“His manner was–what man’s is not–so much that of one who would love and cherish and defend her, under any conditions, changes, charges, or revelations, that her gloom lessened as she basked in it” (chapter 29; p. 199)


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).

The shattering of Sir Leicester

As late in the novel as page 627, Sir Leicester maintains his complacent belief that his point of view trumps all others. “He is an honorable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man,” we learn on page 68, and to ensure we understand the severe limitations on his understanding of justice, the narrator explains that Sir Leicester “regards the Court of Chancery, even if it should involve an occasional delay of justice and a trifling amount of confusion, as a something, devised in conjunction with a variety of other somethings, by the perfection of human wisdom, for the eternal settlement (humanly speaking) of every thing. And he is upon the whole of a fixed opinion, that to give the sanction of his countenance to any complaints respecting it, would be to encourage some person in the lower classes to rise up somewhere” (71-72).

So when he hears that Mr. Tulkinghorn has been shot, Sir Leicester conflates Tulkinghorn’s murder with an assault on what he assumes to be a rational, admirable system of justice. He conflates the individual with the system and, in an egregious misunderstanding born of entitlement and complacency, considers Tulkinghorn’s murder to be a threat to everything that makes England great.

At the aforementioned 627, he pronounces without hesitation that, “If it were my brother who had committed [Tulkinghorn’s murder], I would not spare him.” I believe him entirely. Yet his complacency, his sense of entitlement, his sense of all stability in life are all shattered when he learns that Lady Dedlock was involved, somehow, in the events preceding that murder (635).

My questions: at what point does shock give way to humane compassion? In which passage does Sir Leicester recognize his ethical responsibility to support and love his wife regardless of any wrongdoing? And how is the ethical importance of Sir Leicester’s realization linked to Emily’s question about the difficulty of reading the passage on 641-648?

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?

seemingly superfluous characters

By giving us so many details about so many caricatures, Dickens forces us to contemplate about so much. This stood out prominently in the section with Mr. Skimpole and the debtor. The debtor, who will likely never show up again (although Mr. Skimpole is bound to see him again soon). When he says: “‘Think! I’ve got enough to do, and little enough to get for it, without thinking. Thinking!’ (with profound contempt)” (123). I was thinking about thinking, and this disposable character’s life, when I realized how many times this book has gotten me to think in fifty different directions.
As Bleak House moves along, I can’t help but wonder why Dickens introduces so many tiny characters, why he outlines their every idiosyncrasy, and really why he gives us the details that he does. It’s excessive, and yet I find myself loving and wanting every superfluous word of it. I do wonder if all of these characters are going to neatly converge, but I wouldn’t mind if they never do. Even the least important of characters seem to give us something to think about. What do you think? –Lyla