The Condition of England Question
England in the 1830s and 1840s experienced rapid growth of industrialization and population, increased costs of relief to the poor, and a movement of rural workers to the cities, where they ended in disease-ridden slums, such as Tom-all-Alone’s in Bleak House. There was a sense, as Dickens said in “The Chimes,” that “some motion of a capsizing nature was going on in things; which affected the general economy of the social fabric.”
In 1839, essayist Thomas Carlyle coined the phrase “The Condition of England Question,” challenging the country to do something about the terrible condition of the poorer classes that was escalating into riots and threatening the stability of the country. People were afraid of a French Revolution on English soil. Carlyle, a great influence on Dickens, pointed out: “England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition” (Past and Present, chpt. 1). Why was the distribution of wealth so unfair and what could be done about it?
It was an era of reform, and many new legislative solutions were sought, such as an extension of the vote to the lower classes, redistribution of Parliamentary seats to represent the industrial areas, reform of poor laws, and the institution of free trade. The crisis had to be popularized, so that the need for change could be digested by the public, and that is where the novelists came in. Many Victorian novelists such as Disraeli, Dickens, Thackeray, Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot, portrayed social problems from various angles. Novels conveyed what films do today to create sympathy and understanding.
Though much had been done to alleviate urgent problems by the time Dickens wrote Bleak House in the more prosperous and hopeful 1850s, there were still gross inequities and suffering among the poor. Since reform was in the air, many Reform Societies, like the ones mentioned in Bleak House, tried their hand at fixing things, satirized by Dickens in the Jellybys, Pardiggles and Chadbands who know nothing of the poor and merely make things worse. Mrs. Pardiggle, for instance, leaves a religious pamphlet in the brickmaker’s cottage; Jenny’s husband sarcastically points out: “There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it” (Chpt. VIII, p. 82).
Many issues of the day turn up in Bleak House, such as the discussion between the industrialist and self-made man, Mr. Rouncewell, and the landowner, Sir Leicester, a dialogue between upper class and the rising middle class. Sir Leicester is outraged that Rouncewell, who once could not vote, is now being considered to run for Parliament. Rouncewell proudly exhibits the new democratic force in the country. Sir Leicester learns that Rouncewell’s reform party has won; the baronet, who wants things to stay as they were, claims, “the floodgates of society are burst open” (Chpt. XL, p. 433). He witnesses the decline of his house and the power of the upper classes.
Mrs. Jellyby, addicted to causes, turns from the African Question to the Woman Question, being the example of the New Woman not content to be a mere housekeeper, but eager to tackle the problems of society. The silly irrelevance of Party politics is criticized in the chapter, “National and Domestic” with the strife between Coodle and Doodle. The corruption of money-lenders is aptly portrayed in the partnership of Tulkinghorn and Smallweed to squeeze debtors for their own convenience. Dickens paints a clear picture of the country being run by people interested only in their own pockets. When Woodcourt becomes a hero for saving lives, Miss Flite thinks he will get a title. Esther answers, it is “not the custom in England to confer titles on men distinguished by peaceful services” unless they have a lot of money (Chpt. XXXV, p.380).
The specific focus of the novel is the cumbersome legal system that chokes the life out of the country with delay and procedures, a mockery of true justice. Dickens makes a parallel between Chancery and the world of high society as both following “precedent and usage” (Chpt. II, p.6). These values are incapable of solving social problems; they destroy the human connection between people. Although the court system was starting to be reformed when the novel was written, it still was grossly inept. Dickens knew this; he was a court reporter and saw it all firsthand. He consciously used his fiction to address the Condition of England Question by showing how the solution to all the various issues begins in the human heart. Woodcourt, Mr. Jarndyce, Mr. George, and Esther, are the models of acting locally to change the condition of England.
There are only two kinds of people in Dickens novels: those in a family, and the orphans of society. Even some of the strange families, like the Turveydrops, offer protection, love, and a place to its members. Those who have been abandoned, by relatives, or society, seem to outnumber those more fortunate people with a secure home.
Esther is an abandoned illegitimate child and grows up thinking she is to blame for her suffering and her mother’s. Her aunt keeps her isolated. She is never told who her parents are. She is so lonely that she vows to win some love in her life. Her whole motive is to overcome this terrible abandonment, and through kindness to others, she fulfills her dream of love and a home.
Jo, on the other hand, experiences an abandonment that cannot be remedied. He has no family or home. He is on the street and knows a few other poor people, such as the brick-makers. Occasionally, he gets a handout from Snagsby or Captain Hawdon. His confusion is so great, Dickens pictures him as an illiterate wandering around in despair, unable to decipher signs or anything going on around him. He has no idea what he has done wrong that he should starve and freeze, be threatened, preached at, and told to “move on.” He is finally glad to move on to “the berryin ground” (Chpt. XLVI, p.481).
