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Bardell v. Pickwick   By: (1834-1925)

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[Picture: Mr. Justice Gaselee (original of Mr. Justice Stareleigh), sketched by the Editor from the family portrait in the possession of H. Gaselee, Esq.]

Bardell v. Pickwick

The Trial for Breach of Promise of Marriage held at the Guildhall Sittings, on April 1, 1828, before Mr. Justice Stareleigh and a Special Jury of the City of London.

Edited with Notes and Commentaries by PERCY FITZGERALD, M.A., F.S.A.

Barrister at Law ; and sometime Crown Prosecutor on the North East Circuit ( Ireland ).




There are few things more familiar or more interesting to the public than this cause celebre . It is better known than many a real case: for every one knows the Judge, his name and remarks also the Counsel (notably Sergeant Buzfuz) the witnessess, and what they said and of course all about the Plaintiff and the famous Defendant. It was tried over seventy years ago at "the Guildhall Settens," and was described by Boz some sixty three years ago. Yet every detail seems fresh and as fresh as ever. It is astonishing that a purely technical sketch like this, whose humours might be relished only by such specialists as Barristers and Attorneys, who would understand the jokes levelled at the Profession, should be so well understanded of the people. All see the point of the legal satire. It is a quite a prodigy. Boz had the art, in an extraordinary degree, of thus vividly commending trade processes, professional allusions, and methods to outsiders, and making them humourous and intelligible. Witness Jackson, when he came to "serve" Mr. Pickwick and friends with the subpoenas . It is a dry, business like process, but how racy Boz made it. A joke sparkles in every line.

This trial for Breach has been debated over and over again among lawyers and barristers, some contending that "there was no evidence at all to go to the Jury" as to a promise; others insisting on mis direction, and that there was evidence that ought not to have been admitted. The law has since been changed, and by later Acts both Mrs. Bardell and Mr. Pickwick would have been allowed to tell their stories and to have been cross examined. Mrs. Bardell was almost justified in supposing that Mr. Pickwick was offering his hand when he was merely speaking of engaging a man servant. But then the whole would have been spoiled. Under the present systems, this would all have come out. Mr. Pickwick, when it came to his turn, would have explained what his proceedings meant. It is a most perfect and vivid satire on the hackneyed methods of the lawyers when dealing with the witnesses. Nothing can be more natural or more graphic. It is maintained to something between the level of comedy and farce: nor is there the least exaggeration. It applies now as it did then, though not to the same topics. A hectoring, bullying Counsel, threatening and cruel, would interfere with the pleasant tone of the play; but it is all the same conveyed. There is a likeness to Bardell v. Pickwick in another Burlesque case, tried in our day, the well known "Trial by Jury," the joint work of Mr. Gilbert and the late Sir Arthur Sullivan. The general tone of both is the same and in the modern work there is a general Pickwickian flavour. Sir Arthur's music, too, is highly "Pickwickian," and the joint effort of the two humorists is infinitely diverting. The Judge is something of a Stareleigh.

The truth is that Boz, the engenderer of these facetiae, apart from his literary gift, was one of the most brilliant, capable young fellows of his generation... Continue reading book >>

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