Litigation

Big Swinging Dickens

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The July issue of Reason must be out, because I'm getting responses to my column on Charles Dickens and anti-capitalism. (Whether knowing that the July issue contains a column by me on Charles Dickens and anti-capitalism makes you happy or sad that you're not already a subscriber is between you and your God.) I started rereading Bleak House while working on it, and though I found that book as heavy as a pile of cinder blocks when I read it twenty years ago, I've been completely absorbed by it this time.

In addition to being a fabled attack on lawyers, Bleak House is central to George Mason economist David M. Levy's study of Dickens as an enemy of both free markets and the abolition movement. The characters Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle are parodic philanthropists, who shower unwelcome charity on poor strangers (in Mrs. Jellyby's case, the unfortunates of "Borrioboola-Gha" on the banks of the Niger), while neglecting and mistreating their own family members. According to Levy, the emphasis on these characters' families is a direct reference to the family-centered nature of British evangelical abolitionism, in which several generations of Anabaptist familes would commit themselves to agitating for the cause.

As Levy points out, objections to Dickens' lampooning of abolitionists date back to the time of publication. Chief Justice of England Lord Thomas Denman, accused Dickens of using "his powers to obstruct the great cause of human improvement—that cause which in general he cordially advocates… We do not say that he actually defends slavery or the slave-trade; but he takes pains to discourage, by ridicule, the effort now making to put them down… The disgusting picture of a woman who pretends zeal for the happiness of Africa, and is constantly employed in securing a life of misery to her own children, is a laboured work of art in his present exhibition."

In the way of these things, the skill of the writer outlives the specifics of the real-life model. Mrs. Jellyby has become an iconic representation of pain-in-the-ass do-gooders, while only a handful of people recall the pettiness of Dickens' motivation.

Also, since my column is mainly about the magical thinking in Dickenomics, it's fair to point out that the book brilliantly depicts one type of economy: the interlocking system of clerks, crooked lawyers, cops, printers, paperwork handlers, insane homeless people, bartenders and pawn brokers that tends to grow around a big-city courthouse (in a manner that is remarkably unchanged since 1851). In fact, the book has one of the great odes to public choice theory:

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

Read up on the fascinating Thellusson Will Case, which may or may not have been the model for Jarndyce and Jarndyce. And if anybody's made the 510-minute commitment to watch the Bleak House miniseries, with Scully as Lady Dedlock and the inevitable Andrew Davies script, let me know if it was worth it.

NEXT: Who Is John Hamilton?

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  1. Charles Dickens was an interesting character. He wrote a book (story?) which was turned into a PBS special. I don’t remember the story title, but it was based in America. Dickens portrayed America as a malaria and mosquito-ridden swamp.

    According to the history, Dickens’ opinion of America had been informed by a catastrophic trip he took here, in the hottest, muggiest southern states, and when he had the chance to take a trip west by wagon, the wagon became bogged down in mud and the trip was canceled.

  2. Isn’t public choice the theory that argues institutional control(written rules) of individuals in government is needed because all people are rational and all rational people are self serving?

    I guess I should just look it up, but I dread wading through economic explanations on anything.

  3. Hum,

    I seem to remember that Dickens was wildly popular in the US but the US didn’t recognize British copyright and he wasn’t getting any royalties from any of the publishing of his work in the US.

    When he came here to rapturous applause and adulation of the people he had the nerve to hector people during his talks about how they were all stealing from him.

    This made people angry and he didn’t have a good impression of the US after this.

    I personally can’t wait until we get back to a Dickensian paradise.

  4. Progress causes displacement. The start of the industrial revolution was one of great change, and great displacement. Dickens chose to write about those displaced and ignore the progress happening around him.

  5. And if anybody’s made the 510-minute commitment to watch the Bleak House miniseries, with Scully as Lady Dedlock and the inevitable Andrew Davies script, let me know if it was worth it.

    The fast-paced editing makes it feel like a lot less of a commitment. Plus, in addition to Scully, you get Denis Lawson (Wedge in the original Star Wars trilogy) as John Jarndyce.

  6. Watched the miniseries with my wife recently (thank you Netflix) and we thought it was well worth it. A different experience from reading, as all television and film adaptations are, but very good nonetheless. Some very colorful characters who portrayed well that classic Dickensian over-the-top silliness and pettiness of a caricature.

    “Shake me up Judy!”

  7. “The July issue of Reason must be out…”

    Great!! I’ll look for it in the mailbox in the next month or two!!

  8. Funny, I don’t recall Dickens even mentioning slavery in his one novel partially set in America, Martin Chuzzlewit, which, by the way, is a damn funny book (at least, the part set in America.)

    As for him being anti-capitalist, he certainly was no fan of laissez-faire capitalism, but I can’t imagine he’d have much tolerance for socialism, either.

  9. Oh come on Mrs. Jellyby could never exist in real life.

    Oh and in other news, Obama has decided that China is a developing country and that it is the US’s role in the battle to combat global warming to provide foreign aid to developing countries. Which, oddly enough, we are able to give because of $1 trillion in loans from China.

  10. Best.

    Headline.

    Ever.

  11. “The one great principle of {American} law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”

    This is why some many parties are turning toward arbitration instead of courtroom litigation…and the great principle of American law to make business for itself is undoubtedly why Obama and the Democrats are poised to pass a federal law severely cutting back on the use of arbitration

  12. The miniseries was pretty decent, I’ll probably watch it again someday. Bonus, it has the lady who played Sarah in upstairs downstairs in it.

  13. Dickens on slavery from his non-fiction book (not “novel” as the heading wrongly has it) American Notes, 1842: http://www.readbookonline.net/read/2388/11512/

    Perhaps his views altered (under Carlyle’s influence?) in the decade between
    this and the publication of Bleak House.

