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Jarndyce v Jarndyce concerns the fate of a large inheritance. The case has dragged on for many generations prior to the action of the novel, so that, by the time it is resolved late in the narrative, legal costs have devoured the entire estate. Dickens used it to attack the chancery court system as being near totally worthless, as any "honourable man among its [Chancery's] practitioners" says, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!"
All of the main characters are connected in some way through the case, though the actual legal proceedings appear only as background plot. Aside from the lawyers who sue and defend the case every character who directly associates with it suffers some tragic fate. Miss Flite has long since lost her mind when the narrative begins, and Richard Carstone dies trying to win the inheritance for himself after spending much of his life so distracted by the notion of it that he cannot commit to any other pursuit. John Jarndyce, by contrast, finds the entire process tiresome and tries to have as little to do with it as he possibly can, one of many examples of the character's wise and self-effacing demeanour.
Dickens introduces the case in the first chapter in terms which make the futility of the matter clear:
Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless.
The ending of the case reduces the whole court to fits of laughter. From Chapter 65:
We asked a gentleman by us, if he knew what cause was on? He told us Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We asked him if he knew what was doing in it? He said, really no he did not, nobody ever did; but as well as he could make out, it was over. Over for the day? we asked him. No, he said; over for good.
Over for good!
When we heard this unaccountable answer, we looked at one another quite lost in amazement. Could it be possible that the Will had set things right at last, and that Richard and Ada were going to be rich? It seemed too good to be true. Alas, it was!
Our suspense was short; for a break up soon took place in the crowd, and the people came streaming out looking flushed and hot, and bringing a quantity of bad air with them. Still they were all exceedingly amused, and were more like people coming out from a Farce or a Juggler than from a court of Justice. We stood aside, watching for any countenance we knew; and presently great bundles of paper began to be carried out—bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes, which the bearers staggered under, and threw down for the time being, anyhow, on the Hall pavement, while they went back to bring out more. Even these clerks were laughing. We glanced at the papers, and seeing Jarndyce and Jarndyce everywhere, asked an official-looking person who was standing in the midst of them, whether the cause was over. "Yes," he said; "it was all up with it at last!" and burst out laughing too. ...
"Mr. Kenge," said Allan, appearing enlightened all in a moment. "Excuse me, our time presses. Do I understand that the whole estate is found to have been absorbed in costs?"
"Hem! I believe so," returned Mr. Kenge. "Mr. Vholes, what do you say?"
"I believe so," said Mr. Vholes.
"And that thus the suit lapses and melts away?"
"Probably," returned Mr. Kenge. "Mr. Vholes?"
"Probably," said Mr. Vholes.
Jarndyce v Jarndyce is a byword for an interminable legal proceeding. For example, Lord Denning, when referring to Midland Bank v Green, said "The Green saga rivals in time and money the story of Jarndyce v Jarndyce."
Some commentators have theorized that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case was inspired by the dispute over the will of the father-in-law of eighteenth-century writer Charlotte Smith; the Chancery case took thirty-six years to get through the court.
On 8 December 2012, the BBC QI series claimed that Jarndyce vs Jarndyce was based on the case of William Jennens from Acton, Suffolk and known as the Acton Miser. Jennens vs Jennens commenced in 1798 and was abandoned in 1915 (117 years later) when the legal fees had exhausted the Jennens estate of funds. Thus it had been ongoing for 55 years when Bleak House was published.
As of Jan 25, 2013, $755 million has been spent on dividing up the Nortel Networks estate worth an estimated 9 billion dollars with no resolution.
Willful Behavior by Donna Leon, p. 308, Penguin Books 2010