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November 3, 2020 | Montreal Dickens Fellowship

Montreal Dickens Fellowship
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November 3, 2020.

A summary of Familial, Societal and Historical Influences on Dickens's Writing of "Bleak House"

“Bleak House”, like all of Dickens’s novels, was a reflection of his immediate world and of the Victorian world around him. His own family experience, the social structure and ethos of the time, the systemic influences of government, law, medicine, religion, science and his own deep interest in current events all played important roles in his writing of this epic novel. As our journey through the book unfolds, I will try to add to this summary as specific issues arise.

Dickens’s Private World:


Many of Dickens’s formative years were spent happily in Kent. His father, the son of a housekeeper (much like loyal but somewhat outdated Mrs. Rouncewell), had been raised on the estate of an aristocrat and he had come to have unrealistic expectations of his station in life. He was improvident in his spending and like “Mr. McCawber”, ever hopeful that something would turn up. A change of job and relocation to expensive London had the family suffering more and more from his irresponsibility, fleeing from creditors and pawning their belongings. From age 10 onward, Dickens’s life was increasingly filled with shame. This was associated with reduced social status, debt, poverty, his father’s imprisonment, his employment as a factory laborer, his lack of education and his perception of being abandoned by his parents.

Loneliness, Shame and Fear of Debt

Although, these experiences gave him the opportunity to develop self- reliance, ambition, a fierce work ethic, keen observation skills and an intimate knowledge of London (and the many varied inhabitants thereof), they also left him with loneliness, a feeling of being “set apart”, and a lifelong worry about money. Throughout his life, his parents were his “disgrace”. Like Esther Summerson, he tried to overcome his shame by hard work and good deeds. Both Dickens and Esther were ingrained with the value of independence and practicality. They “both’ were disturbed by Richard’s unrealistic expectations and reliance on the intangible. Despite his efforts to be diligent and financially responsible in all his efforts, Dickens’s whole life, like “Bleak House”, was filled with guilty secrets connected to a hidden past.

At the time, Dickens wrote “Bleak House”, he had a growing family of his own and constantly worried about the improvidence of his children. He wanted to teach them about the consequences of bad choices. He did not want them to count on others for financial help, but wanted to instill in them pride in their endeavors and well-directed ambition.

Theatre and Journalism

As a young man, Dickens spent many hours at the theatre, perhaps as an escape from his family and circumstances. Here he learned what appealed to the general masses as entertainment. Much of the theatre at that time was in the form of pantomime and he may have learned the power of the unspoken word through tone, setting and descriptions. Certainly “Bleak House” is a masterpiece in “setting the scene’ using London as its backdrop. Indeed many of the scenes are set as tableaus. Dickens gives us detailed physical clues as to his characters’ personalities. It is often as though they are wearing costumes. We are told their entrances, exits and often where they are standing or sitting. Dickens’s experience as a short hand reporter as a young man also honed his powers of observation and description.

Law Courts

Dickens’s early work as a law clerk and as a court reporter exposed him to the many failings of the law at that time. He would have been a witness to gross inefficiencies, ineffectiveness and corruption. He personally had been involved in a difficult and frustrating lawsuit over the copyright of “A Christmas Carol”, some years before writing “Bleak House”. (The case was settled but all the money was eaten up in court costs). Britain’s legal system was in shambles and reforms were ineffectual at the time “Bleak House” was written. Its difficulties were very much in the news. Cases of interminable length ending in horrible injustice were often described in current journals.

According to Wikipedia:

In the preface to Bleak House, Dickens cites two Chancery cases as especial inspirations, one of which was a "friendly suit":.........

Based on an 1853 letter of Dickens,[1] the first of these cases has been identified[2][3] as the dispute over the will of Charles Day, a boot blacking manufacturer who died in 1836. Proceedings were commenced in 1837 and not concluded until at least 1854.

The second of these cases is generally identified[2] as the dispute over the will of the "Acton Miser" William Jennens of Acton, Suffolk. Jennens v Jennens commenced in 1798 and was abandoned in 1915 (117 years later) when the legal fees had exhausted the Jennens estate of funds;[4][5] thus it had been ongoing for 55 years when Bleak House was published. Gridley’s case was also based on an infamous true case in Staffordshire.


Thomas Carlyle was a great friend and mentor of Dickens. He was a prolific writer and critic of “unwanted social gangrene.” His work had a profound influence on Dickens’s writing.

Leigh Hunt was an older author who was an acquaintance of Dickens who was known for his talent as a conversationalist but also for his constant state of debt. The character of Mr. Skimpole is said to be based on him although there is no evidence the other serious character flaws associated with Mr. Skimpole’s childishness.

Walter Savage Landor was a British writer, poet and activist that Dickens admired and tried to help on several occasions. He was known for his championing just causes, his compassion for the downtrodden and his love of children and animals. He was also known for his exuberance, loud laugh and for his many conflicts with authority, which often landed him in trouble. The character of Lawrence Boythorn is said to be based on him. (One of Dickens’s sons is named after him.)

