Law and Conversation

February 28, 2011

Welfare laws and stories

The BronteBlog has a post about Patrick Bronte’s opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Patrick Bronte, of course, was a minister in Haworth, a village in the north of England, and the father of Branwell Bronte and his literary sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, who wrote, respectively, “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Agnes Grey.”

Around the same time as Bronte was writing his letter, Charles Dickens was writing “Oliver Twist,” in which he exposed the deplorable condition of children in the workhouses that English laws had established in an attempt to deal with poverty.  Recently the media has reported that a workhouse that could have inspired Dickens has been slated for demolition.

Stories such as those Dickens wrote can help readers become aware of and understand serious problems in a way that mere expositions of social issues often do not, and have sometimes even galvanized assemblies and legislatures into enacting or amending laws to remedy social ills.  Can you think of some stories that have had that effect?

February 25, 2011

Mistresses in history and literature

Having posted on passion and probate law earlier this week, it seems timely to note that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Book Show” featured a Canadian writer and academic, Elizabeth Abbott, speaking to host Ramona Koval about her book, “Mistresses:  A History of The Other Womanon February 24. Abbott’s book is part of a nonfiction trilogy:  she’s also published a history of marriage and one of celibacy.

History and literature have provided Abbott and others with plenty of material on the topic. Charles Dickens, who worked briefly as a law clerk and wrote many a good story having to do with lawyers and legal matters, went to great lengths to keep his mistress a secret. Writer Claire Tomalin took mere scraps Dickens left behind as clues to create a masterful narrative in her book, “The Invisible Woman:  the Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.”

Speaking of Canadian professors, Dickens, and the law, Associate Professor Kate Sutherland of Osgood Hall Law School at York University in Toronto has started a new blog, law.arts.culture, in which she explores the intersection of law and the arts. Sutherland described Dickens’s 1844 copyright suit over “The Christmas Carol” earlier this month.  Follow her on Twitter for fascinating tweets on law and literature from her handles @lawartsculture, @LawandLit, and @katesbookblog.

On a different front, Joel Stickley’s blog, “How To Write Badly Well,” is great fun for readers and writers alike.  I particularly enjoyed his post on allowing autonomy to body parts.  Check it out!

February 23, 2011

Passion and probate law: 3 biographies

Earlier this week I recommended Sally Bedell Smith’s “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman,” an especially good biography for those who love both probate law and good stories.

Here are three more biographies sure to fascinate probate lawyers and anyone who loves stories filled with passion and intrigue:

1) “Little Gloria…Happy At Last,” by Barbara Goldsmith.  A fine researcher and writer, Goldsmith tells the sad story of the 1934 court fight between Gloria Vanderbilt’s mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, over custody of the child Gloria and control of her inheritance. Goldsmith also wrote “Johnson v. Johnson” and has written pieces for The Daily Beast on inherited wealth.

2) “The Last of the Duchess,” by Caroline Blackwood.  Not a biography in the strict sense, Blackwood’s book is, instead, the story of how Maitre Suzanne Blum, Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor’s French lawyer, companion, and guardian in the last years of her life, thwarted Blackwood’s effort to carry out her assignment from the British Sunday Times to see the Duchess of Windsor and write an article about her. Blackwood never did get to see the duchess, who was evidently bedridden and suffering from dementia in her opulent Paris home.  Though Blum’s actions are susceptible of more than one interpretation, Blackwood leaves no doubt of her view of Blum:  “a malignant old spider” who kept the duchess “under despotic surveillance” and refused to allow not only Blackwood but even the duchess’s close friends to see her. For a comparison of two other books about the duchess, see Peter Kurth’s article here. (Blackwood herself lived quite an interesting life, as Nancy Schoenberger recounts in “Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood.” Blackwood’s youngest daughter, Ivana Lowell, also wrote about her mother in her recently published memoir, “Why Not Say What Happened?”)

3) “Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds,” by Lyndall Gordon.  Among other matters, Gordon describes how a passionate and adulterous affair between the poet’s brother, Austin Dickinson, a solid Amherst lawyer, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who ended up editing Emily’s works after her death, split the Dickinson family, reverberated in the courts decades after Emily’s death, and still influences Dickinson scholarship.  You can listen to a great interview Ramona Koval did with Gordon on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Book Show” here.

Professor Gerry W. Beyer of Texas Tech University School of Law blogs about probate law in the popular and academic press at the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog.  As I’ve previously noted, he’s also been kind enough to provide me with great commentary for a number of articles for the Illinois Bar Journal.  If you practice or have any interest in probate law, check out his blog, which received a well-deserved spot on the ABA Journal Blawg 100 for 2010, and follow him on Twitter for timely updates.

What biographies do you recommend?

February 21, 2011

Read This: biography, probate law, & scandal – Pamela Churchill Harriman

One of the greatest reading pleasures is a nice, meaty biography.  If some of the material’s scandalous, so much the better, as long as it’s clearly and thoroughly documented.

