Law and Conversation

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!

Advertisements

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?

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 18, 2010

Last will and testament as literature

Filed under: Books and writing,Law,Victorian literature — Helen Gunnarsson @ 7:41 am
Tags: , ,

Oh, this is exciting to those of us who love both the law and Victorian literature:  Cathrine Frank, assistant professor of English at the University of New England, has published “Law, Literature, and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925.”  From her university’s and the publisher’s websites:

Focusing on the last will and testament as a legal, literary, and cultural document, Cathrine O. Frank examines fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian eras alongside actual wills, legal manuals relating to their creation, case law regarding their administration, and contemporary accounts of “curious wills” in periodicals.

The press release from the University of New England quotes the author:  “It’s easy to play ‘spot the will’ in novels,” Frank said, “but one of the most fascinating things I found in my reading, from judges’ opinions to magazine articles, was how widespread the interest in wills was. Everyday people, not just the wealthy and their lawyers, were deeply interested in the idea of the will.”

I wrote earlier about probate law and literature here.

Hat tip:  The BronteBlog.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.