Dickens and the law

Many of Charles Dickens' most famous works contain references to the legal profession, often in an unflattering way. The reason? Dickens himself worked as a solicitor's clerk and had many dealings with the profession.


“Please sir, I want some law.” Okay, okay, we know that Oliver Twist was asking for more porridge and not for a more detailed overview of the Victorian legal system. However, there is a point behind this (admittedly groan-inducing) pun, as there are some interesting links between the legal profession and Charles Dickens. In 1828, a fresh-faced Dickens landed a stint as a solicitor's clerk at the law firm Tweedie & Prideaux, which would later become Veale Wasbrough Vizards. As far as we can tell, his tasks included keeping the petty cash fund, delivering documents and running errands. He learned shorthand in his spare time and eventually left to become a freelance reporter before starting to write fiction.

It's believed that some of Dickens' characters were based upon clients of the firm. Certainly his first-hand experience of the legal sector is evident in many of his books.His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, features the famous court hearing of Bardell v Pickwick (represented by Messrs Dodson and Fogg), in which, due to a misunderstanding, Mr Pickwick’s landlady Mrs Bardell sues him for a breach of promise to marry her. His most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, follows the eponymous protagonist's social climbing as he trains as a lawyer in London, and it also features the scheming clerk Uriah Heep. Other notable lawyers in Dickens’ novels include the two-faced Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations and the menacing Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

As you can tell from the examples above, Dickens was not exactly complimentary about the profession. He often portrayed lawyers as dishonest and socially awkward, and in Oliver Twist you'll find this not-so-flattering assessment of the law: "'If the law supposes that,' said Mr Bumble, 'the law is an ass – an idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.'"

Nevertheless, the legal world was heavily influential in shaping both his books and his life. In the late 1850s, Dickens began an adulterous affair with an 18-year-old actress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, and the fallout from it required some sterling legal advice – the kind that could only be administered by Farrer & Co's leading lawyer, Frederic Ouvry. The need for Ouvry arose when a London jeweller made the age-old mistake of delivering a gold bracelet to Dickens' wife,Catherine,and not to the intended recipient, Ellen. Catherine put two and two together and accused Dickens of infidelity: enter the proposed solution of a separation and accompanying settlement, which would have to be undertaken at Dickens' discretion.

A letter from Dickens to Ouvry discussing Catherine's settlement was recently discovered between the leaves of a family Bible. “We must come off for a payment of Six Hundred a year, including everything. This will keep her Brougham quite as well she has ever had it kept, and will do all she wants, I am sure.” A condition of the settlement required her more outspoken relatives, who knew all about the affair, to sign the Victorian equivalent of a gagging order, thereby retracting all criticism of Dickens's sexual behaviour: “We solemnly declare that we now disbelieve such statements...We know that these are not believed by Mrs Dickens and we pledge ourselves on all occasions to contradict them as entirely destitute of foundation.” As a former clerk, Dickens was not above correcting clauses in Ouvry's legal documents and took an especially active part in drafting this statement, revising Ouvry's version to suggest that the relatives had been spreading scurrilous rumours deliberately.

Dickens' working relationship with Ouvry eventually blossomed into intimate friendship. As one Farrer trainee casually noted, “every so often they find a bit more of Charles Dickens' correspondence [with Ouvry].” The author also enshrined his solicitor in literary history, as the character Mr Undery in a ghost story that appeared in the Victorian literary rag, All the Year Round.

Charles Dickens' links to the law are fascinating, but be careful what you say about them to any long-established law firms in an official context. Firms are not likely to appreciate being thought of as 'Dickensian'.