House travels by train – even though by the early 1850s, the railway network was becoming well-established across Great Britain. Instead, the characters make numerous coach journeys – most of them slow, uncomfortable, very hard on the horses and made yet more unbearable by the appalling state of the roads. ‘Remember this?’ Dickens is asking. ‘Do you really want to go back there?’

And merging with the theme of activity versus inactivity, the same question hovers around the entirely ornamental Mr Turveydrop. Modelling himself on the late Prince Regent, his sole contribution to the life of society is his daily exhibition of himself around town, allowing his fellow citizens to marvel at his deportment. Vain, selfish, unproductive and completely reliant for his financial support on the his son and daughter-in-law exhausting themselves by giving dancing lessons – is he what readers want to go back to?

Dickens’ answer is a resounding ‘no’ – he ends the book with ‘beginning the world’, a new Bleak House and re-birth: Ada and Esther both have young children. The future, he assures us, can and will be better, if only we can put the past behind us and keep moving forwards. To us now, reading Dickens at the other end of the Industrial Revolution, fearfully conscious that the most lasting and intractable legacies bequeathed to us by the processes it set in motion are likely to be global heating, environmental ruin and the jeopardising of the planet itself, this self-regarding burst of Victorian confidence, optimism and belief in the power of progress seems almost as alien as the outdated stage coach journeys endured by Esther might have seemed to railway-addicted readers of 1853. But is there also something deeper at work? Something we in our time would perhaps find more relatable?

The reunion of George Rouncewell with his industrialist brother Robert is strongly reminiscent of the return of the Prodigal Son, as related in the Gospel of Luke. The sins of the past are cancelled and forgotten. All that matters is the joy of the present. It’s a parable that seems uniquely-calculated to soothe the possible preoccupations of the early Victorian mind. After decades of struggle, the abolition of slavery in the British colonies had finally been achieved in 1833, with the Slave Compensation Act signed into law in 1837, just fifteen years before the serialisation of Bleak House began. This was a subject that was still fresh and a guilt – perhaps – that was still raw.

I have often thought that the role of Victorian literature in suppressing memory and silencing debate around Britain’s slaving history is a subject that would bear examination. It was a silence that would last the best part of two hundred years. In popular debate, it began to be unstopped only in this century, when historians like David Olusoga, novelists like Andrea Levy and movements like Black Lives Matter began to turn their attention to it. This is highly speculative, but perhaps what we see in Bleak House, whether consciously on Dickens’ part or not, is one of the places where that silence began. Because Dickens is telling his readers to forget the past. He’s telling them to do it by keeping busy – the same advice that’s often offered to bereaved or traumatised people to this day. He’s telling them to turn the page and make a new beginning. He’s telling them to concentrate, unlike the well-meaning but misguided Mrs Jellyby and her ill-fated African coffee plantation, on problems closer to home, of which, God knows, there were plenty. Dickens was quite right about that.

So while it may be almost a hundred-and-seventy years old, its concern with what to do about the past means that Bleak House strikes a surprisingly modern note. We look at things very differently today, but the terms of our debate are still framed by choices made by the Victorians, choices that Dickens, one of the biggest celebrities of his day, may well have a hand in making. And the choice was to duck the issue. We today have no choice but to confront the past, because the Victorians didn’t want to. Dickens is still with us.

A Casual Relationship?

In our second guest review from Stella Backhouse, she explores the relationship between JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and a George Eliot’s classic – and not the one that it is usually compared with. There are SPOILERS but both books are now long enough in publication to allow for that, I am sure! Over to Stella.

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Surveying the wreckage that is the climax of her 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy – three year-old Robbie Weedon drowned in the river, his guilt-racked teenage sister Krystal dead from a lethal overdose – JK Rowling dryly observes that her unlikely heroine “had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them”. It was at that point that I realised that The Casual Vacancy is not, as most critics seem to have surmised, an attempted update of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Full marks for spotting Eliot as the inspiration – but the true source is a completely different novel: the one whose epitaph for a brother and sister washed away in the floods is “in their death they were not divided”. I’m talking, of course, about The Mill on the Floss.

I don’t know why this has apparently gone unnoticed – Google ‘Casual Vacancy Mill Floss’ and you’ll turn up virtually nothing. It may be that the panoramic portrayal of small-town life that characterises both Middlemarch and The Casual Vacancy is just too hard to ignore; it may be that while Middlemarch is, according to one reviewer, “worshipped by many literary liberals”, The Mill on the Floss, with its story of bright, fierce Maggie Tulliver’s sacrifice of her own happiness to the demands of her implacably controlling brother Tom seems out-of-step with modern womanhood. But is it really? Beyond the siblings’ immediate histories, the book’s wider theme, termed by Eliot “the shifting relation between passion and duty”, is still, in these days of global pandemic, burgeoning inequality and looming man-made climate catastrophe, urgently current. It’s exactly the question addressed by Rowling in The Casual Vacancy.

OK: the hundred-and-fifty-two years that separate the two novels inevitably mean shifts of focus. But from Maggie Tulliver’s struggle with her brother’s insistence that she do nothing to jeopardise his conception of family honour, to the middle-class inhabitants of Rowling’s pretty town of Pagford who agonise over the fate of The Fields, the run-down, crime-ridden sink estate on their doorstep, the questions are the same. How do we balance the selfish lures of lust, cravings, covetousness, scratching itches, self-preservation, animal instincts and the need to be loved with our responsibilities to civil society? How do we decide our priorities?

Rowling’s answers take a number of forms. One is acknowledgement of the past. Repenting of their elopement, Eliot’s Maggie asks Stephen Guest “If the past is not to bind us, where does duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment”. Unfortunately, as becomes clear in The Casual Vacancy, the past is open to interpretation. Pagford stalwarts Howard and Shirley Mollison and Barry Fairbrother all spring from unpromising backgrounds. But while Barry uses his past to help Krystal Weedon overcome similar disadvantages, Howard and Shirley prefer to deny theirs or – if they must face it – to claim it as a reason for casting off undeserving individuals who didn’t work as hard as they did. Howard would surely applaud Maggie’s Aunt Glegg’s horror of squandering money on “them as have had the same chance as me, only they’ve been wicked and wasteful”. 

Rowling counters the Mollisons by arguing that the past is so hopelessly jumbled that it makes us all one. Contemplating his two very different offspring, Eliot’s Jeremy Tulliver laments “as the lad should take after his mother’s side istead o’ the little wench. That’s the worst on’t wi’ the crossing o’ the breeds: you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t”. The Casual Vacancy brings the results of this speculation to fruition five or six generations later, by which time the Mollisons (Latin for ‘mill’: molendini) are Pagford’s First Family, the Tullys (quite possibly the Mollisons’ not-too-distant relations) are a byword for criminality, and the lines of inheritance from Eliot’s characters are so blurred and so tangled that everyone is now part of everyone else.

For instance: despite having a mini-me son and a (to his mind) problematic daughter, self-satisfied Howard Mollison is too much of an establishment figure to represent the aggrieved outsider Jeremy Tulliver. Instead, it’s chippy printer Simon Price, with his noisy workplace, isolated homestead and violent outbursts who most resembles Eliot’s litigious miller. Simon’s son Andrew, secretly in love with beautiful Gaia Bawden (Lucy), decides to get a job and stays loyal to his father despite being painfully aware of Simon’s failings – all of which augur kinship to Jeremy’s son Tom; but on the other hand, Andrew’s gentlemanliness, peanut allergy and chronic acne all add a dash of disabled artist Philip Wakem – whose ghost is also visible in Barry Fairbrother’s attempts to help Krystal achieve her potential. Elsewhere, trying to nick his mate’s girl frames Stuart Wall* as a Stephen Guest figure; but commitment-phobic lawyer Gavin Hughes is also Stephen Guest because he ends up losing both of the women he gets involved with.

All these points are amplified by the importance in The Casual Vacancy of twins and mirror-images, with characters from the town having opposite numbers on the council estate. Unhappy, unfeminine doctor’s daughter Sukhvinder Jawanda and desperate, ballsy Krystal Weedon, her life-chances cruelly circumscribed by factors beyond her control, are twinned because in different ways, their lives re-enact Maggie Tulliver’s. And – painful though it is for me to say this of one of Eliot’s most lovable creations – the entrepreneurial spirit of Bob Jakin lives on in both businessman Howard Mollison and scumbag drug dealer Obbo (who other ways too, are far more alike than they know). Those Pagfordians who want to cut off The Fields are precisely the ones who do not wish to hold up a mirror to themselves.

And it’s not just the characters who reflect each other; it’s also their habits. Even as the middle-classes shake their heads over the cost to taxpayers of drug dependency in The Fields, they unfailingly find ways to excuse their own damaging relationships with food: “Given that she spent nearly all her time trying to help other people” for example, it was hard for flabby diabetic Tessa Wall “to see muffins as so very naughty”. This double-think is brought screechingly into the open at a Parish Council meeting when GP Parminder Jawanda confronts the mountainously – and unrepentantly – obese Howard Mollison, angrily demanding if he knows “how many thousands of pounds you…have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?”

More unexpected perhaps, is the extent to which Rowling flags religion as a template for life. It has been noted elsewhere that Robbie Weedon’s last hours recall those of the abducted and murdered toddler James Bulger. This is certainly a conscious reference on Rowling’s part: earlier, Howard Mollison puts off dinner with son Miles “because we’re playing bridge with the Bulgens”. But it recalls too the parable of the Good Samaritan, mentioned near the end of The Mill on the Floss, and recounted, according to the Gospel of Luke, in response to the question “who is my neighbour?”. Though he is Howard’s rival, Miles and Samantha Mollison go to the aid of respectably middle-class bank manager Barry Fairbrother when he collapses at the golf club (and are hailed ‘good Samaritans’ by Howard for their trouble) – but it turns out not to have been the real test. The real test was not to pass by on the other side as grubby, unattractive Robbie Weedon wandered lost and frightened from road to riverbank.

Organised Christianity ultimately abandons Maggie Tulliver when sympathetic vicar Doctor Kenn can no longer tolerate the malicious gossip that swirls around his entirely blameless attempts to rehabilitate her. The removal of Robbie’s case from Kenn’s modern-day equivalent, social worker Kay Bawden, is one of the factors that triggers Krystal’s high-risk plan to keep her brother with her. But as the Weedon children’s funeral progresses under the watchful eye of St Michael, vanquisher of the Tempter-in-Chief, it’s clear that the thing that finally unites Maggie, Sukhvinder and Krystal – indissolubly and for ever – is their instinctive impulse to save whoever needs saving, irrespective of cost, irrespective of who they are. True, two of them wind up dead (which is a pretty big cost) but the third is a spectacular winner. Rescued from the water, Sukhvinder emerges like the Sikh religious leader Guru Nanak to do what no one else can: use her re-birth to bring together Pagford and the Fields – one people in common humanity.

*The paternity of Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall is the unexploded bomb of The Casual Vacancy. Adopted at birth, he knows only that his mother was a fourteen year-old girl who refused to say who got her pregnant. But though he seems to be “pre-eminently and uniquely himself”, in reality he’s as much a part of the family as everyone else. The text provides ample clues to the identity of his father.

Stella Backhouse