I’m going to begin by quoting a very long passage from Bleak House, one involving a suitor in the court of Chancery, generally known as “the man from Shropshire,” an oddity who in every session cries out “My Lord!” – hoping to get the attention of the Lord Chancellor; hoping always in vain. His name is Mr. Gridley and Esther Summerson relates an encounter with him:
“Mr. Jarndyce,” he said, “consider my case. As true as there is a heaven above us, this is my case. I am one of two brothers. My father (a farmer) made a will and left his farm and stock and so forth to my mother for her life. After my mother’s death, all was to come to me except a legacy of three hundred pounds that I was then to pay my brother. My mother died. My brother some time afterwards claimed his legacy. I and some of my relations said that he had had a part of it already in board and lodging and some other things. Now mind! That was the question, and nothing else. No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything but whether part of that three hundred pounds had been already paid or not. To settle that question, my brother filing a bill, I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there because the law forced me and would let me go nowhere else. Seventeen people were made defendants to that simple suit! It first came on after two years. It was then stopped for another two years while the master (may his head rot off!) inquired whether I was my father’s son, about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature. He then found out that there were not defendants enough—remember, there were only seventeen as yet!—but that we must have another who had been left out and must begin all over again. The costs at that time — before the thing was begun! — were three times the legacy. My brother would have given up the legacy, and joyful, to escape more costs. My whole estate, left to me in that will of my father’s, has gone in costs. The suit, still undecided, has fallen into rack, and ruin, and despair, with everything else — and here I stand, this day! Now, Mr. Jarndyce, in your suit there are thousands and thousands involved, where in mine there are hundreds. Is mine less hard to bear or is it harder to bear, when my whole living was in it and has been thus shamefully sucked away?”
Mr. Jarndyce said that he condoled with him with all his heart and that he set up no monopoly himself in being unjustly treated by this monstrous system.
“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you — is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied — as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I? — I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ HE is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here — I may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”
His passion was fearful. I could not have believed in such rage without seeing it.
Now, please bear Mr. Gridley, and his rage, in mind as I turn to George Orwell’s great essay on Dickens. It’s possibly the finest thing ever written about Dickens – even though it’s often wrong – and is a wonderful illustration of Orwell’s power of inquiring into his own readerly responses. (A topic for another post.)
The first point I want to call attention to is this: Orwell was of course a socialist, a person who believed that British society required radical change; and there were people who saw Dickens as a kind of proto-socialist. This, Orwell points out, is nonsense on stilts. If you want to know what Dickens thinks about revolutionary political movements, just read A Tale of Two Cities. He’s horrified by them.
Orwell then goes on to note that Dickens’s early experiences as a reporter on Parliament seem to have been important for shaping his attitude towards government as a whole: “at the back of his mind there is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is unnecessary. Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply Bumble and the Circumlocution Office — and so on and so forth.”
Such a man could never be a socialist. And yet, “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.” So what is the nature of this attack?
The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby’s will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens’s work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.
And here’s what I love about Orwell: he says that Dickens’s position “at first glance looks like an enormous platitude” – but he is not content with a first glance. He continues to think about it, and as he does he realizes that Dickens, after all, has a point. This I think is the most extraordinary moment in the essay:
His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence.
Most revolutionaries are potential Tories – that is, their revolutionary sensibility would erase itself if they could just get Their Boys into power. Once they and people like them are in charge, then they will do anything they can to thwart change. But what that means is: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (As I note in this essay, following Ursula K. LeGuin, even an anarchist society would have its petty tyrants.) Most would-be revolutionaries ignore this problem, but “Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness.” And that’s why he’s vital.
This point takes us back to the man from Shropshire, Mr. Gridley. He will not be calmed by invocations of “the system,” the broken system in which everyone is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not trapped as he is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not a victim as he is a victim. The people who enable the system, and profit from it, must be held accountable – or nothing important will change. The salon of politics will only be redecorated. So: “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”
And this, Orwell suggests, is what the novelist can do, what the novelist can bring before our minds and lay upon our hearts. Some political systems are clearly superior to others; but Dickens understands that whatever political system we build, its chief material will be what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity,” of which “no straight thing was ever made.” To force us to look at that truth — which, properly understood, will result not in political quietism but a genuine and healthy realism — is what the novelist can do for us. “That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician.” The novelist-as-moralist has the power to drag the individual workers of the system, any system, “before the great eternal bar” — but not God’s bar as such, which is what Mr. Gridley means, but rather, the bar of our readerly witness, our readerly judgment, whoever and whenever we are.