Law and Conversation

August 17, 2013

Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin, and backing it up

I’ve just finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which came out a couple of years ago and had been sitting on my nightstand in a TBR stack. I was really looking forward to seeing what Tomalin had to say about Dickens, especially since I’d recently finished “Little Dorrit” and had also read Tomalin’s masterpiece of biographical sleuthing and deduction, “The Invisible Woman,” her biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’s much younger mistress.

Tomalin delivered some fascinating insights into the great author in highly readable form. Still, there were a few references that bothered me.

First, in chapter 16, she writes that after the death of their nine-month-old daughter Dora in 1851 “Another Highgate funeral had to be planned and carried out, and [Dickens’s wife] Catherine brought to London and comforted.”

For me, Tomalin’s phrasing leaves much to be desired. As a friend observed, it conveys that Catherine was – horrors – NEEDY, as great a sin 160 years ago as it is today, at least when we’re talking about those in the circle of a Very Important Person with an ego to match his (or her) ability. No matter that Catherine’s CHILD HAD JUST DIED.

Based on sympathetic references to Catherine elsewhere in her book, I don’t really think Tomalin meant to suggest anything unkind about her. However, I would have liked some additional information and commentary here about Dickens’s and Catherine’s relationship and the impact of their child’s death on both of them individually and on their relationship, which had deteriorated badly by that time. Dora was Dickens’s child, too; did he not also grieve, even though, as Tomalin notes elsewhere in her book, he said on more than one occasion that he regretted having more than three children? Even a statement that there is no information, or that Dickens made no reference to Dora’s death in his surviving contemporaneous correspondence with his close friends, if that was the case, would be insightful.

Second, in chapter 25, Tomalin refers to Dickens’s daughter Katey’s marriage to Charles Collins, 12 years her senior and an invalid, as “not much of a marriage.” Again, though I realize a biographer has to make some hard choices about how much information to include about members of her subject’s circle, I would have liked a few more details to support her conclusory description. Plenty of happy couples, after all, have similar differences in age, and it’s hard to imagine greater devotion and commitment than that of one whose spouse is so disabled as no longer to be capable of being a partner. Tomalin asserts earlier that Katey decided to marry Collins (the brother of the writer Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend) “without love” and “to get away from home” (chapter 21). A supporting quotation or two would have benefited these conclusions; the endnotes do not make the bases for Tomalin’s assertions clear.

I don’t remember reading biographies this critically before I became a lawyer. Though lawyers get a bad rap for writing obscurely, the characteristics of good legal writing are the same as good general writing and include clarity and, for nonfiction, documentation. If you write a brief – a document in which you make your best argument for your client – you need to support every assertion with authority. So when I read a work of nonfiction, for every single assertion I want to know on what primary sources the author relied and what in them warrants the author’s conclusions.

As has already been reported, Tomalin was taken in by an academic fraud: she recounts as fact a meeting that supposedly took place between Dickens and Dostoevsky in London in 1862. The purported meeting never happened, though the academic hoax was accepted for years. (I believe the error has been corrected in later editions of Tomalin’s biography). The lessons? First, as journalism students have long been taught, even under deadline pressure and even with a seemingly unimpeachable source, “check it out.” Second, even tremendous writers and scholars like Tomalin can make mistakes, which should actually be heartening for all of us.

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July 22, 2013

Charles Dickens, George Zimmerman, and Trayvon Martin

Instead of watching the George Zimmerman trial, I was reading “Little Dorrit.” The long 19th century novel by Charles Dickens had been on my list for a LONG time, and it had been a few years since I’d read a Dickens novel. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I was reading it, I was thinking about how different the great novels of the 19th century are from the literary novels that are published today. Among many other differences, Dickens’s characters are generally more two- than three-dimensional. Many, particularly the supporting characters, are types, and even the main characters behave completely predictably and provide no surprises. Little Dorrit, for example, is Goodness personified—a martyr who never, ever, appears to feel any anger or resentment toward the rest of her family for allowing her to support them, sponging off her labor and good works. Rigaud/Blandois, the villain, is completely evil—a sociopath with no redeeming qualities. The story’s hero, Arthur Clennam, along with his friends, Mr. Meagles and Daniel Doyce, is completely morally upright; like Little Dorrit, Clennam is very, very good, never appears to feel or express any resentment toward those who have treated him badly, and is also a bit of a martyr who has to be coaxed and convinced that he’s not washed up in his thirties and too old to have a life. Compare it to Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” for example: I’ve heard Franzen criticized for writing a 19th century novel in the 21st century, but for me his narrative was timely and fresh, with imperfect, human, three-dimensional characters.

For Dickens, it’s all or nothing; a character is either good or bad. Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, and Monsieur Rigaud don’t exist in real life. They have no complexity, no shades of gray—they’re more like windup dolls than humans. But notwithstanding the book’s largely flat, predictable, unrealistic characters, “Little Dorrit” is a great story, driven by a complex plot if not by complex characters, and we still read and enjoy it 160 years after he published it.

