Law and Conversation

February 21, 2012

Back Stories and Sequels: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre, and P.D. James and Jane Austen, too

From another literature-loving family member comes this link to a hilarious commentary by Sarah Rees Brennan on Charlotte Bronte’s classic 19th-century novel, “Jane Eyre.” It reminded me, of course, of Edan Lepucki’s wonderful essay from The Millions, “Mr. Rochester is A Creep,” which I noted some time ago.

I love Jane Eyre, and will defend her to the death, but Brennan and Lepucki have a point. Years before they wrote their pieces, in 1966, Jean Rhys wrote the back story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, nee Antoinette Cosway and explored Mr. Rochester’s creepy qualities to a degree that I’m certain Bronte never considered. Rhys’s novel is “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” awarded the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.

Rhys’s novel was enthralling, at least in part, I think, because she didn’t try to imitate Charlotte Bronte’s style. The tropical colonial setting she chose for her story of Antoinette’s upbringing was as different as could be from Jane Eyre’s and Mr. Rochester’s England, which went far toward explaining Antoinette’s breakdown, and deserved its own style—not warmed-over Bronte.

Rhys did a great job of taking another author’s characters and putting them into her own story. But not all writers are as effective. A dear and thoughtful friend (thanks, MSH!) gave me P.D. James’s recently published sequel to Jane Austen’s 19th-century “Pride and Prejudice,” “Death Comes to Pemberley,” in which James uses Austen’s characters to continue the story. The book was a mildly fun read and held my interest, but ultimately left me only lukewarm. I think part of the problem was that, unlike Rhys, James strove to imitate Austen’s style. James may be a very fine writer when she tells a story in her own voice (alas, I haven’t read her other novels, though I know James has many, many devoted fans), but let’s face it: Nobody can possibly do Jane Austen the way Jane Austen did Jane Austen.

I’m glad I read James’s book, though: Her treatment got me thinking about the characters and led me to some insights that I might not have reached otherwise. It also gave me a good push to reread P&P after a couple of decades. In fact, as a result of reading James’s novel as well as Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” (my personal Best Book Read in 2010), I’m certain that I enjoyed this reread significantly more than I would have otherwise.

Lawyer literary buffs will be interested to know that James included passages on 19th-century English legal procedure in her book. She worked for years in contemporary British courts, and I’m certain she did her research on past practices. As I wrote earlier, “Jane Eyre” and “The Wide Sargasso Sea” raise a multitude of legal issues, especially about the treatment of women and of the mentally ill in days not so far gone by.

Wouldn’t it be fun to hear Charlotte Bronte’s and Jane Austen’s reactions to Rhys’s and James’s explorations of their characters? Would Bronte see that Mr. Rochester really is a bit creepy? Would Austen  agree with James’s continuation of Lydia’s unqualified dreadfulness? What do you think?

August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs: Stories for life

Filed under: storytelling — Helen Gunnarsson @ 9:20 am
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The biggest business story this week has been not the gyrating stock market, but Steve Jobs’s resignation from the position of CEO of Apple Corporation. A story behind the paywall at The Wall Street Journal reminded me that Jobs gave a moving speech at Stanford University’s 2005 commencement. An easy Google search took me to a transcript of his remarks, on Stanford’s website. [Update: though when I drafted this post yesterday, the text on the WSJ site was behind its paywall, I see that today it’s accessible without a paid subscription, as is some other Jobs/Apple related content. Don’t miss the video front and center, anchored by Stacy DeLo, reviewing Jobs’s career and the creation of the revolutionary products that he oversaw at Apple.]

I’ve read a lot of wonderful inspirational remarks to young people. Jobs’s speech, in which he tells three stories about scary events in his own life to illustrate his excellent advice, ranks with the best of them. An excerpt:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Whatever your age, go read Jobs’s speech, and think about the power of his stories.

What stories have made a difference in your life?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Journalism professor Adam Penenberg has posted a definitive summary and compilation of article links on Jobs in “Steve Jobs: A Mega, Meta Appreciation” over at Fast Company. Hat tip: Steve Buttry and a couple of people he retweeted on Twitter.

August 3, 2011

Making executions public

As I wrote earlier this week, David Lat and Zachary Shemtob had a thoughtful editorial in The New York Times this weekend advocating for televising executions.

