Vol. 5 No. 2: Victorians and the Law
Victorians and the Law: Literature and Legal Culture
Cathrine O. Frank
(University of New England, Maine)
‘Notwithstanding the seeming incongruity, there subsists a very intimate connection between law and literature’.
Edward Said changed the way readers approached Jane Austen when he argued that Mansfield Park, indeed all nineteenth-century novels, could only be understood in the context of imperialism. How else did Sir Bertram make his money, and why was he absent from his estate for so long, otherwise? The idea that the culture of imperialism was so ingrained in writers and readers alike meant that the colonies and their far-flung subjects could be in the novel even when they weren’t, apparently, in the novel. A similar point can be made about the pervasiveness of law in Victorian fiction: there is a kind of legalism at work that makes it possible to read for the law even when legal matters don’t appear to be part of the novel’s immediate subject. ‘Legal Culture’ in this sense might mean the assumed structure that invisibly, or at least unquestioningly, supports social relationships, individual aspirations, and expressive forms, for example, the way coverture informed the structure of the novel’s marriage plot. It might mean a way of thinking or reasoning, such as Ayelet Ben Yishai describes in her recent book on precedent, i.e. the way legal attitudes towards the past were used to accommodate change and create a ‘commonality’ outside recognisably legal venues or processes. To appreciate and understand the reach of law’s cultural network, a cultural critique of law is needed, one that, as Christine Krueger has argued, works best when it strives for historical specificity and applies multidisciplinary tools of analysis to the material conditions of its working.
This issue of Victorian Network focuses on Victorians and the Law - two subjects that, daunting in their breadth, draw our attention to an only slightly less formidable pair, law and literature.