The 19th century was a period in which the strict class systems of the previous centuries began to break down. Increased social mobility meant that middle- and lower-class men could, for the first time, improve their circumstances and become wealthy by finding work in the new jobs and industries that became available during the Industrial Revolution. This presented a challenge to the upper classes, who had inherited and maintained their wealth across several generations and who now began to see their dynasties collapse. In Bleak House, Dickens presents people of different classes and professions and demonstrates the way in which their fates intertwine. By including characters from all walks of life, Dickens suggests that social mobility leads to a fairer and more just society, one in which not only the needs of the rich are met, and opportunities for prosperity exist for people from different classes.
Dickens suggests that the upper classes are archaic and that they are no longer relevant in 19th-century society. In Bleak House, the prestigious and ancient Dedlock family represents the upper crust of society. Sir Leicester Dedlock is the current representative of the Dedlock fortune and the husband of Lady Dedlock. Sir Leicester Dedlock is highly conservative, dislikes social change, and believes that ancient British institutions (such as the aristocracy and the Chancery courts) are essential and fundamental to the successful running of the country. Although Sir Leicester is a kindhearted old gentleman, Dickens satirizes Sir Leicester’s absolute faith in the British government and dismisses the British political system (which Sir Leicester avidly follows in the newspaper reports on the antics of Lord Doodle, Moodle, and Foodle) as silly and unproductive. By satirizing the British establishment in this way, Dickens suggests that the current politicians do no good other than to protect those who are already wealthy and prosperous (like Sir Leicester), and that it doesn’t matter which government is in power because, ultimately, they all have this same end in mind. Dickens further supports these impressions with the descriptions of the Dedlock cousins who come to stay with Sir Leicester. These cousins are elderly, socially irrelevant, and infirm. One cousin, Volumnia Dedlock, paints her face and dresses like a young girl, but her age shows through the makeup, and she is only well-known in social circles that have nothing to do with contemporary London life. Dickens implies that the cousins are relics of a degenerating noble class that must make way for new societal developments.
Even in the great Dedlock household, members of lower social classes have begun to infiltrate and play an important role. Sir Leicester Dedlock has married Lady Dedlock, a woman who is not of noble birth but who, through determination and social poise, has “floated” into the upper classes. Sir Leicester married her for love, which suggests that even the aristocracy is not immune to the social changes that are afoot. It is Sir Leicester’s attachment to Lady Dedlock that finally brings down the Dedlock dynasty, when it is discovered that Lady Dedlock has an illegitimate child, whom she gave birth to before she was married to Sir Leicester. This child, Esther Summerson, has been raised in secret by Lady Dedlock’s sister. Although Sir Leicester forgives Lady Dedlock, she runs away when her secret is discovered and dies of exposure in the snow, hidden among the London streets. As the couple have no children together, Lady Dedlock’s death means that Sir Leicester’s lineage will not be continued. Although this instance of social mobility ends tragically, with Lady Dedlock’s death, her presence has a positive influence and acts as a catalyst for the collapse of the Dedlock line. This suggests that greater social mobility and marriage between different classes will ultimately topple the old and idle social elite in Britain, something that Dickens feels is long overdue.
However, although lineage and inherited wealth primarily benefits the upper classes in Dickens’ society, it is still important to members of lower classes throughout the novel. Although Lady Dedlock has no children with Sir Leicester, her lineage continues with Esther Summerson, who marries a surgeon, Mr. Woodcourt, at the end of the novel. Although Mr. Woodcourt is from a middle-class background, his mother, Mrs. Woodcourt, is extremely proud of her Welsh lineage and even feels, at first, that Esther is not good enough to marry into this line. This suggests that, despite increased social mobility, people are still preoccupied with names and titles, and that the middle classes seek to emulate the aristocracy.
Social mobility, however, gives people from different classes an opportunity to provide for their families without relying on the inheritance of wealth. Mr. Rouncewell, for example, the son of Sir Leicester’s housekeeper, goes into the iron industry, rather than taking a job as Sir Leicester servants. Although he is cut off from the powerful Dedlock family, who have provided jobs for the Rouncewells’ for generations, Mr. Rouncewell is able to provide for his family’s future because of his success and the wealth he acquires for himself. This suggests that it is not only the wealthy who wish to provide for their families after their death. Lineage also provides hope for the future, as in the case of Ada and Richard Carstone, two of Esther’s companions. When Richard dies shortly after his marriage to Ada, Ada sustains her hope for the future through their child.
