Charles Dickens' Lawyer

We are barely past the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, and already the writers on Dickens are jostling to identify that new angle, and those with a meaty work coming out during 2012 are wondering if the nation will be exhausted, or overtaken by the Olympics, by the time their baby is born.

From where might the new angle come? “Inside leg measurements of Charles Dickens and of his literary contemporaries”? A long-forgotten competitor to “Household Words”, containing a claim that “Charles Dickens ate my hamster”? (See The Sun of 13th April 1986).

This blogpost is going to join the carnival by spotlighting Frederic Ouvry, or “My Dear Ouvry”, as Dickens addressed him in letters, including in one of 29th July 1863 where Dickens invited Ouvry to stay at his house near Rochester, Gad’s Hill Place, and in a tone exemplifying Dickens’ hospitality, includes the words “If you will come, I know that I can give you the heartiest welcome in Kent...”.

However, Mr Ouvry had weightier things to do in his relationship with Dickens than to avail himself of his client’s hospitality. Most notably, Ouvry acted for Dickens in the drawing up of the deed of separation that would estrange the author from his wife, Catherine.

Writings on Dickens as living in this period indicate that he browbeat his wife into agreeing the separation, almost with a God-like will that he should have his way. There does seem to have been intimidating force there, alongside the offer of a comfortable financial settlement, but this was still tricky business for the lawyer to conduct.

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 allowed for the first time divorce proceedings in the court, as opposed to a petitioner having to seek a private Act of Parliament, and although for a wife to establish grounds was onerous, nevertheless Dickens was evidently anxious to secure Catherine’s agreement so that he could move on with his life.

The morals of Dickens’ behaviour are for others to debate, but what of Mr Ouvry? He had acted for Dickens on the purchase of Gad’s Hill Place, he had acted for Dickens in various defamation matters, and he went on to deal with the drawing up of Dickens’ will, but was this a man from an obscure small practice?

Farrer & Co - 66, Lincoln's Inn Fields

Answer, no, and for the remainder of this piece I am indebted to the website of the firm of solicitors Farrer & Co, one of the leading UK law firms and with a special expertise in private client work, and whose offices sit in Lincoln’s Inn Fields just up from the house once occupied by John Forster, Dickens’ great friend and adviser.

Farrer & Co’s history of the firm reveals that Ouvry was headhunted to become a partner in Farrer & Co from the firm of Robinson, King & Ouvry of Tokenhouse Yard. Their account goes on to report that Ouvry was a great success in the firm and became President of the Law Society in 1871.

It was the fate of many who came into Dickens’ life to have their names, and some aspects of their characters, adapted into Dickens’ own fictional characters. Frederic Ouvry did not escape, becoming the solicitor Mr Undery in a story of Dickens appearing in “Household Words”. But by all accounts, Ouvry played a much more important and valuable role as a real player in Dickens’ own life.

The author is a qualified City of London, City of Westminster and National Trust Guide, and a former law firm partner, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. See tabs for details. On Thursday, 5th April he is running London Inside & Outside the Law, a tour of Legal London, starting at 3pm. To book and to find out starting point, contact Colin at