  14. [====DickensChats.COm====] – You won’t believe what Little Nell is willing to do to you if you just ask! And Mrs. Jellyby would be more than happy to introduce you to her African friends for some exciting multicultural discussions.

    Party hearty with the ghost of Marley and the spirits of ganja past! Even Scrooge will get the Christmas spirit – what are you waiting for, sign up today!

  15. Well, I don’t see in Dickens much of that anti-capitalim that is so obvious or even explicit in the majority of authors.

    Instead, I think that he sees capitalism only as evil as the people who live in it. Make individuals better and society and its economic system will follow. On the other hand, he tends to believe that government does corrupt those who live in it.

    For example, you will find in Dickens rich people that are good and rich people that are bad; poor people that are good, and others that are bad; shopkeepers that are good, others that are bad, and so forth. However, I see very few lawyers or civil servants that are sympathetic. From the beadle in Oliver Twist to Jagger in Great Expectations, they are almost all stupid or narrowly interested. Mr. Wickfield is an exception.

    So, to me, Dickens is not so anti-capitalist, and decidedly anti-politics.

    Looking forward to read your piece on Dickens, Mr. Cavanaugh!

  16. Something else: Dickens should also be likeable to libertarians because he himself set up a house for “lost girls” (I believed he called prostitutes that way) and tried to educate them and make them re-integrate society.

    So, he put his energy where is mouth was and was consistent with his own thought: that it was the role of individuals, not the government, to take care of people.

  17. Dickens was neither pro-slavery nor pro-socialism. (I understand the big reputation of Hard Times, which I haven’t read, to be based on the idea that it engages Marxist thought; but I don’t vouch for that claim.)

    He was, as Justice Denman notes, harsh in his treatment of the abolition movement and the wider liberalism-in-the-colonies movement. He became more so over time, and possibly due to several events, the most prominent of which was the trial of Governor Edward Eyre for murder over the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. It would also be interesting to look into how the great success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin soured his views of abolitionists — there’s a pretty interesting strain of prominent 19th century male writers resenting women writers whose books were outselling their own. But we’re already past the point of TMI.

    As for socialism, my claim is that he was a paternalist, not a socialist. Patronage is central to the economies of Dickens’ books, and his critique of markets is a conservative critique. Levy points out that the left likes anti-market sentiments even when they come from the right — and it’s the use people are making of Dickens now, rather than what he actually thought, that I’m interested in. He was too much a little-Englander to be a socialist, and I think his anti-marketism is basically that of an outraged journalist: Don’t be too proud of this economic terror you’ve constructed: Don’t you know that people who fifty years ago wouldn’t have made it out of infancy are now living long enough to ruin themselves with debt?

    I really, really, really like Dickens. If that doesn’t come across in anything I say about him, that’s because the consensus seems to be that I work better as an asshole than a nice guy.

  18. Dickens is pointing out how liberalism is a martyr complex. All liberals want to be secular Jesus, dying on the cross for what is absolutely right in a world with no such absolute.

    Free markets lead to crass consumerism. Not the news to any readers of history. Libertarians should focus instead on the idea that those who are harming nothing should be left alone.

  19. “Bleak House” was one of the best Masterpiece adaptations in my view. Two flaws: Anna Maxwell Martin, while striking, is not the Superhottie that Esther is supposed to be — and she looks not at all like Gillian Anderson. So that was confusing…

  20. There is an anti-Dickens chic in the world of litterary critic, whose alleged basis is perplexingly thin. Dickens’ litterary flaws are repeated over and over so much that one suspects there is something else behind it. And perhaps it is just that the Master did not have the rich/poor, property/labor opposition as a prime concern, like they suppose he should have, he who was a first-hand witness of the London of Marx.

    But, that is just speculation. I’m being uncharitable for the litterary elite, I suppose.

  21. “…the inevitable Andrew Davies script, …”! Wow! What a putdown! Almost too hip!

  22. A little noted feature of Bleak House: the murder sub-plot is pretty much a model for the Agatha-Christie-style mystery with all the possible killers trooping up and down the staircase outside the law office at the time of the murder and the cagy detective, Sergeant Cuff, working it all out.

    That puts Dickens up there with E.A. Poe and Dickens’s buddy Wilkie Collins as a progenitor and modeller of mystery fiction.

  23. yeah Dickens is anti-free markets, that is obvious…
    and do you mean anabaptist as in amish?

  24. I would love to see the input on this article
    by one, a Professor and authority on Dickens,
    who teaches at a University in North Carolina.
    Don’t know his name, or College. He also made a tape of his take on Dicken’s life – brilliant as I
    recall. Where it he? Hope he sees this and
    responds.

  25. I was forced to read Great Expectations in high school and thought I didn’t like Dickens. Now, 30 years later, I’ve been reading the entire oeuvre on my iPhone and discovering that I adore Dickens.
    I had the same experience (pre iPhone) with poet/insurance executive Wallace Stevens, who for years was my punchline for any joke about pretentious poetry. Now he’s a god. I consider The Idea of Order at Key West to be the greatest poem in the English language.
    I wonder if advanced lit courses at age 16 do more harm than good?

  26. “I wonder if advanced lit courses at age 16 do more harm than good?”

    I totally agree. I experienced the same thing as you did, Citizen Nothing, although for different authors.

  27. I had the same experience in teendom, but while I’d like to blame the Atlantic City public school system, I’m also aware that sixteen-year-old Tim Cavanaugh was among the dumbest, most pigheaded, most arrogant fuckheads I’ve ever known, so I’m not sure all the fault was with the curriculum. (Also, I’ve found many of the all stars from that long-ago syllabus haven’t aged as well as Dickens.)

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