This post was contributed by Professor Kieran Dolin, University of Western Australia
A sense of death or despair permeates the environs of the law in chapter eight of Our Mutual Friend, as Dickens conducts an imagined stranger (who could well be the reader) through the ‘dismal churchyard’ of the Temple to the building where, at one window, Mortimer Lightwood’s clerk can be seen killing time. The sunny and benevolent Mr Boffin was once that stranger, and like Kafka’s man from the country in the fable, ‘Before the Law,’ he stood hopefully at the threshold of the legal system. His initial view of young Blight ‘chopping at flies on the window-sill with his penknife’ represents the scene of the law as a space of power and violence, with its echo of Shakespeare’s image from King Lear, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to gods, / They kill us for their sport.’
Inside Lightwood’s office, the incongruous presence of a gun case ‘imperfectly disguised’ among the legal paraphernalia arrests the reader’s attention. It is hard to imagine Mortimer Lightwood as a sportsman, a solicitor who hunts, like Trollope’s Frank Greystoke in The Eustace Diamonds. Simon Petch in his study of the legal ‘walk of life’ in Victorian England points out that briefless barristers such as Eugene Wrayburn and their solicitor counterparts were usually men with a private income. However, while Lightwood may fit the class profile, his personality lacks the energy and decision of a nineteenth-century sporting lawyer. It may be that the gun case does not even contain a gun, that it is an incidental detail which makes more vivid the image of the room, and suggests the disorganization of its occupant’s life. And yet it is hard not to link this object with Lightwood’s general ennui, his boredom and dislike of his profession, and to wonder if this is a premonitory hint, in the manner of Chekhov’s gun:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.
Chekhov’s principle of tight construction is alien to the amplitude and multiplicity of Dickens’s approach to fiction. In Mr Boffin’s eyes, tight construction is a goal of legal writing, and part of his instructions about his own will. In terms of the symbolism of law, a gun case in a practitioner’s chambers is a sign of disorder, of the violence that law is meant to contain, or the chaos that it mythically supplants.
This takes us to the matter of Lightwood’s work as a lawyer, to the quality of his counsel and representation. From the 1820s, solicitors had been reforming their branch of the legal profession, modernizing training methods and processes for qualification, and thereby lifting their status. This culture of institutional amendment is not where Dickens’s interests lie; rather he positions Lightwood as a disaffected representative of the traditional order, one who hates his profession and yet parrots its formulaic language when reporting to his client. When in the course of this consultation, Lightwood slips off the mask of a profound ‘professional adviser’ to reveal an extreme personal diffidence, Dickens presents a critique of the authenticity of the law, the extent to which it dwells within the individual, and gives normative impetus to his or her life. With his ambivalence bordering on irresponsibility, Lightwood seems to embody the condition of anomie, the loss of norms and moral regulation that Durkheim argued had emerged in nineteenth-century Europe.
In a memorable phrase, legal theorists Peter Goodrich and Yifat Hachamovitch once wrote that law ‘works itself into the nervature of everyday life’ through its images and forms, its rituals and practices. While this process seems to have failed in the case of several characters and situations in Our Mutual Friend, it is abundantly demonstrated in the proclivity for will making. Mr Boffin, who stands out from the general drift into anomie, found grief and responsibilities as well as riches under the will of old Harmon, yet enters into his inheritance by resolving to make his own will. His instructions are brief and simple, unconditionally giving the entirety of the estate to his wife – in stark contrast to Harmon’s. The prevalence of wills and disputes concerning them in Victorian fiction indicates broader societal concerns around identity and inheritance, as Cathrine O. Frank has shown in her authoritative study of this subject. Social and familial obligations collided with a deeply embedded legal tradition of testamentary freedom, the ‘unfettered’ right of a person to decide the terms of their own will. As the judge in the case of Boughton v. Knight stated in 1873,
By the law of England everyone is left free to choose the person upon whom he will bestow his property after death entirely unfettered in the selection he may think proper to make. He may disinherit, either wholly or partially, his children, and leave his property to strangers to gratify his spite, or to charities to gratify his pride, and we must give effect to his will, however much we may condemn the course he has pursued.
A counter-current of protest at the absurd, unjust or perverse consequences of this law bubbled away in the literary sphere, though many commentators saw the problem in individualist terms. William Hazlitt in his 1822 essay ‘On Will-Making’ offers a wide-ranging and acerbic commentary on this testamentary culture. Of particular interest for readers of Our Mutual Friend is his characterization of an ‘abstract passion for wealth’ as ‘a tendency to the heap’ which is maintained as a cherished ideal even in people’s preparations for death. Thus a will is an index of character, Hazlitt wrote: ‘This last act of our lives seldom belies the former tenor of them for stupidity, caprice, and unmeaning spite.’ In 1945 Reginald L. Hine, a solicitor and antiquarian who found will-making ‘the most pleasing and human part of a lawyer’s practice,’ recalled an old saying that had been passed down in his firm: ‘nowhere does the character of a man come out more conspicuously than in the making of his will.’
Fourteen years after Hazlitt, Dickens published an early sketch on Doctors’ Commons, the court which traditionally had authority in cases concerning wills, marriages, ships and ecclesiastical law. Concluding his visit to the court, Dickens offers a determinedly balanced view of this everyday law, reflecting on
the curious old records of likings and dislikings; of jealousies and revenges; of affection defying the power of death, and hatred pursued beyond the grave, which these depositories contain; silent but striking tokens, some of them, of excellence of heart, and nobleness of soul; melancholy examples, others, of the worst passions of the human heart.
This is the musty and antiquated jurisdiction in which Lightwood has no licence to practice, but must instruct a ‘proctor’ to lodge Harmon’s will and apply to prove its validity, and which contributes to the gloom that pervades the law in chapter eight. And yet in 1864, when Dickens began writing this novel, Doctors’ Commons was being decommissioned. The spirit of reform which had begun with criminal and social legislation and prompted solicitors to reorganize their profession in the 1820s, had led to a modernization of courts in 1857 with new tribunals of Probate, Divorce and Admiralty open to ordinary practitioners taking over the medieval privileges of Doctors’ Commons. The latter held its last meeting in 1858, and its building would be demolished in 1865. Perhaps while that physical structure stood, the forms of law it fostered and the social beliefs on which they rested remained a valuable symbol of normative crisis.
Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. 1893; New York: The Free Press, 1951.
Frank, Cathrine O. Law, Literature and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
Goodrich, Peter and Yifat Hachamovitch. ‘Time out of Mind: An Introduction to the Semiotics of Law.’ In Dangerous Supplements: Resistance and Renewal in Jurisprudence. Ed. Peter Fitzpatrick. London: Pluto Press, 1991, 159-81.
Hazlitt, William. ‘On Will-Making.’ In Table-Talk: Essays on Men and Manners.London, 1822.
Hine, Reginald L. Confessions of an Un-Common Attorney. London: J. M. Dent, 1945.
Kafka, Franz. ‘Before the Law.’ In the Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. London: Allen Lane, 1983, 3-4.
Petch, Simon. ‘Legal.’ In A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Ed. Herbert Tucker. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999, 155-69.