Bureaucracy: Bleak House

Dickens, Charles, and Hablot K. Browne. Bleak House. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1853.


This 1853 edition of Bleak House by Charles Dickens represents the first publication of the novel in the form of a single book. Like most of Dickens’s fictional works, Bleak House was initially serialized. It was distributed to readers in 20 separate installments (19 individual issues, the last containing the final two increments) between March of 1852 and September of 1853. This edition of the novel was published by Bradbury and Evans and dedicated to the “Guild of Literature and Art.” It contains 38 lithograph plates featuring illustrations by Habolt Knight Browne, a. k. a. “Phiz,” as well as 42 demarcation points indicating this as a fully compiled and comprehensively re-edited issue devoid of any typographical errors. The covering is the original solid material overlayed with a thin film of half-calf leather. The spine and the corners of each side feature coverings as patches in marble coloring, an aesthetic largely enhancing the autonomy and authenticity of the full-text volume as opposed to the pamphlet installments often deemed as ephemera.

Bleak House presents a grand cross-section of British Victorian society, equally adept at describing the lavish wealth and opulence of the upper classes as well as the miserably impoverished suffering of the undeserving poor. This novel also levels a powerful critique of bureaucracy that highlight the potentially pernicious and destructive effects of convoluted and over-evolved systems of distributed power and authority. While the novel follows a vast web of plot lines, all of them are conneted by a long-standing testamenry case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, that feeds needs of legal processes and processors while sapping the spirit—and money—of the litigants involved. Dickens had worked in law and was thus familiar with its mechanisms and personality. It is speculated that the fictional case at the center of Bleak House was based on one or several very protracted, real-life cases, including that of poet and novelist Charlotte Turner Smith. The novel reveals the English legal system—specifically its Courts of Chancery—“as producing gas in prolix pleadings and judicial vapourings, throwing up fog and mud in its lack of clarity and muck in its disclosure of old scandals, while resembling a dinosaur in its failure to address the modern age” (Slater 45). These Courts would be abolished approxinately 20 years after the publication of Bleak House.

Find Bleak House in the UNT Libraries Catalog.