a legal context for Tess

From William A. Davis, Jr., “The Rape of Tess: Hardy, English Law, and the Case for Sexual Assault.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 52, no. 2 (Sep 1997), 221-231.

English law in the nineteenth century defined rape as “the offence of having unlawful and carnal knowledge of a woman by force, and against her will” (Nevill Geary, The Law of Marriage and Family Relations: A Manual of Practical Law (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1892), p. 480). Mews’s Digest of English Case Law further explains that “to constitute rape, it is not necessary that the connection with the woman should be had against her will; it is sufficient if it is without her consent“‘ (John Mews, ed., The Digest of English Case Law, Containing the Reported Decisions of the Superior Courts: and a Selection from Those of the Irish Courts to the End of I 897, 16 vols. (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1898), IV, 1,548-49. KSN’s emphasis).

The law specifically addressed several situations in which it might be assumed that a woman had not given or could not give consent. Among these is the situation of a woman who is asleep: “If the woman is asleep when the connection takes place, she is incapable of consent, and although no violence is used, the prisoner may be convicted of rape, if he knew that she was asleep” (The Earl of Halsbury, ct al., eds., The Laws of England: Being a Complete Statement of the Whole Law of England, 31 vols. (London: Butterworth and Co., 1907-17), IX, 612). A review of Victorian case law shows that the courts held firmly to the idea that a sleeping or unconscious woman was incapable of consenting to a sexual relationship. R. v. Ryan (1846), for example, affirmed that “where a girl is in a state of utter unconsciousness, whether occasioned by the act of thee prisoner, or otherwise, a person having connection with her during that time is guilty of a rape” (“R. v. Ryan” (1846), Cox’s Criminal Law Cases, 2 (1848), 115).


Bucket’s method of making arrests

We have discussed the fact that Bleak House displays positive outcomes of institutional reform, including that of law enforcement. Inspector Bucket is one of the novel’s most important, memorable, and appealing characters, and I am not aware of any passages in which Dickens mounts an implicit or explicit critique of Bucket’s methods. But what do we think, as twenty-first-century readers, about Bucket’s method? See for example his arrest of Mr. George, which begins with a cordial visit to the Bagnet household during the “old girl”‘s birthday (593ff.). Bucket is disarmingly pleasant, polite, and kind, imaginative and attentive to the children, friendly with George. “He drinks to Mrs. Bagnet with a warmth approaching ot rapture, engages himself for that day twelvemonth more than thankfully, makes a memorandum of the day in a large black pocket-book with a girdle to it, and breathes a hope that Mrs. Bucket and Mrs. Bagnet may before then become, in a manner, sisters. As he says himself, what is public life without private ties? He is in his humble way a public man, but it is not in that sphere that he finds happiness. No, it must be sought within the confines of domestic bliss” (595). Exactly one page later Bucket, having left the party amicably with George, “twists him into a public-house and into a parlor, where he confronts him, and claps his own back against the door…. ‘You must consider yourself in custody, George…. There has been a murder in Lincoln’s Inn fields–gentleman of the name of Tulkinghorn. He was shot last night. I want you for that’ ” (596-97).

Is this an ethical procedure? Is it progressive, compared to harsher methods? Is it cruel? See the Bagnets’ bitter resentment on 620 and 622. (I infer bitterness from the fact that Mr. Bagnet speaks his own mind–surely a measure of how strongly he feels on this occasion.) Does Dickens suggest the Bagnets are right to be insulted? Has Bucket not played a trick on them? What kinds of judgments are we asked to make about Bucket’s methods?

locks and keys

Here are a few questions students have asked this morning, privately, whose answers might benefit others in the class.

Since in the Victorian era some people, including Dickens, considered spontaneous combustion a plausible cause of death, does that mean Krook’s death is not intended to be funny?

  • My reading is that Krook’s death is equal parts funny and creepy. There’s nothing about that character that makes me mourn his loss, and his one blood relation in the novel, Mrs. Smallweed, can’t grieve for him anyway, since she has dementia. So Krook is the perfect person to combust spontaneously. Although some, including Dickens, did think this was a plausible cause of death, it nonetheless has both ludicrous and metaphorical elements to it. Given that, how would you read it as metaphorical? Which parts of the passage seem funny?

Why does Mr. Tulkinghorn’s office have a painting of Allegory on the ceiling, and why does Dickens refer so frequently to that fact? (see page 167 for example)

  • The key to this lock will appear later in the novel. For now, I believe, a good reading is that Mr. Tulkinghorn’s inscrutability has some significance. His behavior is allegorical. We don’t know yet what the allegory is, but we know that there’s more to Tulkinghorn’s role in the novel than meets the eye.

Just before Mr. Gridley dies at the Shooting Gallery, why does Mr. Bucket show up disguised as a doctor (pp. 340-41)?

  • Mr. Bucket is there on official business to arrest Mr. Gridley. He uses the disguise so that Mr. George (a big, muscular soldier) doesn’t physically prevent his entering the premises. As soon as he sees Mr. Gridley is dying, though, Mr. Bucket shows his proclivity for humane compassion. He continues talking about the warrant to try to rouse Mr. Gridley in a good-humored way, not because he is any longer serious about arresting Gridley (343-344). See also Bucket’s method of making arrests

When Charley becomes Esther’s maid, why does Esther cry? Is she unhappy that Charley is living at Bleak House (p. 330)?

  • Esther cries “for joy” (330) when she learns that Mr. Jarndyce has lent financial help to three more indigent children, as he had done for her in a similar situation. Mr. Jarndyce has sent the five-year-old Tom to boarding school, has placed the eighteen-month-old Emma with a caregiver named Mrs. Blinder, and has hired Charley away from being the Smallweeds’ housekeeper so that she can live at Bleak House and be Esther’s maid. Charley notes that Mr. Jarndyce chose to wait a little bit between the time he met them (pp. 230-231) and the time he took them under his care because, as they were so young, they might want some time to get used to the idea of being apart for a little while (330).

Why is Hortense important?

  • Hortense was Lady Dedlock’s lady’s maid, which is a high honor for a domestic servant. But when Lady Dedlock was caught in the thunderstorm, she sent for Rosa to come fetch her in the carriage (266-68). Hortense was offended by being outranked by Rosa, and immediately quit. She is full of vindictive and energetic spite against Lady Dedlock.
  • It’s crucial to see Hortense’s similarities to Mrs. Snagsby. Both are capable of–in fact passionately fond of– relentless surveillance. Hortense has likely by this point in the novel picked up on the fact that Lady Dedlock has given birth to a child out of wedlock before her marriage to Sir Leicester Dedlock. She still needs to prove it, however. This is why she tries hard to persuade Esther to hire her at Bleak House: so she can be close to the action and, when the time is right, she can skewer Lady Dedlock’s reputation.