Some years ago, my reaction to this idea would have been that televising executions, or otherwise making public spectacles of executions as was routinely done not so many years ago, would be revolting and barbaric. At that time, I was a supporter of capital punishment, reasoning that some crimes are so awful that they deserve death. But I didn’t like to think about it–the idea of killing someone, premeditated and approved by law, made me too uncomfortable.

Then I read an historian’s account of public executions in 18th century England (Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of Australia). Hughes wrote of the crowds that turned out to see convicts taken to the gallows and the pervasive carnival-like atmosphere. His vivid description, which I have no doubt was completely accurate, disgusted me and started me thinking: if you wouldn’t want someone to see what you’re doing because it’s so awful, why would you want to do it at all? And why would you approve of your government doing something so horrible that it can’t be allowed to be shown in public–even though national security (which I agree would be a compelling reason, as in the execution of Osama bin Laden and in the photos of his body) is not an issue?

Lat and Shemtob are careful to say that they, like many citizens, are deeply conflicted over capital punishment and are not urging their point as a means of turning public opinion against it (though they recognize that others have). Their argument for bringing sunshine into the execution chamber is strong and convincingly written.

In the meantime, I’ve reconciled my own conflict on the issue, following reading Hughes, as follows: though some criminals may deserve death, it doesn’t follow that the government should mete it out. So my reaction to Lat’s and Shemtob’s argument remains that public executions would be revolting and barbaric–but I also believe that executions that are not open to the public are revolting and barbaric. So, if we’re going to impose the death penalty and kill people, let’s adopt Lat’s and Shemtob’s proposal, and let everyone see exactly what happens during an execution.

And that highlights a compelling reason for reading (and telling) stories: they can help you think about and see things differently, whether personal matters, current events, or what have you. I wouldn’t have expected a story about events in 18th century England, contained in a history of Australia, to lead me to change my mind about the death penalty in the modern USA, but it did.

Has a story ever helped you to see another matter in a different light?

July 25, 2011

Read This: Watchmen

I recently mentioned that I’d started three books at once, all of which had a common theme of law and law enforcement, and all of which lawyers recommended to me: John Mortimer’s “Rumpole Omnibus #1,” a collection of short stories; Steve Bogira’s nonfiction “Courtroom 302,” and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “Watchmen,” a graphic novel. (I should note that John Higgins gets well-deserved high billing as colorist along with Moore, the writer, and Gibbons, the illustrator/letterer, on the hardcover edition’s title page.) I still have the first two going, but I’ve now finished the third.

What I’d most like to tell you about “Watchmen” is this: Change whatever your reading plans are and move it to the top of your list.

It’s an amazing, complex, multilayered work. If you’d like to know a bit about it before you begin, read the Wikipedia entry, which is scholarly and thorough. It also contains spoilers, so you might prefer to stop after the “Background and Development” section. Once you’ve finished it, you may, as I did, want to reread portions to pick up what you missed the first time around or put some pieces together. The Watchmen Wiki, as well as the rest of the Wikipedia entry, can help you to make sense of anything you missed.

Published in 1986 and 1987 as a 12-volume serial comic book, “Watchmen” is mostly a graphic novel, but interspersed are meta-fictional straight narratives as well as a comic book story within this comic book story–meta-metafiction. Its structure puts it ahead of its time, not only in 1988 but still today. It fully deserves the high praise it’s garnered from, among others, Time magazine, which named it one of the hundred best English-language novels published since 1923.

Have you read “Watchmen?” What did you think of it?

July 15, 2011

A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Lawyer

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I’ve posted today over on The Europa Challenge Blog on Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome,” a fictional walk through the Eternal City on one day in the year 115 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. From dawn to dusk, Angela takes us around the city, showing us where the ancient Romans lived and did business with one another, from latrines to the law courts of the Basilica Julia, part of the complex of buildings that made up the Roman Forum. Hope you’ll click on over there to read my post!

Much as I enjoyed Angela’s description of life in ancient Rome, it left me wishing for even more details, particularly about lawyers and the practice of law. He writes of witnesses who traded testimony for money, which I’d definitely like to know more about. If that was a common practice in imperial Rome, how did the judges assess witnesses’ relative credibility and arrive at a good decision? Were some or even many of those witnesses well known to the judges as professional tale-tellers? Did all witnesses expect to be paid for telling the truth? Were the courts an unregulated marketplace where the most golden-tongued witnesses and lawyers were likely to win? Did they function as well as, better than, or not nearly as well as modern courts in dispensing justice? Were there systems for mediating cases outside of court, or for appeals?

