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!

August 6, 2010

Churls!

I recently called up a few of the most professional lawyers I know and asked them how they’d suggest dealing with the churls that we all run into from time to time.   The result was a fun and, I think, useful article, “Uncivil Action,” the cover story in this month’s issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.  Though directed to the litigation context, my sources’ advice is good for any area of life where churls may appear.

One of the lawyers I interviewed recommended reading “The No Asshole Rule,” by Robert I. Sutton.  I did so, and could see why she recommended it. 

Sutton, a management consultant, writes about the harm churls do in the workplace and beyond, illustrating his thesis with vivid examples and providing practical coping recommendations.  He advises against going to work for a company populated with churls, for example, because of the heightened risk of becoming a churl oneself.  There’s a good reason we’re known by the company we keep.

What I found particularly memorable about Sutton’s book was his use of multiple examples of his own behavior to make the point that we all have the capacity to behave badly, even churlishly, at times.  It speaks well of him or anyone else, in my opinion, to have examined his own behavior, reflect upon it, and publicly acknowledge that it was wrong.  Sutton’s point should also remind us that most of the churls we encounter in our lives are not completely evil monsters, but, rather, imperfect people who may not be so different from ourselves.

The British Victorians were really good at depicting extreme versions of churls:  easy-to-hate bullies with no redeeming qualities.  Even the names that Charles Dickens gave to his churls tell us right away what sort of people they are:  Wackford Squeers in “Nicholas Nickleby,” Mr. Bumble in “Oliver Twist,” and Mr. Murdstone in “David Copperfield.”  In “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Bronte also depicted some memorable churls, the Reed family and Mr. Brocklehurst.  Hardly less disagreeable are Anthony Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie and Obadiah Slope in “Barchester Towers.”

More recently, Khaled Hosseini created such a churl, Assef, in “The Kite Runner.”  Far more interesting a character in Hosseini’s wonderful novel, though, is his chief protagonist, Amir, who behaves very dishonorably—churlishly—for the first part of the novel and spends the rest reflecting on and atoning for his actions.  I can imagine that Amir’s character was more difficult to write than Assef’s, but Amir, a complex and well-rounded character, is much closer to most of us than the sociopathic Assef.

What fictional churls have you found interesting and memorable?

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