Law and Conversation

April 29, 2011

The royal wedding, law, and story

UK freelance writer Alex Aldridge has provided a 3-part legal perspective on today’s royal wedding for Above The Law, including quotes from some who believe that Will and Kate have a signed prenuptial agreement and at least one who thinks they don’t. And Penelope Trunk lends some affirmation for my fascination with the royal wedding by acknowledging her own in a thoughtful post in which she muses on how Will and Kate will build a happy life together by finding meaningful work.

Media reports notwithstanding, we don’t and can’t really know much of the real story of this royal couple’s romance–though it’s very pleasant to see that they seem happy and very much in love, and at least as likely to remain so as any newlyweds. For some really detailed accounts of other aristocratic relationships, history provides a more fertile field.

It’s hard to beat Stella Tillyard‘s “Aristocrats,” the story of Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, for a marvelous story of 18th century marriage among the English gentry. For other stories of upper-class alliances that clearly set forth the role of completely non-romantic factors in marriage negotiations–i.e. money and social rank–read not only the nonfiction “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt:  The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age,” by Amanda Mackenzie Stewart, but also any of Jane Austen‘s novels and Edith Wharton‘s sadly unfinished “The Buccaneers,” among other titles.  What I’m currently reading, Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” is a completely cynical look at marriage among the 19th century’s English upper classes that’s guaranteed to cast a dark veil over any starry eyes.

Stella Tillyard said “I’ve always thought that one of the reasons why people read biography is to find out ordinary things. We tend to read the lives of extraordinary people in order to find out details of ordinary life.” 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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