Phil Squod is another unfortunate, who can’t even tell Mr. George how old he is. He goes off with a tinker at the age of eight and leads a nomadic life, injured in an accident at a gas-works and found in a gutter. Mr. George thinks he looks like a limping war veteran and adopts him. He has no family, and Mr. George, a self-made vagabond, decides he is homeless too. The urge to create family, if one does not have one already, is a human one. So, even Lady Dedlock, abandoned by her lover, an unwed mother, marries Sir Leicester and tries to adopt Rosa as a daughter figure.
Abandonment happens even within families like the Jellybys. Peepy is an abandoned child while his mother attends to her charities for Boorioboola-Gha. “Everything the dear child wore was either too large for him or too small” (Chpt. XIV, p.140). He is scratched and banged up and dirty. Nobody is there to see him get his head caught in the railing. When Esther tells him a story, or washes him, or puts him to bed, he is amazed, having never had such an experience. Caddy Jellyby is made to be her mother’s secretary, and her own needs are so neglected, she runs away.
Abandonment strikes all classes. The working class Neckett children are left alone after the parents die, and little Charley has both to go out and earn money as a laundress and take care of the baby and little boy that have to be locked in the room for safekeeping. Guster, the unfortunate harassed maid at the Snagsbys, was got cheap from the workhouse, since she is somewhat damaged and has fits. Captain Hawdon, once a man of rank and education, dies a neglected pauper and is known only as “Nemo,” no one.
The Court of Chancery makes orphans of all the suitors. Miss Flite is the sole survivor of her family, a mad old woman living alone in Krook’s shop, half starving. Gridley has lost his family and farm and dies a refugee. Ada and Richard are orphans made poor by waiting for their judgment, and Mr. Jarndyce himself is all alone. He gathers together all the orphans and strays under the roof of Bleak House.
The individual stories of abandonment add up to a larger feeling that no one is watching or taking care of the country as a whole, for no one wants to take the responsibility. Dickens symbolically presents the slum of Tom-all-Alone’s as property in the Jarndyce suit, and the “Tom” as some long lost suitor. Jo wanders around in this slum thinking, “I have no business, here, or there, or anywhere . . . I am here somehow too, and everybody overlooked me” (Chpt. XVI, p.168).
Dickens creates a world in his novels where we are introduced to characters, each in their own private circles. The movement in the novel is towards uncovering the hidden connections. Who would have thought there was a connection between Lady Dedlock and Esther or the law-writer, Nemo? Who would know Mr. George is George Rouncewell? The murder of Tulkinghorn is one way all these connections come to light: “What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” (Chpt. XVI, p.167) Hidden lines of fate intersect, giving all the characters their just deserts. Those who deny connection with others had better beware, such as Tulkinghorn, who reaps the misery of the tangled web he himself created.
This is one kind of connection—the invisible network of lives. Another more positive kind of connection is created by the characters themselves through brotherly love, family life, and friendship. Mr. George is an example of brotherly love. He shelters the unfortunate and protects them with his strength: Phil, Gridley, and Jo are given room in his gallery with no questions asked. The doctor, Woodcourt, walks around in the slums treating people for free, like Jenny and Jo in Tom’s-all-Alone’s, and Miss Flite and Nemo. Esther takes Jo to Bleak House when he is dying of smallpox, and she befriends Caddy and Peepy, becoming a surrogate mother. Even Lady Dedlock, once she loses her pride, treats Rosa and Jenny with charity, not wanting anyone to share her trouble. Detective Bucket, in his own rough way, tries not only to solve crime, but to create greater harmony by tying up loose ends: he checks the greed of Smallweed, and shames Mrs. Snagsby for persecuting her household.
Dickens is the champion of family life, and there are several emotional family scenes in the novel, demonstrating the noble virtues of human love that stand out as rays of hope amid the darker motives of a Smallweed or Tulkinghorn or Krook. The Bagnet family is memorable for their kindness, loyalty to one another, and delight in each other, much like the Cratchit family. Mr. Bagnet willingly lets his capable wife run things, and is proud of “the old girl.” Mrs. Bagnet is the one who brings George and his mother together after thirty years, a very tender moment. Much is made by Dickens of mother’s love, and father’s love.
Mr. Jarndyce, however unlikely a candidate for a father, is a maker of family love. A bachelor, he wants and values most of all a close knit family, and creates one out of the wreckage of the Jarndyce suit, bringing Ada, Rick, Esther, and Charley under his roof. When he realizes he is too old for Esther, he makes her another Bleak House and gives her Woodcourt, thus sprouting new families. He takes in the widowed Ada and her son.
When the negligent father, Skimpole, praises Ada’s beauty, saying, “She is the child of the universe.” Mr. Jarndyce replies, “The universe . . . makes rather an indifferent parent” (Chpt. VI, p.55). Dickens thus implies it is up to human beings to take care of one another, to feel, and to make connections. In the “bleak” England he shows us, it is only personal love and charity that hold society together. Even Sir Leicester is shown in a sympathetic light at the end, when he holds his wife as his chief treasure, above public opinion.
Bleak House: Theme Analysis