Law and Conversation

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!

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November 5, 2010

More context: Charlotte Bronte vs. Robert Southey

Dennis Low, a scholar in the UK who wrote “The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets” (Ashgate, 2006), posted an interesting comment on Tuesday in response to my post that day, in which I (accurately) quoted from a letter that Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843, sent to the 20-year-old Charlotte Bronte after she sent him some of her poetry and asked his advice on whether she had any chance of a literary career.  Dennis followed up with a cordial e-mail to which he generously attached chapter 1 of his book, which contains a more extensive excerpt from Southey’s letter than most biographers of Bronte have provided:

“I, who have made literature my profession, and devoted my life to it, and have never for a moment repented of the deliberate choice, think myself, nevertheless, bound in duty to caution every young man who applies as an aspirant to me for encouragement and advice against taking so perilous a course. You will say that a woman has no need of such a caution; there can be no peril in it for her. In a certain sense this is true; but there is a danger of which I would, with all kindness and all earnestness, warn you. The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”

I haven’t yet finished reading the chapter and don’t have ready access to Dennis’s book.  When I’ve finished the chapter, and when I’ve had some more time to think about his arguments, about Southey’s advice in written and historical context, and about the common tendency  to elevate Charlotte Brontë to icon status (which her contemporary friends and admirers, Ellen Nussey and Elizabeth Gaskell, began), I’ll post some more thoughts.  In the meantime, I’m grateful to Dennis for providing this additional context, as well as for alerting me to his fresh and apparently thoroughly researched perspective on Southey.

Politics and legal proceedings, like academic studies, are also known for placing in sharp relief different points of view on the additional meaning that context can provide to people’s words.   Readers, can you think of some other examples of historical or literary figures whose reputations rest on words extracted from much of their context and interpreted using the standards of different centuries and cultures than those in which they were written?

November 2, 2010

Vote today! Suffrage and stories of women’s lives and the law

Yesterday a friend forwarded an e-mail headed “Voting rights for women.”  The e-mail’s text reviewed the imprisonment and deplorable treatment of women who peacefully picketed the White House in November, 1917, carrying signs criticizing President Woodrow Wilson for opposing women’s suffrage, and noted that women in the US didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.  That’s not even a century ago; there are people still alive who can remember 1920. 

The e-mail, which reprints a February 19, 2004 column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Connie Schultz, refers to an award-winning 2004 HBO movie, “Iron Jawed Angels.”  An excerpt:  “It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul [one of the picketers] insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized.”  The Wimminwise blog from The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary has more information about the e-mail and its story, including links to the Library of Congress, from which the photos in the e-mail appear to have been taken, and Snopes.com, which checked out the story’s facts and determined them to be true.

I’ve long thought that modern women who protest “I’m not a feminist, but….” should think more carefully about what their lives would be like without those who marched, protested, and engaged in other unladylike behavior that challenged the mainstream thinking of their day and no doubt earned them condemnation from their families and neighbors.  Stories from and about the 19th century are a great way to start thinking about the transformation in the law and women’s lives.

I posted a couple of months ago about Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Jean Rhys’s “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” the back story of Bertha Rochester.  Rhys’s story highlights the worst-case possibilities for women in loveless marriages not so long ago.  Because women were raised to be supported by their husbands, because whatever property had been theirs became their husbands’ upon marriage, and because, indeed, women lost their legal identities upon marriage until the enactment of laws giving them rights, there wasn’t much married women could do without permission from their husbands.  Divorces were both difficult to obtain and socially unacceptable in 19th century England, and, in any event, it would have been far more difficult for a divorced woman then to support herself than even in today’s challenging economic times. 

Jane Austen’s novels (which Bronte didn’t like) are also windows into the world of middle- and upper-class English women in the 19th century.  Though she wrote her novels with a delightful sense of humor, Austen shows very clearly the limited and bleak choices of those women:  marriage or relying on male relatives who may or may not have been kind or congenial for support.  Working-class women, of course, had equally dreary choices and even harder lives.  Though they could and, indeed, often had to work outside the home to support themselves and their families, their options were domestic service, low-paid manual labor, or prostitution. 

It seems comical today to note that writing was considered unfeminine and inappropriate for women in Charlotte Bronte’s day.  And it’s poetic justice that Robert Southey, England’s Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843, is probably remembered more for his advice to the 20-year-old Charlotte Bronte to leave writing to men, for “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,”  than for any of his poetry.

