In a year that is crowded with major anniversaries and major events, the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth looms large. The BBC has been awash with documentaries, adaptations and readings and exhibitions on the great man are being staged across London, Portsmouth and Rochester.
My own ‘tribute’ has been to read Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. It is a cracking biography, and provides a fascinating insight into the man as well as the writer. One fact that arrested my attention was the revelation that Dickens seriously considered becoming a lawyer and went so far as to become a member of the Middle Temple.
Dickens’s fiction reveals his familiarity, fascination and pointed disdain for the law and his books are packed with assorted legal flotsam. Lawyers are portrayed at best ambivalently (as with Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations), as lazy (Mr Lightwood in Our Mutual Friend), scheming and manipulative (Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House) or as downright crooks (Mr Brass in the Old Curiosity Shop).
At the start of his career, Dickens worked as a solicitor’s clerk - first in the offices of Ellis and Blackmore and then for a brief spell at the law firm of Charles Molley. He gained further experience of (and a distinct distaste for) the legal profession from his early career in journalism as a court reporter working in Doctors’ Commons (the distinctly musty and archaic courts of the civil law branch of the English legal system).
But what is more surprising is that Dickens was already a published and successful author by the time he took the decision to enter Middle Temple. He was admitted to the Inn in 1839, by which time ‘Sketches by Boz’, ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ had all been released. He only finally relinquished his membership in 1855. Why did the superstar writer consider entering a profession he had already so mockingly lampooned?
Biographer Michael Slater suggests it was to provide a security blanket in case his celebrity and riches were fleeting:
“Aware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.”
Dickens would probably have made a fine advocate, but I think I prefer him on the outside and writing distinctly unflattering portrayals of the profession. Of all the many great quotes on the legal system and lawyers in Dickens, I’ll provide just a couple of my favourites:
“The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden, into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in these shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.”
“If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”