During their time in London, the party spends a great deal of time with Mr. Jarndyce’s philanthropic acquaintances. Esther notices that they perform their duties and carry on their causes noisily and are not very pleasant people. Mr. Quale, who is often present, seems to spend most of his time going on and on about other people’s missions rather than cultivating a passion of his own. Mr. Skimpole has been ill, and they have seen little of him, but he reappears a short time into their stay and tells them that he is in debt again because of his doctor’s fees.
The philanthropists claim to be charitable, but their charity is performative, intended to win themselves praise and to make themselves look good. They do not really care about the causes they support and do not achieve much good for these causes. Mr. Quale is the ultimate representation of this as he hides the fact that he is unproductive by flattering the people around him.
Mr. Skimpole tells them one night that he has been invited to go with them to stay with Mr. Boythorn, and that the man who tried to arrest him at Mr. Jarndyce’s has died. He has left three children orphaned with no one to care for them. Mr. Jarndyce is horrified and rebukes Mr. Skimpole for saying this last thing triumphantly. He wants to visit the man’s lodgings to find out more.
Mr. Skimpole only thinks about himself and believes that the man has been punished for troubling him. Mr. Jarndyce, in contrast, considers the man’s children, who have been left to fend for themselves, and immediately wants to know how he can help them.
The group head down to Coavinses and are informed that the man, Neckett, used to live in Bell Yard. There, an elderly and ill-looking woman greets the group. She gives Esther a key and directs her to the top of the house, which is split into several lodgings. On the stairs, a man stops them and asks if they want Gridley. Alarmed at the man’s threatening appearance, Esther says no and they pass on.
The group visits the dead man’s workplace, the debtor’s prison, to get Neckett’s address, which shows how committed Mr. Jarndyce is to helping the children Neckett left behind. Cities were very cramped during the Industrial Revolution, as many people relocated there to find work. It was common for families to live in a single room in a house or even to share with other families.
Esther unlocks the room at the top and discovers a small boy who cradles a baby in his arms. Esther asks them who has left them here, and they say that they live with their sister Charley, who goes out to work washing clothes. Charley arrives just at this moment; she is a young girl dressed in an adult woman’s clothes which are far too big for her. She takes the baby from her brother in a motherly way and soothes the child immediately. Mr. Jarndyce is horrified and asks Charley how old she is. Charley replies that she is 13 and that she works to support her brother and sister.
Dickens was extremely opposed to child labor and felt that children should be protected from the necessity of having to work or to provide for their families. Although Charley’s clothes are grown up, Dickens highlights the contrast between her youth and the role that she has assumed to highlight how unnatural it is for a child to have to behave like an adult.
Charley explains that their mother died when Emma, the baby, was born. She locks her siblings up while she goes out to work to protect them. Tom, the boy, cuddles his sister and begins to cry. The landlady, Mrs. Blinder, comes upstairs and quietly tells Mr. Jarndyce that she does not charge the children rent, but Mr. Jarndyce says that the situation cannot possibly continue. Mrs. Blinder says that people in the building disliked their father, because he was a debt collector, and says that they would have been kinder to the children if this was not the case.
Mrs. Blinder is kind to the children, but debt collectors were extremely unpopular, especially in poor areas where many people were in debt, and this colors people’s attitude towards the children. Although it is not their fault, they inherit the stigma that their father faced in life and are forced to suffer the consequences of it after his death.
While they talk, the man from the stairs, Gridley, comes in and begins to play with the children. He makes a gruff comment about rich people who come to gawk at the children, but Mr. Jarndyce respectfully tells him that this is not what they are here to do. Gridley apologizes for his bad temper and tells Mr. Jarndyce that he has been embroiled in a Chancery lawsuit which has ruined his life and almost sent him mad—he is “the man from Shropshire.” Mr. Jarndyce explains who he is, and Gridley is amazed that Mr. Jarndyce can be such a mild, good natured man.
Gridley has obviously met philanthropists in the past. Many wealthy people in this era visited poor people in order to develop their sense of sympathy with the poor. This did not provide any practical help to the poor, however, and was insensitive and voyeuristic. Mr. Jarndyce understands Gridley’s suspicion and is not offended by his assumption.
Gridley explains that his lawsuit is about his father’s will and some property that he was left. All the property has been used up to pay legal fees, and the case is still not resolved. Gridley then takes the children down to his room so that they can play, and Mr. Skimpole muses on what these men could have been in a different life. The little group sees Charley off to work and then leaves the house themselves.
Gridley’s case is presented as typical of Chancery suits, which are very expensive but usually yield very little result for the client. Mr. Skimpole’s comment is impractical and ignores the pressing needs of Gridley and the children.