Far from being dusty and dull, probate matters may arise from every bit as much passion and scandal as divorces.  So a well-researched biography of a subject with both probate and divorce matters in her life is practically guaranteed to be a fascinating story.

The obituary of Kathleen Harriman Mortimer the other day in the New York Times reminded me that her stepmother’s life included multiple divorces and probate issues, all of which are documented and explained in Sally Bedell Smith‘s impeccably researched biography, “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman.”

More thoroughly, that would be Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman.  (To be fair to Bedell Smith and her publisher, there was only so much space on the book’s dust jacket for its subject’s name along with her charming photo.)

Check this book out if you have any interest in 20th century history and government, or Winston Churchill, or social climbers and high society, or scandal, or probate law. Bedell Smith’s subject, who was Churchill’s daughter-in-law throughout World War II and U.S. ambassador to France in he 1990s, at the end of her life, was on intimate terms with many prominent and wealthy movers and shakers in business and politics, as Bedell Smith describes and documents.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer became chums with Pamela Churchill in London during the war.  As Smith recounts, Pamela, who was around the same age as Kathleen, embarked on an affair with Kathleen’s father, Averell Harriman, a few months after her husband, Randolph Churchill, went off to war and a few more months after giving birth to their son, named Winston in honor of Pamela’s father-in-law.

After a divorce from Randolph, many more affairs, another marriage, and thirty more years, Pamela and Averell reunited, rekindled their affair, and finally married.  His death in 1985 made her fabulously rich.  In 1994, Kathleen and other Harriman heirs sued Pamela for mismanaging their inheritance.  Bedell Smith meticulously describes the fascinating personal and legal background for that suit.

Mortimer herself married into another well-connected family.  An article on the Mortimer family from the New York Observer reminded me of the ancient and intricate web of alliances among Europe’s royal families and of the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Do stop by again on Wednesday, when I’ll have three recommendations for other biographies touching on or suggesting probate law issues.  In the meantime, I’d love to see comments on biographies that you’ve enjoyed.

February 18, 2011

Looking for a few good (practicing) lawyer writers

Harrisburg, PA lawyer, booklover, and freelance writer Harvey Freedenberg recently asked me via Twitter whether I could name any practicing lawyers who write about law in the same way that doctors like Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, Atul Gawande, and Jerome Groopman write about medicine.

I haven’t read Selzer or Thomas, but I have read Gawande and Groopman, both of whom are not only very fine writers but also full-time practicing physicians.  But why couldn’t I think of any comparable practicing lawyer writers?  Freedenberg suggested Jeffrey Toobin, who’s a very fine writer indeed, but noted that he’s not a currently practicing lawyer.

I can think of practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of fiction–often legal fiction–and practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of legal materials or who blog about issues related to the practice of law, and nonpracticing lawyers who write very good articles about the legal profession.  But I can’t think of any practicing lawyers who have written nonfiction books and articles for the general public about the practice of law comparable to what those practicing doctors have written about the practice of medicine.

Groopman and Gawande seem enormously admirable to me, not only for their unflinching criticism of some common current medical practices, but also for owning up to and honestly writing about mistakes they have personally made in the course of their medical practices.  I know that there are plenty of very thoughtful lawyers who are every bit as concerned with improving the legal profession and the practice of law as those doctors are about improving the medical profession and the practice of medicine, but it strikes me that most practicing lawyers direct their energies into bar association activities toward that end, not to writing books or articles about the practice of law for consumption by the general public.

Readers, why should that be?  Certainly, there are ethical issues such as privilege, which Freedenberg noted as an issue in our exchanges, that lawyers must take care with when they write about the practice of law.  But do those issues–which are also present for doctors–preclude lawyers from writing comparably to Groopman, Gawande, and their fellow doctor-writers?  Are there other factors at play?  Is there a niche that’s waiting to be filled?  Or are Freedenberg and I just overlooking some obvious good answers to his question?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

A while ago I wrote about The Paris Review’s making its interviews with authors available online.  Now, I’m intrigued by the literary magazine’s new advice column, also available online.  The delightful Ramona Koval, host of “The Book Show” on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Radio National, interviewed editor Lorin Stein, who writes the column, a few days ago.  Stein had some great advice for one reader who wondered which translation of Proust he should read, a question I’ve also been pondering since Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation gave me quite a bit of trouble a couple of years ago.  (Stein’s recommendation:  first read Lydia Davis’s new translation, then go to the most recently revised Moncrieff version.)  Perhaps Mr. Stein would give me some advice on another matter I’ve been struggling with:  which translation to read of Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji?” Waley, Seidensticker, or the gorgeously illustrated and annotated version by Royall Tyler?  Readers, if you have an opinion, I’d love your advice on that question, too.

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