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Bleak and bleaker.

I recently read The Quincunx, a novel I'd been given some years ago. A quincunx is a pattern of five objects in which four occupy the corners of an imaginary square and the fifth is placed in the centre. The novel was published in 1989 and was a resounding success. It was Charles Palliser's first novel, taking him a dozen years to research and write. The painstaking care with which it was written is evident on every page. The lengthy novel is an entrancing recreation of a Victorian novel. The reviewers make frequent comparisons with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Indeed, according to the Toronto Star, The Quincunx is a marvellous book, far out-Dickensing Dickens and out-Collinsing Collins in its turns and twists.

I think that The Quincunx bears interesting comparisons with Dickens' Bleak House in its treatment of the law. Both novels deal with a Chancery suit in which major characters may or may not be heirs to what seems an incredible fortune.

Dickens provides an unforgettable depiction of the Court of Chancery with its glacial, soul-destroying procedures. He opens Bleak House, set in the 1820s, with a famous description of London on a muddy and foggy day in November. Here is part of that opening:

"Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day, in the sight of heaven and earth. On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here--as here he is--with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog."

The Quincunx also begins with a description of lawyers at work. A meeting has been arranged between the two chief branches of the law--Law and Equity. The representative of Law has been requested to attend at Equity's law office in order to discuss the existence of a document that will damage the interests of Equity's client. Equity offers some money to Law in return for some assistance in the Chancery lawsuit. The chapter ends as follows:

"Law rises with his eye on the thing on the table. Seeing this Equity carelessly pushes it towards him and he slips it into his pocket. Just as the door opens and the clerk appears again, Law hesitantly reaches out his hand towards his host. He, however, appears not to notice the gesture and Law hastily returns his hand to his pocket."

In both novels, the law is seen to be a dangerous force. In Bleak House, Chancery suits are portrayed as interminable affairs which lure otherwise good and intelligent individuals into the proceedings. They thereafter lose all perspective and fall feverishly into an expectant state. However, their hopes are inevitably dashed as the lawsuit they are involved in grinds on for an outrageous length of time. Miss Flyte is symbolic of all Chancery suitors. She religiously attends court every day and has done so for years. She waits in vain for a judgment in her favour that never comes. She keeps a number of birds in a cage, which represent the imprisonment of hope and joy. She plans to release them when her suit is ended.

In the opening chapter of Bleak House, the narrator tells us of the most complex and unyielding of Chancery suits, the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. In the course of the novel one of the main characters, Richard Carstone, becomes a restless suitor, unable to commit himself to the study of any profession, given his hopes for a large inheritance in the Jarndyce lawsuit. He does this against the advice of his wise guardian John Jarndyce.

In The Quincunx, set in the early years of the nineteenth century, the world of Chancery is if anything more frightening than it is in Bleak House. John Mellamphy (or is it Clothier? Or maybe Huffam?), the protagonist, stands to inherit a great estate and sizeable fortune if a suppressed will can be located. While this has the potential to lift him out of his impoverished state, it also represents great danger. John becomes aware that he has enemies in the family who would go to great lengths to prevent him from receiving the inheritance. They would even attempt to murder him if they knew he was alive and knew where in the teeming metropolis of London he resided.

At one point John is taken in by apparent strangers on a cold winter's night while he is near death. The Porteous family nurses him back to health. He gradually realizes that the Porteous' are actually relatives of his who stand to be disinherited if his claim to the estate succeeds. He is made a ward of Chancery. Our young hero is told that this is the most effective way for him to be protected from the machinations of other parties. However, John soon suspects that the Porteous' are trying to poison his food. The Porteous' then have John declared insane and sent to an asylum, run by the diabolical Dr Alabaster. His life in danger, he escapes from the asylum and continues his quest to obtain the purloined will.

In both Bleak House and The Quincunx, lawyers are generally but not exclusively portrayed as selfish, greedy, and ruthless. They prey on the expectations of Chancery suitors. In Bleak House, numerous lawyers, clerks, and agents hover on the edges of the great Jarndyce lawsuit. They are parasitical and devious. At the heart of the dark legal world of Bleak House sits Mr Tulkinghorn, a solicitor of the Court of Chancery and legal advisor to the wealthy Sir Leicester Dedlock. He begins to suspect that Lady Honoria Dedlock has a questionable past and begins to ferret out one secret after another. He manipulates various individuals in his quest for information.

In The Quincunx, a diabolical lawyer named Sancious preys upon John and his mother Mary. He advises Mary to invest her life savings in a dubious housing project. She does so and soon loses the entire amount, plunging her and John into utter poverty. Palliser does a superb job of narrating the desperate struggle for survival of John and Mary in the mean streets of London. Even in the back streets of London John is not safe from Sancious. Sancious and his new bride stand to inherit the great Huffam estate if John dies. Therefore the attorney hires Black Barney Digweed to murder John.

Another lawyer in The Quincunx who plays a major role in the plot is Henry Bellringer. Bellringer appears to befriend John and offers him a refuge when he is homeless. John trusts Bellringer with the will that he has tracked down. In fact the lawyer copies the will while John sleeps and keeps the original for his own complicated reasons.

In both Bleak House and The Quincunx, the law is depicted as a remote institution. Lawyers are powerful and most work against the interests of the good characters in each novel. Bleak House is a dark novel in which a number of characters are ruined by their involvement in a Chancery lawsuit. However, it is possible to refuse to place oneself at the mercy of Chancery. Those characters who listen to John Jarndyce's advice and ignore the lawsuit find contentment at the end of the novel.

The Quincunx is in fact a more desolate tale than is Bleak House. John's enemies threaten to murder him to prevent him from claiming his inheritance. By the end of the novel John is poised to claim his inheritance but the cost of his quest is shown to be immense. He claims it alone; there is no community of kindred spirits that he may turn to.

Robert Normey is a lawyer with the Constitutional and Aboriginal Law Branch of Alberta Justice in Edmonton, Alberta.
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Title Annotation:Law and Literature; comparing ''Bleak House'' and ''The Quincunx''
Author:Normey, Robert
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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