Like Dickens’s works, most of the stories I’ve read about the Zimmerman trial have flat, predictable characters. For many, the correct story of what happened is that Zimmerman was an evil, aggressive racist, while Martin was a peaceful saint. For others, the story is that Zimmerman was heroically protecting his neighborhood, while Martin unreasonably attacked him and was viciously beating him up. The former camp’s rhetoric comes pretty close to suggesting that Zimmerman was acquitted because of racism and he should be retried until a court reaches the result they think is correct; the latter camp’s, that it wasn’t at all a bad thing that Zimmerman was prepared to, and did, shoot point-blank to kill. So from the first camp, never mind double jeopardy, and from the second camp, never mind that we have a police force to address suspected criminal activity. If you think about it, both camps seem to agree on one thing: if law enforcement or the courts do not administer what people who weren’t there and/or don’t have all the facts think is the correct result, taking justice into one’s own hands might be a good thing to do. That’s horrifying.

Amid all the shouting and handwringing, two blog posts about the Zimmerman trial stand out for me: Miami, FL lawyer Brian Tannebaum on The Embarrassment of the George Zimmerman Verdict and NYU law professor Stephen Gillers on An imaginary dialogue trying to explain Florida v. Zimmerman to someone who has not had the benefit of a legal education at The Legal Ethics Forum. Both focus on the human reality and the law of the events and the trial.

As for me, I’m not seeing a Dickensian story with flat, good or evil characters here. Though I’m mindful of Tannebaum’s admonition “You weren’t there, and you don’t know what happened,” I’m seeing two basically decent people, Zimmerman and Martin, who both made some unwise decisions one evening that ended up in Martin’s losing his life and Zimmerman’s having to spend a chunk of his life, and probably a lot of money, defending a criminal prosecution and becoming an object of hatred for a lot of people. I’m also seeing an enormous amount of handwringing about racism—which we can all agree is a bad thing—and very little interest in rethinking our country’s attitude toward guns and the law. To the contrary, every time there is a gun tragedy, whether it’s a bunch of people getting shot at a movie theatre, little kids getting shot to death at an elementary school, or a young person who had his whole life in front of him getting killed a short distance from his family home, the ultimate result has been even more rhetoric, policy, and laws encouraging people to get and carry guns.

So how did that pro-gun attitude and those pro-gun laws work out for everyone in the Zimmerman case? Not too well for Martin, who’s dead. Not too well for Zimmerman, who had to spend lots of time and resources that he could have been dedicating to his family and his personal pursuits defending himself in a criminal prosecution instead, not to mention becoming an object of opprobrium for a significant number of people, many of whom he will probably encounter in the future. (OK, maybe Zimmerman will get a lucrative book deal and sell movie rights to his story and go on the speaking circuit, but if he does (and maybe he won’t–I certainly don’t know what he will or won’t do), he will have paid quite a price for those things.) Not too well for the country, either: following the verdict, there’s an increased perception on the part of many that Zimmerman was acquitted because his victim was African-American (if you have questions about the reasons for the verdict, please read Tannebaum’s excellent post) and that our system of justice doesn’t work as it ought.

I’m familiar with the arguments for opposing limitations on firearm ownership that many honorable and intelligent people hold dear. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” was a facile and popular saying when I was growing up, and one which I myself espoused as a young person; while that’s still around, more lately I’ve seen “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” They sound good and easily roll off the tongue, but both ignore human complexity as much as Dickens’s stories do.

I can recognize that there may be a few occasions where a Bad Guy/Outlaw, or someone who’s gone off the deep end, is prevented from shooting people because there’s a levelheaded Good Guy, who’s also a crack shot, in the vicinity with a gun and is in just the right position to get a good shot off to take the Bad Guy down without killing one or more innocent bystanders in between. Note, however, that those are a lot of factors that need to converge; if any one of them is not present—Good Guy isn’t levelheaded, isn’t a great shot, isn’t in precisely the right position, Bad Guy or Innocent Bystanders move out of or into Good Guy’s bullet path—the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Story also doesn’t have a happy ending if person standing next to Good Guy as he pulls out his gun doesn’t realize he’s the Good Guy and thinks maybe he’s a Bad Guy and takes him down, maybe with his own gun. (How are we to recognize the Good Guy, I wonder? How do we know the guy standing next to us who’s pulling out a firearm in the shopping mall, or in the movie theatre, or on the subway, is going to save us and isn’t another Bad Guy?)

