It is autumn in London, and the city is wet, cold, and wrapped in fog. The Court of Chancery is in session and Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a famous lawsuit which has dragged on for several generations, is brought before the Lord Chancellor. The atmosphere is dreary, the lawyers doze, and the court is almost empty except for a “mad old woman,” who visits the court daily, and a poor man from Shropshire who is determined to attract the Chancellor’s attention but who, every day, is ignored.
Fog and smog were common in London in the 19th century because of pollution and industrial use of coal. The Court of Chancery was a specific legal department which dealt with suits about property, equity, and inheritance separate from other legal affairs. It was notorious for meandering lawsuits which were never resolved. It often paid out very little to its plaintiffs and rarely gave people the inheritance they were owed. It was widely considered to be desperately in need of reform during Dickens’s lifetime.
The lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, has gone on for so long that no one understands what it was originally about. Families have split over it, lawyers have grown rich from it, most of the members of the Jarndyce family (including “old Tom Jarndyce,” who shot himself outside the court) are long dead, and the case is still not resolved. It has become a joke among the lawyers and clerks and has ruined or corrupted almost everyone involved with it.
It was not uncommon for Chancery suits to drag on over long periods of time and for their original aims to be lost among the many claims by different relatives and lawyers. Dickens suggests that this type of suit brings out the worst in people and turns them against each other as they compete over inheritance. Tom Jarndyce’s madness, which the suspense of his Chancery suit causes, foreshadows Richard’s madness later in the novel.
In the dingy, foggy courtroom, the Lord Chancellor listens to a lawyer named Mr. Tangle expound upon the case. Bored, the Lord Chancellor dismisses Mr. Tangle and asks him about the “two young people” he met with earlier that day. Their grandfather is dead, Mr. Tangle tells him—something about “brains.” A man at the back of the room announces loudly that “a cousin” will stand in for their grandfather. The Lord Chancellor seems to agree to this, asks that the young people be sent to his private rooms. As the Lord Chancellor sweeps out, the man from Shropshire once again tries, unsuccessfully, to get his attention.
Mr. Tangle’s name signifies his purpose, which is to confuse the case in order to prolong it. The grandfather that the passage refers to is Tom Jarndyce, who has shot himself in the head. This passage also shows that individual plaintiffs, like the man from Shropshire, have little power against the large, bureaucratic institutions like Chancery.