Angela’s brief description of Roman lawyers and courts also made me wonder whether any ethical rules for attorneys existed in imperial Rome. He said clients would initially meet their lawyers in the piazza of the Forum and then make followup appointment at lawyers’ homes, but how did lawyers and clients arrive at agreements for representation? Today, at least in the US, ethical rules prohibit lawyers from soliciting business, based on the principle that lawyers shouldn’t go around stirring up disputes. On the other hand, there’s nothing prohibiting an unrepresented person from approaching and hiring a lawyer who happens to be in or outside the courtroom where he’s making his first appearance, as appeared to be happening in Angela’s scenario. Were there formal ethical rules in Ancient Rome? If so, were they similar to today’s rules of professional conduct? Was there a commission that enforced them? Were ancient Roman lawyers ever disciplined or disbarred?

I can imagine that lawyers in imperial Rome, as those today, generally had to focus their practices in certain areas of law instead of trying to handle all types of cases. Was there a distinction between criminal and civil law, or transactional law and litigation? Was there motion practice? What evidentiary rules existed, and what was the standard of proof? How did lawyers know what the law was? Did they have law libraries in their offices? Was there a central law library for lawyers in ancient Rome? Was there a law librarian who would help lawyers find what they needed? Was case law important, and were case files kept and archived? I’ve read that memory played a much more important role in learning in ancient times; how did that affect the practice of law in ancient Rome?

I wondered, too, about ancient Roman lawyers’ business practices. Did they have areas within their homes that were equivalent to today’s law offices, or did they rent space outside their homes to meet with clients and transact legal business? Did they form associations analogous to present-day law firms? Given Angela’s description of Roman homes as generally dark and not terribly pleasant places to spend time, I’m wondering whether Roman lawyers generally transacted their business with clients, witnesses, and opponents in public places, such as the basilica, piazzas, and restaurants. And were certain types of law practice more prestigious than others? Was there a 2nd century equivalent of, say, ERISA practice, or loan workouts, or white collar crime, or family law? To what extent did the concept that injured people should be made whole by those who injured them exist?

Most of all, I’d like to follow one of those lawyers around for a day—say, the attorney Angela describes whose unhappy clients were chasing him down for an explanation after losing their case. Was our man a struggling lawyer living in a dingy no-water walkup on the top floor of a Roman insula, or apartment building, with all sorts of building code violations? He probably wouldn’t have wanted his clients to come to his home, would he—and it probably wouldn’t have been feasible for him to entertain his clientele there, either, would it? So what did he do?

Maybe our lawyer lived in more congenial surroundings. Did he take potential clients out to dinner, or entertain them in his home, or take them to see the bloody spectacles at the Colosseum for fun? Did well-to-do individuals and businesses conduct “beauty contests” to choose their lawyers, as some businesses do today? If so, how did those competitions proceed, and did our man compete?

We’ve probably all learned in school that the public baths were important to ancient Roman society. I’d like more details about that, too. Did the public baths function as health clubs do today, and did they have membership fees for different levels of privileges at their facilities? Did women and girls go? How often? What about slaves—did they ever get to visit the baths? Were there separate days or hours or facilities within the baths for them? Did our lawyer make certain to show up at the baths at prime times and schmooze potential clients, judges, and other lawyers? Did he swim laps and exercise, or just lounge about? Did he engage in whatever was the competition of choice among professional men? Just what was the Roman equivalent of golf, tennis, or racquetball?

I’m also wondering about even more personal details of our lawyer’s life. Was he married? Did his in-laws like him? How did he and his wife happen to meet and marry? Was she the daughter of a lawyer, and did he take over her father’s practice? Did he discuss his cases with her, and did she help him with his strategy and arguments? Did they push their sons into legal careers, and arrange for their daughters to marry lawyers? How did they relate to their slaves? Did they ever think or talk about the morality of owning other human beings, or about tormenting and slaughtering animals and people for fun, or question other aspects of their daily lives?

Angela provides fascinating insights into all aspects of imperial Roman life, so that I can imagine possible answers to many of these questions. But his book is an overview of Roman life and culture, not the story of any individual Roman. In the absence of an imperial Roman Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland file clerk who achieved immortality in his graphic novels detailing his everyday life from the 1980s through the early 2000s, I’d be thrilled to see Angela or another historian-storyteller follow up “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” with a series that might begin with “A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Lawyer.”

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