Far more likely to occur are any number of less than ideal scenarios. Maybe our hero, the Good Guy, is actually an officious busybody and wannabe hero who misreads a situation so badly that he (or she) ends up killing someone who wasn’t a Bad Guy at all. Maybe Good Guy has the best of intentions but isn’t a crack marksman and takes out Innocent Bystander instead of Bad Guy. Maybe our Good Guy who’s lawfully carrying a gun around has dementia; if you think that concealed carry laws, or open carry laws, are a great idea, is that something that makes you feel safer? (Can you write a statute that prevents someone with undiagnosed dementia or paranoia, or an uncontrolled temper, or bad judgment, from possessing firearms? I don’t think so. Writing statutes that do just what you want them to do, and nothing else, is HARD.) Or maybe our Bad Guy isn’t a fundamentally bad guy, but is legitimately feeling unfairly treated by the world, maybe is clinically depressed and not thinking rationally, maybe is chronically angry at not being in the position he thinks he should be in due to various unfairnesses in his life, experiences a Last Straw that might be getting laid off, or evicted, or divorced, or sued, or cut off in traffic, and in a moment of appallingly poor judgment takes out the gun that he’s lawfully carrying and uses it—maybe on others, maybe on himself, maybe first the former and then the latter. Or maybe we have two generally good guys, or two general jerks, or one of each, who are lawfully carrying guns, take offense at each other’s actions, and, in the heat of their disagreement, take out their guns and use them.

All of those scenarios are realistic, and all end up as tragedies. All, I suggest, are far more likely to happen in our gun-encouraging culture than the flat, two-dimensional Good Guy With A Gun saving the rest of us from the flat, two-dimensional Bad Guy With A Gun. And with no change in our country’s pro-gun attitude, and no change in the laws, I suggest that they ARE increasingly likely to happen.

Sadly, since the shootings at schools and movie theaters, the reaction that has carried the political day has been “We Must Have More Guns,” and the only changes in the laws have been changes that make it even more likely that there will be more George Zimmermans and more Trayvon Martins. President Obama recently said publicly that he could have been Trayvon Martin, but you know what? So could any of us, and so could any of us be George Zimmerman if we opt to carry guns.

For now, I’m returning to my Dickens novels, and to 19th century England. But I have no doubt that, as I did when reading Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” set in 18th-century Germany, I’ll continue to find resonance in these novels of past times and faraway places for events occurring in the 21st century USA.

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?

April 25, 2011

Read This: Anthony Trollope

Until just a few years ago, I’d read nothing by the 19th century British novelist, Anthony Trollope, and was under the impression that he was a bit of a second-rate writer. Why read Trollope when there are Dickens and Eliot novels I still haven’t read, I thought?

I’m delighted to report I was mistaken. Far from an also-ran, Trollope is a delightful writer, and his work provides a vivid picture of 19th-century English society.

Trollope is best known for two series:  The Barsetshire Chronicles, starting with “The Warden” and centering on England’s ecclesiastical class, and the Palliser series, starting with “Can You Forgive Her?” and focusing on Parliament and British politics. The BBC made both into TV series, which I haven’t watched but which remain very popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Well-crafted though both series are, many think a standalone novel, “The Way We Live Now,” is Trollope’s greatest work. Though I’m enjoying this 800-page, hundred-chapter brick as much as the other Trollope novels I’ve read, I put it aside the first time I started it. What bothered me was the anti-Semitism Trollope expresses in some of his description and some of his characters’ dialogue, so casual as to take one’s breath away.

I suppose some might condemn Trollope for this, and some might think publishing a revised edition of the book that amends or deletes the anti-Semitic remarks (as a recent edition of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” bowdlerizes the n-word) would be appropriate. I wouldn’t agree with either.

Though I’m not a Trollope scholar, I suspect that he was a product of his times. His books, as well as those of Dickens (who includes some anti-Semitic characterizations of his own in, for example, “Great Expectations”), bear out that anti-Semitism was, indeed, so casual as to be taken for granted in English society of the 19th century. The audiences for whom Trollope and Dickens wrote wouldn’t have seen anything extraordinary about those characterizations; in that day, that language was realistic for those characters and narrators, and their readership, I’m guessing, might have made or snickered at similar comments without seeing anything wrong. Trollope and Dickens, not to mention Twain, gave us not only great stories but also valuable historical pictures of life as it was, warts and all, during their lifetimes.

That, it seems to me, is a valuable lesson for us today. Though prejudices haven’t exactly disappeared, it’s now generally recognized that disrespectful comments about people’s culture and ancestry are not funny and not cool–and in some contexts, most notably the workplace, can lead to legal liability. With all the imperfections of 21st-century life, some things have improved.

Speaking of England, since it was Easter yesterday it seems like a good opportunity to call attention to a wonderful exhibit at Bath Abbey.  Artist Sue Symons uses exquisite embroidery and calligraphy to depict the story of Jesus’s life in her diptychswhich you can view online.

Are you reading anything that has material in it that bothers you? What is it, and what do you think about it?

UPDATE: After I posted, I realized that yesterday’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac noted that yesterday was not only Easter but also Trollope’s 196th birthday!

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?

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