Big Swinging Dickens


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.