“The Best Sort of Professional Business”

Doctors Commons in 1808. From Thomas Rowlandson et al., “Microcosm of London” (1808). SOURCE: Wikipedia

Yesterevening I met another person who said that David Copperfield was his favorite Dickens novel. Last Friday, a friend had told me as much (again). I was blown away by A Tale of Two Cities, which I consider to be the best tragedy I’ve read in English after the Elizabethan Age, and not only that, but a tragedy which exploded my notions that Christianity had made tragedy impossible as an art form. In fact, it was Dickens, a Christian, who had pointed the way to a Christian tragedy amid a world which was already giving up on Christianity, and our post-Christian society which has consistently failed to produce true tragedy in its drama for a century now.

The movie Stranger than Fiction is a good example of this phenomenon. The movie was a true tragedy, and then the lights came back on and it turned into yet another one of these saccharine Saf-T-Pops which my son has come to expect as his due from the barber after a haircut.

But this is a digression.


I asked Mr. Spenlow what he considered the best sort of professional business? He replied, that a good case of a disputed will, where there was a neat little estate of thirty or forty thousand pounds, was, perhaps, the best of all. In such a case, he said, not only were there very pretty pickings, in the way of arguments at every stage of the proceedings, and mountains upon mountains of evidence on interrogatory and counterinterrogatory (to say nothing of an appeal lying, first to the Delegates, and then to the Lords), but, the costs being pretty sure to come out of the estate at last, both sides went at it in a lively and spirited manner, and expense was no consideration.

Then, he launched into a general eulogium on the Commons. What was to be particularly admired (he said) in the Commons, was its compactness. It was the most conveniently organized place in the world. It was the complete idea of snugness. It lay in a nutshell. For example: You brought a divorce case, or a restitution case, into the Consistory. Very good. You tried it in the Consistory. You made a quiet little round game of it, among a family group, and you played it out at leisure. Suppose you were not satisfied with the Consistory, what did you do then? Why, you went into the Arches.

What was the Arches? The same court, in the same room, with the same bar, and the same practitioners, but another judge, for there the Consistory judge could plead any court-day as an advocate. Well, you played our round game out again. Still you were not satisfied. Very good. What did you do then? Why, you went to the Delegates.

Who were the Delegates? Why, the Ecclesiastical Delegates were the advocates without any business, who had looked on at the round game when it was playing in both courts, and had seen the cards shuffled, and cut, and played, and had talked to all the players about it, and now came fresh, as judges, to settle the matter to the satisfaction of everybody!

Discontented people might talk of corruption in the Commons, closeness in the Commons, and the necessity of reforming the Commons, said Mr. Spenlow solemnly, in conclusion; but when the price of wheat per bushel had been highest, the Commons had been busiest; and a man might lay his hand upon his heart, and say this to the whole world,—“Touch the Commons, and down comes the country!”

I listened to all this with attention; and though, I must say, I had my doubts whether the country was quite as much obliged to the Commons as Mr. Spenlow made out, I respectfully deferred to his opinion. That about the price of wheat per bushel, I modestly felt was too much for my strength, and quite settled the question. I have never, to this hour, got the better of that bushel of wheat.


Imagine with what happy satisfaction Mr. Spenlow would have beheld the wonderfully-developed machine of Washington, D.C.!

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for not being a lawyer.

Doctors Commons today. Photograph credit: “Oxyman”, Wikipedia User.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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