Although Dickens is in favor of social mobility, he doesn’t advocate for the total eradication of the class system—this would be unrealistic, because people will always try to improve their social status. Instead, Dickens suggests that the old class system, in which wealth was passed down only through powerful family lines and was not accessible to the lower classes, is rightfully in decline, and that greater social mobility will allow more people to build wealth and prestige for themselves through industry, regardless of their birth.
Social Mobility, Class, and Lineage ThemeTracker
Social Mobility, Class, and Lineage Quotes in Bleak House
This is the Court of Chancery; which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire; which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse, and its dead in every churchyard; which has its ruined suitor, with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress, borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance; […] there is not an honorable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!’
Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. He would on the whole admit Nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park-fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families.
A whisper still goes about, that she had not even family; howbeit, Sir Leicester had so much family that perhaps he had enough, and could dispense with any more. But she had beauty, pride, ambition, insolent resolve, and sense enough to portion out a legion of fine ladies. Wealth and station, added to these, soon floated her upward; and for years, now, my Lady Dedlock has been at the center of the fashionable intelligence.
‘Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.’
‘We are never to get out of Chancery! We have come by another way to our place of meeting yesterday, and—by the Great Seal, here’s the old lady again!’
A little way within the shop-door, lay heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls, and discolored and dog’s-eared law- papers […] One had only to fancy, as Richard whispered to Ada and me while we all stood looking in, that yonder bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean, were the bones of clients, to make the picture complete.
She partly drew aside the curtain of the long low garret-window, and called our attention to a number of bird-cages hanging there: some containing several birds. There were larks, linnets, and goldfinches—I should think at least twenty. ‘I began to keep the little creatures,’ she said, ‘with an object that the wards will readily comprehend. With the intention of restoring them to liberty. When my judgment should be given. Ye-es! They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again.’
‘How much of this indecision of character,’ Mr Jarndyce said to me, ‘is chargeable on that incomprehensible heap of uncertainty and procrastination on which he has been thrown from his birth, I don’t pretend to say; but that Chancery, among its other sins, is responsible for some of it, I can plainly see. It has engendered or confirmed in him a habit of putting off—and trusting to this, that, and the other chance, without knowing what chance—and dismissing everything as unsettled, uncertain, and confused.’
What connection can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard step? What connection can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! Jo sweeps his crossing all day long, unconscious of the link, if any link there be. He sums up his mental condition, when asked a question, by replying that he ‘don’t know nothink.’
Mr Guppy suspects everybody who enters on the occupation of a stool in Kenge and Carboy’s office, of entertaining, as a matter of course, sinister designs upon him. He is clear that every such person wants to depose him. If he be ever asked how, why, when, or wherefore, he shuts up one eye and shakes his head. On the strength of these profound views, he in the most ingenious manner takes infinite pains to counterplot, when there is no plot; and plays the deepest games of chess without any adversary.
Service, however (with a few limited reservations; genteel but not profitable), they may not do, being of the Dedlock dignity. So they visit their richer cousins, and get into debt when they can, and live but shabbily when they can’t, and find—the women no husbands, and the men no wives—and ride in borrowed carriages, and sit at feasts that are never of their own making, and so go through high life. The rich family sum has been divided by so many figures, and they are the something over that nobody knows what to do with.
Even in the thinking of her endurance, she drew her habitual air of proud indifference about her like a veil, though she soon cast it off again.
‘I must keep this secret, if by any means it can be kept, not wholly for myself. I have a husband, wretched and dishonoring creature that I am!’
‘I dread one person very much.’
‘Not a friend. One who is too passionless to be either. He is Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer; mechanically faithful without attachment, and very jealous of the profit, privilege, and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses.’
‘I am resolved. I have long outbidden folly with folly, pride with pride, scorn with scorn, insolence with insolence, and have outlived many vanities with many more. I will outlive this danger, and outdie it, if I can. It has closed around me, almost as awfully as if these woods of Chesney Wold had closed around the house; but my course through it is the same. I have but one: I can have but one.’
The way was paved here, like the terrace overhead, and my footsteps from being noiseless made an echoing sound upon the flags. Stopping to look at nothing, but seeing all I did see as I went, I was passing quickly on, and in a few moments should have passed the lighted window, when my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost’s Walk; that it was I, who was to bring calamity upon the stately house; and that my warning feet were haunting it even then.
I never shall forget those two seated side by side in the lantern’s light; Richard, all flush and fire and laughter, with the reins in his hand; Mr. Vholes, quite still, black-gloved, and buttoned up, looking at him as if he were looking at his prey and charming it. I have before me the whole picture of the warm dark night, the summer lightning, the dusty track of road closed in by hedgerows and high trees, the gaunt pale horse with his ears pricked up, and the driving away at speed to Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous make the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.
Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet, and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms.