Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Trust and Conscience in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Trust and Conscience in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend

Article excerpt

Most readers presume that the case of "Jarndyce v. Jarndyce" revolves around a will, but as John Jarndyce tells Esther Summerson in chapter eight of Bleak House, the question which Chancery cannot resolve is that of "'how the trusts under [a] Will are to be administered'" [my emphasis] (118; ch. 8). The only reason that the case has come before the court responsible for administering Equity, rather than the common law courts, is that it involves not simply a will or testamentary devise, but a bequest "in trust," over which "the Court of Chancery has exclusive jurisdiction, as that court alone can enforce the trust" (Spence 19). Instead of conferring legal title to his property directly on the heirs, the testator Jarndyce appoints trustees to hold the legal title and manage the trust property on behalf of the equitable title-holders (beneficiaries). However, the trustees of the Jarndyce fortune never appear in the text, and in their absence, Chancery has stepped in to act as a trustee by default in keeping with its own maxim that "Equity will not allow a trust to fail for want of a trustee."

Bleak House is as much a novel about trust as it is a novel about law. "Trust" is essentially a term of morality, and like "conscience," it is "a vague but powerful concept of justice and natural law" which found a place in the lexicon of Equity (Petch 1997a, 123), the branch of law that expanded legal discourse into the broader arena of morality and casuistry. In Equity doctrine, trust refers to both an interest in property (legal or equitable) and a relationship between two persons, the trustee and the beneficiary. While at common law the beneficiary has limited remedies to ensure that the trustee holds property on behalf of the former, the principle of Equity is that it would be unconscionable for the trustee, who has undertaken to hold property for another's benefit to hold it for his personal benefit. As Lord Hardwicke stated in Ayliffe v. Murray (1740), the trust was "a burden upon the honour and conscience of the person intrusted, and [was] not [to be] undertaken upon mercenary views." (1) By focusing on the notions of honor and conscience, Lord Hardwicke related breach of trust not to illegal conduct, but to the breaking of a kind of gentleman's agreement, a contract with no binding legal force, but which Equity nevertheless recognized as binding on the conscience of the trustee.

While Equity seems to align law more closely with morality, the failure of Chancery to administer the Jarndyce trusts suggests that the institutionalization of moral principles leads only to their ineffectiveness. As Kieran Dolin suggests, Bleak House creates a division between "two senses of equity, the ideal and the institutional" (Dolin 78). Despite his enmity towards "institutional" equity as represented by Chancery, Dickens remains committed "to the ideal of equity" (Dolin 80), which is represented by individuals whose behavior towards others exemplifies qualities of trust and trustworthiness. Whereas the idea of trust as property and commodity dominates in Chancery, the idea of trust as personal relationship is the dominant concern of Jarndyce in Bleak House. Unlike the Lord Chancellor, Jarndyce seeks to be a personal, not just a legal, guardian to Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. In contrast to the solicitor Vholes, he values Richard and Ada, not because of their interests in the Chancery suit, but because he wants to sever their ties with those interests. While the kindly Jarndyce is a model of benevolent guardianship, it is Esther Summerson who truly fulfils the role of trustee of Richard Carstone. The trust of Richard created by Esther and Allan centers on personal companionship, and counters not only the impersonal administrative machinery of Chancery, but also the unscrupulous, legal trusts which Vholes and Tulkinghorn use to requisition Richard's interests and Lady Dedlock's secret respectively. The lawyers subvert the fundamental nature of the trust--the exercise of power only for the benefit of others, not for mercenary reasons or personal profit. …

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