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The Victorian World of Bleak House

Warning! Plot points revealed below!

What is the Court of Chancery?
In Dickens's time, there were two main types of courts. Courts of Common Law dealt with crimes like murder or theft. The Court of Chancery handled cases like property disputes, with each case considered on its own merits. Dickens had observed the inner workings of the Courts of Chancery as a reporter in his youth. He observed that, "The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself."

Dickens also had a bad experience with the Chancery court in 1844. He brought and won his case concerning the copyright to A Christmas Carol, but his opponents declared bankruptcy. Instead of collecting damages, Dickens found himself paying Court costs on the case that he won.

The Court of Chancery was absorbed in the British Supreme Court in 1873.

What is Michaelmas Term?
The text of Bleak House begins:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall... Fog everywhere.

"Term" referred to both the academic sessions of Oxford and Cambridge and the periods during which the Courts were in session. As of 1831, the Michaelmas term was set for November 2 to 25th. (The other three terms of the year were Lent, Easter and Hilary.)

Was it really so foggy?
Daniel Pool, in his excellent and fascinating guide What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew (Simon and Schuster, 1993), points out that at certain times of the year -- with November the worst -- "a great yellowness reigned everywhere" in London:

At eight o'clock in the morning on an average day over London, an observer reported the sky began to turn black with the smoke from thousands of coal fires... The fog was so thick, observed a foreigner at mid-century, that you could take a man by the hand and not be able to see his face, and people literally lost their way and drowned in the Thames.

London was also very dirty -- the result of tons of horse manure, dirt and dust from unpaved streets and sewage and factory pollutants. Pool notes that "every major street had a crossing sweeper like Jo in Bleak House, who for a penny swept the street before you made your way across it on rainy days so your boots did not become impossibly filthy."

Did Dickens base any characters on real people?
Dickens modeled several of his characters on existing celebrities of the time. Harold Skimpole was a thin disguise for writer Leigh Hunt (outraging him and his friends), Mrs. Jellyby was widely recognized as Caroline Chisholm, a social reformer who lived and worked in both England and Australia. Lawrence Boythorn was based on the poet Walter Savage Landor (a friend of Dickens) and Hortense is based on Mrs. Manning, a woman who, along with her husband, was executed for murder in 1849. Dickens attended the dual execution at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark.

The character of Jo was partly based on an 1850 interview which appeared in the Examiner (1850) with an illiterate 14-year-old crossing sweeper named George Ruby.

How was Bleak House groundbreaking?
Dickens used two contrasting narratives -- an omniscient third-person narration and a first-person narration by Esther Summerson (which begins in the novel's third chapter).

Bleak House was fiction's first ever whodunit, and Bucket (generally thought to be modeled on Inspector Charles F. Field of the Metropolitan Police) is generally regarded as the first sleuth in English fiction.

Were suspicious deaths investigated in Dickens' day?
When the Bleak House installment in which Krook dies from spontaneous combustion was published, George Henry Lewes, a writer for the Leader, claimed that people just didn't suddenly burst into flame. Dickens responded by writing a Coroner's Inquest into the next installment of the serial.

Bleak House odds and ends
Bleak House had several working titles including: East Wind; Tom-All-Alone's; Bleak House and the East Wind; and The Solitary House that was Always Shut Up.

Bleak House, Dickens' ninth novel, was first published in 19 monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. It was illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne, also known as "Phiz."

David Lodge, literature professor and the adapter of Masterpiece Theatre's version of Martin Chuzzlewit (1995), named Bleak House as his favorite Dickens novel: "Technically, it's very impressive, particularly for a popular Victorian novelist. And it has all the Dickensian ingredients at their best: wonderful authorial rhetoric... and terrific comic characters. And a very powerful theme."

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