For literary smiles, check out this YouTube video on Bronte Sisters Power Dolls from FineMoustaches.  And if you’re a US citizen, read Connie Schultz’s column in the Plain Dealer from Sunday, and don’t forget to vote.

UPDATE:  See this subsequent post for more context for Southey’s advice to Charlotte Bronte, courtesy of Dennis Low, whose comment appears below.

September 3, 2010

Jane Eyre and mental illness

Earlier this week I urged readers to read or reread Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  In that post, I referenced two totally delightful articles analyzing the book and Mr. Rochester in particular that I came across while surfing the Bronte Blog

As both articles indicate, Jean Rhys wrote Bertha Rochester’s backstory in “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” which won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006 for the year 1966.  Rhys’s sympathetic treatment of the first Mrs. Rochester, whom Bronte portrayed as an inconvenient, crazy hag whose death was a relief for all, highlights how far we’ve come in attitude towards and treatment for the mentally ill since Mr. Rochester locked his wife up in her attic room. 

Present-day advocates for the mentally ill, though, will point out that treatment resources are still woefully inadequate, as I’ve noted in articles such as “Involuntary administration of psychotropic drugs: Does Illinois need new standards?” and “Bill would make involuntary commitment easier” in the January 2003 and August 2007 issues, respectively, of the Illinois Bar Journal.  (In the forthcoming October 2010 issue of the same publication I discuss the recent changes in the standard for involuntary commitment in Illinois’s  Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code and quote University of Chicago clinical professor of law Mark J. Heyrman, whose lucid commentary always gets to the heart of the matter.)  And, of course, mental illness or the hint of it still carries a strong stigma, though, unlike Charlotte Bronte, we no longer generally refer to someone who’s mentally ill as a “lunatic,” a “maniac,” or using the pronoun “it.”  For those who are interested, the website of Mental Health America of Illinois is a good starting point.  

What are your favorite 19th century novels?  How about your favorite novels that deal with mental illness?

August 30, 2010

Read This!

Mondays are Read This! days on which I write about books that I really, really want everyone in the world to read.  With so many great books in the world, I can’t imagine ever running out of material!

Today’s recommendation is a classic:  Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  I first read it as a 4th grader and loved the passionate story, told so well in a young woman’s voice.  Since then, I’ve reread it many times and branched out to read the rest of the Bronte sisters’ writings.  It’s now been many years since my last rereading of “Jane Eyre,” so I think it’s time to move it up on my list. 

I’m always interested to find out how I feel as an adult about a book that I loved as a child or teenager.  Generally, as in the case of Beverly Cleary’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I find them every bit as good as, if not even better than, I did forty years ago.  I have no doubt that “Jane Eyre” will stand the test of time for me as it has for the rest of the world.

Many well-told stories that are classics, though, including the “Little House” books (which I passionately love), reflect widely held attitudes and prejudices of their times and places that we now rightly find unacceptable.  And, indeed, parents sometimes have problems with their children’s reading books that challenge their ideas of what’s right and proper.  The May 19, 2010 edition of CBC radio’s Q program had an interesting discussion on what to do with children’s books that reflect racism.  But the participants didn’t address the possibility that some books being published today may reflect attitudes that our great-grandchildren will consider unacceptable 100 or more years from now.  They also didn’t seem to recognize that characters in great stories, like real people, are imperfect and multifaceted.  How is it even possible to have a good story–which we all love, from childhood to old age–without different points of view and conflicts?  A great work of literature might even be told from the point of view of a frankly repellent character–and that might be a big part of what makes it great, as Azar Nafisi explains so well in “Reading Lolita In Tehran.”  Indeed, “Jane Eyre” underwent a firestorm of criticism when it was published:  reviewers called Jane herself  “the personification of the unregenerate and undisciplined spirit” and said she had “detestable morality.”  More than 150 years later, we generally love Jane and identify with her passions and morals!  Thinking about whether and why we like or dislike a story’s characters is part of reading critically, a valuable skill that children can begin learning, with the help of parents and good teachers, while still very young.

The Bronte Blog is a comprehensive resource, updated at least daily, for all things Bronte, all the time.  It recently referenced two fun articles on Jane Eyre.  The first, by Edan Lepucki, trashes Mr. Rochester and also swipes at Charlotte and Emily as “deeply weird.”  The latter criticism, IMO, is quite unjustified, so I was delighted to find that the second article agrees with me on that point.  It also rips up the other arguments of the first in a deliciously snarky fashion.

I have some more thoughts on “Jane Eyre” and other literature and the law of that period regarding women and the mentally ill that I’ll be posting later this week.  In the meantime, what books would you like everyone in the world to read?

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