In Great Expectations, Dickens investigates many features of the British legal system, including the relationship of lawyers to their clients, the treatment of convicted criminals, and what happens to those who fall into debt. Dickens has few good words to say about any of these topics and he makes his critical view of them apparent through out the novel. While reading the following article of an actual court case from 1881, I observed how it compares to the fictional situations that Dickens describes.
The following article in the November 18, 1881 issue of The London Times describes a court case in which the plaintiff, a young woman by the name of Hewson, sues her former fiancé, Mr. Truefitt, for damages after he called off their planned wedding. The plaintiff's council, Mr. Seymour, begins by describing Ms. Hewson and her complaint against the defendant. He submits for evidence letters that the Mr. Truefitt had sent to the Ms. Hewson in an attempt to show that the defendant had truly meant to marry the plaintiff. Then, Mr. Seymour explains how, after rescinding his offer off marriage, Mr. Truefitt sent Ms. Hewson a disfigured picture of herself and had mocked her in the bar where she was a barmaid. After Ms. Hewson is called to the stand to attest to these statements, she become faint and leaves the courtroom. Then the defendant's counsel presents Mr. Truefitt's case telling the story of how, after he gambled his money away, fell in love with another woman, and his father told him his disapproved of his fiancé, the defendant was left with no other choice but to cancel the wedding. The article ends with a description of the judge's thoughts and, finally, the verdict.
"Breach of Promise of Marriage"
"Yesterday an action in the Queen's Bench Division for breech of promise of marriage, “Hewson v. Truefitt," in which the breach was admitted by allowing judgment, by default, was heard before Mr. Under-Sheriff Burchell and a special jury at Middlesex Sheriffs' Court to assess the amount of damages to be awarded, the claim being 8,000 pounds.
"Mr. Digby Seymour, Q.C., and Mr. Smalman Smith appeared for the plaintiff, Minnie Hewson; Mr. A. Leslie solicitor, for the defendant, Henry Truefitt.
"The learned counsel (Mr. Digby Seymour), in opening the case, said the plaintiff was a young woman of 22, one of eight children of Mr. Hewson, who was a licensed victualler at King's Lyan, and who had been for some time and was still barmaid at the Gaiety Restaurant in the Strand. The defendant made a proposal of marriage, and was referred to her father, who gave his consent. After a trousseau had been provided out of 100 pounds the defendant gave her, the day of the wedding fixed, and arrangements made as to Messrs. Maples furnishing apartments, the engagement was broken of, on the ground that the father of the defendant objected to the match. The learned counsel read several passage in letters to the young woman by the defendant, in which he addressed her as “My dear little Kitten," with “much love and lots of kisses from your loving Harry." He had given her a ring, She had accompanied him to Brighton and other places, and he always behaved as a gentleman would to his intended wife. The defendant's conduct after the affair was broken off, however, added insult to injury. The plaintiff had given him her photograph and it had been returned to her mutilated to the Gaiety, and addressed to her “Minnie Hewson, Barmaid, Gaiety Bar, Strand." Since then he had been to the restaurant and walked past her tossing up his head. The defense, no doubt, would be impecuniosity after his father's objection, but surely that was no answer to such a case, which seemed to him as one for substantial damages.
"The plaintiff was called and confirmed the statement of her counsel. She became acquainted with defendant at the Gaiety restaurant as one of the customers. When he began to pay her attention he told her he told her who he was and, always behaved as a gentleman. He took a box for her at the Haymarket, and made a proposal of marriage, and she told him to consider what he was doing, as she was only a poor girl. They met in Kensington-gardens the next day, when she told him his father was only a tradesman, keeping a publichouse in the country. He replied that his father was only a tradesman. He wrote to her father, and in the letter, which was read in court, said he wished to marry her, and had 2,000 pounds, which he would settle on her. He also said he had 100 pounds a year as an architect, and was very fond of Minnie. He gave her ten 25 pound-notes and 50 pounds to provide her trousseau, to save her from applying to her father It was arranged that they should be married at King's Lynn, and Mourn. Maples should furnish apartments, as she objected to a house. Nothing was said about his father objecting to the wedding, until she received a letter from the defendant, saying the “governor" had sent him a fearful letter, threatening that if he married he should not have a shilling from him. The best thing, he added, was to consider the engagement at an end, and he would send her a cheque for 100 pounds and never come to Gaiety again. She declined to release him from the engagement, and as to the threat put the matter in other hands, it made, he said in a letter, no difference to him, as he meant to stick to what he had said. On being shown the envelope addressed to her as “Barmaid," with the blotched photograph, the plaintiff said she believed the address was in the defendant's handwriting. On cross-examination, she said she had 10s a week at the Gaiety Restaurant, and admitted that occasionally there was “chaff" at the place, and that the language was not very refined.
"Mr. Hewson, the plaintiff's father, said that since the engagement was broken off his daughter had suffered in health. After she had given evidence she was taken out of court in a fainting condition.
"Mr. Leslie addressed the Court for the defendant, urging that he was without means and could not employ counsel. He would pit him into the box to show that such was the case.
"The defendant was then sworn. He denied that he had sent the mutilated photograph, or had addressed the letter to the plaintiff as “barmaid." He should have married her but for the inference of his father. His father told him that if he married her he would not hear from him again. Besides, he had seen a lady he liked better; in fact, he had fallen in love with her and had changed his mind. The defendant went on to say that he had squandered the 2,000 pounds, and his things were detained for 4 pounds. He had lost money by betting and had lived fast. He spoke to his father, but not to his other relations. He had no assistance from him and no means.
"In answer to the COURT, the defendant said he was living with the other lady he had fallen in love with as his wife.
