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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March 4, 2011

RIP Hazel Rowley: Biographer and storyteller

Sad news of Australian biographer Hazel Rowley’s untimely death this week at the age of 59.  Rowley wrote “Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre,” “Franklin and Eleanor:  An Extraordinary Marriage,” and biographies of Australian novelist Christina Stead and American writer Richard Wright.  She knew how to tell a good story, meticulously documented her research, and was a guest on a number of talk show programs, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Book Show.

In one interview on The Book Show, Rowley memorably said she preferred her biographical subjects dead (note that dead people can’t bring actions for libel). Those interested in biography and copyright law should read her article in the winter 2009 issue of The American Scholar on French publishing law and how it affected the publication of her biography of Sartre and Beauvoir in France.

In the meantime, check out communications researcher R.C. Richards‘s Droit Blog, on which he provides thoughts on law, music, politics, business, and other matters. In a lengthy post on August 5, 2010, “Selective Retraction of Inaccurate Statements About Public Figures: A Case Study,” Richards examines a political post on Twitter containing multiple inaccurate statements as a case study in political communication.  Richards’s measured and scholarly tone is a refreshing contrast to the brainless shouting and personal attacks that abound nowadays as purported political discussions and debates.

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.

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