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?


Zenek said...

Very interesting: some observations.

Bleak House strings to mind as a counterexample
Much of deductive fiction features clever amateur detectives and stupid agents of law

The idea of law is here ambiguous. The ‘common law’ of the English celebrates something that is seen as part of the English form of life and in people’s possession rather than something imposed by state authority, as part of the customary life of peoples. Not kow of course but one can still see some of this in worries that the ‘common law’ will be overtaken by Europe

Chris said...

I think England had longer to propagandise the Law as something to protect you from Authority, even as Authority wrote it to benefit itself. Blackstone's Commentaries predate the Napoleonic Code by 30 years.

But I wonder if it also means the remark 'if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt' isn't about the ability to mingle socially. One thing, possibly the main thing, about playing a game is that you are all playing by the same rules, even if in practice you don't try to take the Duke's head off with a bouncer.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Zenek: thanks!

I'm not sure about Bleak House as a counterexample: it's true the novel paints the institutions of law in a poor light, but there's no actual miscarriage of justice (no innocent man sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit, say) and more importantly it all comes right in the end, Jarndyce versus Jarndyce finally does conclude. Similarly in Last Chronicle of Barset, although Crawley is suspected of theft and villified, his innocence is eventually confirmed by the novel.

Chris: yes, good points. Of course, the Code Napoleon was a direct product of the Revolution, and Revolution (which is necessarily a break with, an expression of mistrust of, the authority of the ancien regime) is something that never happened in the UK.