Friday, 3 February 2012
Nineteenth-century fiction and the Law
Discussing nineteenth-century fiction with a very bright PhD student of mine (she's working on law and the Victorian novel: the representation of lawyers, advocates, detectives and so on) we were struck by one difference between the British and French novel. There's a real emphasis in French fiction of the period upon stories about miscarriages of justice (Les Miserables, Comte de Monte Cristo, the people imprisoned for opposing Napoleon III in Zola's Rougon Macquart novels and so no -- leading up to the Dreyfuss affair and its massive impact on French lit at the end of the century). By contrast, in the English novel I can think of nothing like this; on the contrary, from mainstream Domestic fictions through Sensation fictions and even into Penny Dreadfuls and the like, there is a solidity in belief that justice and the law do eventually and inevitably coincide. Is it too sweeping a generalisation to suggest that the French (broadly) mistrusted the legal superstructure, as part of their larger distrust of state authority -- the Revolution, and all that -- where the English readership yearned to be reassured that the law, the executive branches of social justice and state authority itself were (despite the occasional hiccoughs, or wobbles) in the last analysis trustworthy and good?