Social, Political and Religious Philosophies of the Time:

The Aristocracy

During the years that Dickens wrote “Bleak House”, the aristocracy was becoming outdated. This was very topical at the time. The aristocracy believed they had the ancient right to govern the country. With the Industrial revolution came the advent of the rising middle class, which was a new breed of men synonymous with progress and social reform. Dickens viewed the aristocracy as corrupt and stagnant and the government represented by them as ineffective. There was often no difference among parliamentary members (Dickens spoofs that only the first letters of their names change! Doodle, Foodle, Duffy, Muffy,etc.)
Sir Leicester Deadlock represents the old regime with his gout belonging to all his ancestors!! Mrs. Rouncewell’s ironmonger son and her grandson represent the new, while she is loyal to the old ways. Mr. Krook’s shop is filled with papers and rubbish from the past covered in dirt and dust.


In Dickens’s time this referred to an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. It was seen as nostalgia for the pre-industrial notion of “the perfect gentleman”. Sir Leicester is constantly referred to as a perfect gentleman. Lady Deadlock is constantly at the beck and call of “fashion”. Mr. Turveydrop (senior) is a slave to his clothing and his “deportment” as a gentleman, harkening back to the Regency period. Mr. Skimpole refuses to grow up. Both Dr. and Mrs. Bayham Badger live in the past always referring to her life with her former husbands.

These references emphasize Dickens’s disgust with stagnation. He hated backwards momentum and lack of progress. Carlisle wrote extensively how dandyism glazed over vulgar realities with the trite and picaresque.


This refers to the Oxford Movement led by E.B. Pusey, who wanted to reestablish the Roman Catholic Hierarchy in the Church of England. Dickens was a devout Christian but NOT a church going one. He especially did not like the excessive trappings of religion and referred to the Puseyites as Papists. He saw this movement as taking religion backwards not forwards. Mrs. Pardiggle is a devout Puseyist who, neglects her children’s needs and the practical needs of the people she wants to “save” and tries to drag them into her beliefs whether they like it or not. She is a bully.

Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham was the founder of the philosophy of Utilitarianism, based on the principle that"It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Dickens opposed this philosophy on the grounds that it systematized society and did not take into account the individual’s rights and desires. Often based on statistical measurements of what is for the greatest good of the people, it was based on facts and figures and left little room for individuality, imagination or flexibility. In Bleak House, we see Dickens distain for large systems (like the Chancery Courts) that are impersonal and inflexible when dealing with individual cases.

Telescopic Philanthropy/ Imperialism

This is the kind of philanthropy practiced by Mrs. Jellyby. Dickens was very generous to all kinds of local causes, but strongly believed that “Charity begins at home”. Mrs. Jellyby is said to be based on a true character, Caroline Chisolm, (founder of the Family Colonization Loan Society) a famous Catholic philanthropist of her day who devoted her life to helping immigrants to Australia. She represented Exeter Hall, a center of evangelical missionary activity. I could find no evidence of her neglecting her family, though and her name has been suggested for Sainthood! In 1841, there had been a disastrous expedition to the Niger river to spread Christianity.
Of the 150 Europeans on the expedition, 42 died quickly. There were 130 fever cases. With such high mortality, the naval commanders called the expedition off. Dickens had written a review of this expedition for the “Public Examiner”. His friend Carlyle also wrote strongly against the neglect of the poor at home.

Social and Environmental Conditions:

Dickens wrote “Bleak House” against a backdrop of social upheaval due to the Industrial revolution, when huge displacements of workers from country to city caused housing shortages, homelessness, poverty, poor sanitation and disease (Cholera, Smallpox, Tuberculosis, etc.). There were horrors of child labour, little to no education for the poor, limited medical knowledge, sewage in the streets and in the river (the primary source of drinking water). Disease was thought to come from bad air or “miasma”. (Hence the poisonous fog throughout the novel.) There was aprevalent attitude that everyone had a place in society. The poor had their place and things should remain as the status quo with little impetus for change. There was a prototype for Jo, the crossing walk sweeper. George Ruby was a street sweeper who was called to give evidence at a hearing. An article was written about him in Dickens’s journal “Household Words”.

Current Events

The Great Exhibition of 1851/ Crystal Palace

This was a World’s Fair designed to showcase Britain and her Empire’s major innovations in industry and technology. Dickens boycotted the exhibit to some extent. He felt that it was a travesty to boast of accomplishments when the social conditions at home were so very bad. “Bleak House” has been said to represent his own Great Exhibit of the great social problems of the time, in that it is immense in its scope!

The Advent of Darwinism

Although “The Origin of the Species” had not been written yet, it has been suggested that some of the references to a kind of primordial ooze in the opening paragraph of the novel can be attributed to Dickens’s knowledge of some of Darwin’s previous scientific works.

The Discovery of Dinosaurs

Although “The Origin of the Species” had not been written yet, it has been suggested that some of the references to a kind of primordial ooze in the opening paragraph of the novel can be attributed to Dickens’s knowledge of some of Darwin’s previous scientific works.

The 19th century saw the rapid expansion of the field of Palaeontology. Interest in Dinosaurs was widespread, hence the Megalosaurus lumbering up Holborne Hill.

The Use of Opium

Judith will be giving us a talk about Opium, hopefully at our next meeting, so I will leave this out for now.

I hope that this background expands your knowledge of Dickens’s world and increases your enjoyment of the novel.