Chapter XXVIII, The Ironmaster, of Bleak House finds us in the company of Sir Leicester Dedlock, the gouty and unrepentantly reactionary worthy who forms one party to the interminable Chancery suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. His character, and that of his wife, Lady Dedlock, are examples of Dicken’s unsurpassed talent for skewering social pretension, and perhaps are indicative of his feelings about British class society. I wonder how this chapter was received by the public, popular as the book was. Did the power-elite grumble about it as another case of some uppity middle-class gnat taking unfair potshots at one of their members? Was it seen as inconsequential as todays sitcoms making fun of “rich people” sometimes are?
Sir Leicester learns that a tradesman, dealer in iron, wishes to speak to him about his son’s desire to become engaged to one of the household servants. It seems that the man’s son also is standing for a seat in the House of Commons. He and his poor relation, Volumnia, contemplate the degradation of society:
“And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions,” says Sir Leicester with stately gloom; “that I have been informed, by Mr Tulkinghorn, that Mrs Rouncewell’s son has been invited to go into Parliament.”
Miss Volumnia utters a little sharp scream.
“Yes, indeed,” repeats Sir Leicester. “Into Parliament.”
“I never heard of such a thing! Good gracious, what is the man?” exclaims Volumnia.
“He is called, I believe — an — Ironmaster.” Sir Leicester says it slowly, and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a Lead-mistress; or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal.
Volumnia utters another little scream.
That’s all in good fun, but this next bit is shaper. Sir Leicester is beset by all sorts of family parasites – even the richest of the rich have poor relations – and they must be provided for, but it is getting harder to do it. The old landed aristocracy making way for the crass commercial elite, and upper-class entitlement is running into some roadblocks:
In any country in a wholesome state, Volumnia would be a clear case for the pension list. Efforts have been made to get her on it; and when William Buffy came in, it was fully expected that her name would be put down for a couple of hundred a-year. But William Buffy somehow discovered, contrary to all expectation, that these were not the times when it could be done; and this was the first clear indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.
There is likewise the Honourable Bob Stables, who can make warm mashes with the skill of a veterinary surgeon, and is a better shot than most gamekeepers. He has been for some time particularly desirous to serve his country in a post of good emoluments, unaccompanied by any trouble or responsibility. In a well regulated body politic, this natural desire on the part of a spirited young gentleman so highly connected, would be speedily recognized; but somehow William Buffy found when he came in, that these were not times in which he could manage that little matter, either; and this was the second indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.
When Sir Leicester does meet with the Ironmaster, we see that he is a brisk man of business, with no nonsense or pretension, who is careful to give the lords what they consider their due respect, although he certainly is clipped about it. Sir Leicester, for his part, can’t get over the fact that he must actually speak with this man who does not make it obvious at every moment that he considers himself a miserable inferior to his gracious lord of the manor.