"Mr. Leslie referred to some of the letters of the young woman which were not very refined in their terms. She addressed him as “Dear Truffles," and began, “How are you, old boy; is your poor leg better?" alluding to an accident he had met with. In his letter he styled her “his darling," and she reciprocated by calling the defendant “My darling Harry" and her “own darling Harry," and in another letter indulged in a remark which, it was said, was from the Forty Thieves burlesque.
"Mr. Under-Sheriff Burchell, in placing the case before the jury, said that of the many cases of the kind he had heard since he had presided the present was the most difficult one. There were some circumstances which required their serious consideration. The plaintiff was the daughter of a man in humble circumstances, and the defendant the son of a well-known performer in Bond-street and himself an architect. The defendant had held out to her a prize which was one to her advantage, and to break off such an engagement gave her a claim to reasonable compensation. But what a character the defendant now gave himself! A more melancholy exhibition he never had witnessed. By his own account he had spent 2,000 pounds in a short time, and was not on speaking terms with his family except his father. He had been engaged in horseracing and had otherwise squandered his money, and was, he admitted, living with another woman. Was the statement characteristic of him, or was it assumed? Then the question arose, What had the plaintiff lost by not marrying such a person? Was he the poverty-stricken, worthless fellow he had described himself, or was the character put on for the present decision? The question was one of damages only, and the circumstances were most difficult for the jury to decide upon. He reminded the jury that the plaintiff had already received 100 pounds from her trousseau.
"The Jury, after consulting for more than half an hour, asked if a verdict of ten would be accepted, and the defendant's solicitor objected. After another half-hour's consultation the jury returned into the court with a verdict of 150 pounds damages.
"The learned Under-Sheriff certified for a special jury.
During our discussion of Great Expectations, we spoke at length of the importance in nineteenth-century England of one's character and appearance while facing a judge or jury. Magwitch highlights this importance during the story of his time with Compeyson. He recalls the scene as the two are tried for using stolen currency,
"When we was put in the dock, I noticed first of all what a gentleman Compeyson look, wi' his curly hair and his black clothes and his white pocket-handkercher, and what a common sort of wretch I looked. When the prosecution opened and the evidence was put short, aforehand, I noticed how heavy it all wore on me, and how light on him. When evidence was giv in the box, I noticed how it was always me that had come for'ard, and could be swore to, how it was always e that had seemed to work the thing and get the profit. But, when the defence come on, then I see the plan plainer; for, says the counselor for Compeyson, 'My lord and gentlemen, here you has afore you, side by side, two persons as your eyes can separate wide; one, the younger, well brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the elder, ill brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the younger, seldom if ever seen in these her transactions, and only suspected; t'other, the elder, always been in 'em and always wi' his guilt brought home. Can you doubt, if there is but on in it, which is the one, and, if there is two in it, which is much the worst one? And such-like. And when it come to character, warn't it Compeyson as had been to school, and warn't it his schoolfellows as was in this position and in that, and warn't it him as had been know'd by witnesses in such clubs and societies, and not to his disadvantage?... And when it come to speech-making, warn't it Compeyson as could speak to 'em wi' his face dropping every now and then into his white pocket-handkercher-ah! And wi' verses in his speech, too-and warn't it me as could only say, 'Gentlemen, this man at my side is a most precious rascal'? And when the verdict come. Warn't it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and warn't it me as got never a word but Guilty? And when I says to Compeyson, 'Once out of this court, I'll smash that face o' yourn?' ain't it Compeyson as prays the Judge to be protected, and gets two turnkeys stood betwixt us? And when we're sentenced, ain't it his as gets seven year, and me fourteenÉ" [346-347]
Compeyson does little to veil his attempt to look the gentleman and compare himself favorable against Magwitch in hopes that the judge will take pity on him. And, though the scheme seems completely obvious, it works and Compeyson receives the far lighter sentence the Magwitch. Dickens makes the English courtroom look a sort of stage upon which the accused acts out the role of gentlemen in the hopes that, due to his or her great character, they will be acquitted of their crime.
In the real court case quoted above, the defendant's character also plays a prominent role in the outcome of the case. But instead of playing the virtuous role, the defendant here makes himself out to be a gambler and a cheat in the hopes that the jury will think the plaintiff better off without him and forego the awarding of damages for the severed engagement:
Mr. Under-Sheriff Burchell, in placing the case before the jury, said that of the many cases of the kind he had heard since he had presided the present was the most difficult one. There were some circumstances which required their serious consideration. The plaintiff was the daughter of a man in humble circumstances, and the defendant the son of a well-known performer in Bond-street and himself an architect. The defendant had held out to her a prize which was one to her advantage, and to break off such an engagement gave her a claim to reasonable compensation. But what a character the defendant now gave himself! A more melancholy exhibition he never had witnessed. By his own account he had spent 2,000 pounds in a short time, and was not on speaking terms with his family except his father. He had been engaged in horseracing and had otherwise squandered his money, and was, he admitted, living with another woman. Was the statement characteristic of him, or was it assumed? Then the question arose, What had the plaintiff lost by not marrying such a person? Was he the poverty-stricken, worthless fellow he had described himself, or was the character put on for the present decision? The question was one of damages only, and the circumstances were most difficult for the jury to decide upon.
In conclusion, we see in reality, the same observations that Dickens makes in his novel. Finding historical context and examples of the content that authors include in their works allow us to judge the accuracy of the observations that they make. Fiction is obviously not reality, yet some fictional stories are closer to reality than others and the situations that they present are actually taken almost directly from real world events. Here we compare Dickens' fictional courtroom to its real counter part and find that strong similarities exist.
"Breach of Promise of Marriage." The Times London. November 18, 1881.
Last modified 17 May 2009