LAW, LITERATURE, AND THE TRANSMISSION OF CULTURE IN ENGLAND 1837-1925 by Cathrine O. Frank, Reviewed by Jane Lee
 

LAW, LITERATURE, AND THE TRANSMISSION OF CULTURE IN ENGLAND 1837-1925
By Cathrine O. Frank
(Ashgate, 2010), viii + 250 pp.
Reviewed by Jane Lee on 2010-11-07.

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The flexible nature of the "will" as a concept is clearly embodied in its name. It is a legal document, meant to provide a statutory guide for the distribution of one's property, but for the Victorians, it also represented a person's will, in intent, character, and legacy. These competing sets of discourses meet in Cathrine O. Frank's new book, where she first shows how the intentional sense of "will" governs Victorian definitions of personhood, then traces shifts in attitudes towards subjectivity through to the Edwardians, and ends by reading modernist values and literary practices. In her analysis of the will, Frank follows two major developmental trajectories: one in a legal sphere concerned with documentary wills and inheritance laws, and the second in the novel, moving from a realist to a modernist literary aesthetic. By thus examining law and literature in dual narratives, Frank shows what we can learn from their conversation with each other.

In linking law with the novel, Frank's study joins a broad collection of works by scholars such as Christine Krueger, Alexander Welsh, Lisa Rodensky, Marlene Tromp, and Kieran Dolin, to name only a few. However, Frank's attention to the will -- as distinct from the trial, testimony, criminal psychology, or any other aspects of law-- enlarges our understanding of the relationship between law and literature, and also contributes to debates about when and why the move away from realism in the novel occurs. By showing how legislation regarding wills affected fiction, Frank can more concretely ground her claims that in the novel, "these conflicting attitudes towards subjectivity were a consequence and expression of the transformation of 'character' into a distinctly modern, capitalist 'identity'" (3-4). But rather than skipping directly from Victorianism to modernism, Frank shows how Edwardian authors led the way from one to the other through their attempts to reject Victorian legacies.

The range of the book is impressive, spanning much of the nineteenth century and extending to 1925. Although the book is just over 200 pages long, Frank's six chapters move at an admirably deliberate pace, and her concision and focus help to make her arguments generally convincing. The opening chapters treat Victorian representations of the will in both law and literature. Providing examples of actual wills while also showing how much wills captivated the Victorian populace at large, the first chapter reveals the importance of the will to a Victorian notion of personhood. To be someone was to own property and also, in an increasingly materialist culture, to be able to bequeath that property, extending the legacy and desires of the willing self through the documented will. But the latter's ties to individual agency brush up against the law's professional interference with personal volition. "Let a testator be as clear as possible about his own intentions," Frank writes, "he did not possess sufficient legal knowledge to frame his will so as to effect them" (29). The legalization of this process leads to "an increasingly bureaucratic conception of identity, one that permitted greater efficiency in managing people, but one that also meant a loss in terms of character" (31). Citing the 1837 Wills Act as the catalyst for this institutional change in the constitution of personhood, Frank then shows how, in making their own wills, novelists often react to the bureaucratic influence of the law by trying to exert moral authority over their possessions--something they would continue to explore in their novels.

As exemplified by this first chapter, Frank's direct engagement with the law constitutes the most interesting and original contribution made by her book. But her individual readings also serve her purpose well. Showing in the second chapter how literature grapples with the legal questions raised by the first, Frank argues that the use of the will in Victorian novels complicated the "dichotomy between romantic idealism and novel realism" by questioning the relationship between "fiction and the real," more precisely by participating in "other discourses" (specifically those of the law) even while seeking to change "the real into what it 'ought to be'" (77, 78). In other words, the novel's imagined revisions of the law were part of the changes occurring in literary realism. Falling neatly within the scope of her argument, Frank's readings of Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, The Moonstone, and Our Mutual Friend demonstrate that novelists often used the will to critique the law as well as offer alternatives to it. But since dates are crucial for chronicling the transformations--both in literature and law-- that she identifies in Chapter One, her analyses of these four novels needed more temporal specificity.

Returning to specific ties between the will and the law, the following chapter shows how Victorian fiction often treated the legal status of women and their automatic exclusion from debates about agency and character in relation to property. Despite the passing of the Married Women Property Act in 1882, Frank argues intelligently that its effect was limited; while a male testator could negotiate with the rules of inheritance, the law denied this privilege to a testating woman, restricting the property she could include in her will as well as the time at which she could write a new one (113). Moreover, Frank writes, because privileging empirical forms of knowing (realism in the novel) gives way to more interiorized subjectivities (modernism, via the Edwardians), "it is as if women arrive at a point in the novel that it is no longer desirable to occupy, no matter how important these changes proved to be in the legal world," as material facts and indicators begin to lose their reliability towards the end of the century (16). Frank shows that certain novels challenge the primacy of property and ownership in determining individual agency and offer alternative ways of evaluating the self. Since the argument of this chapter has strongly feminist implications, I would have liked to see it include more women novelists than George Eliot. Of course, Dickens and Collins can support feminist readings too, but since the chapter begins by linking the reform movement to figures like Barbara Bodichon and women novelists' support of the Law Amendment Society, it seems to promise more evidence from women writers than it delivers.

Moving away from Victorian wills and realism, the final three chapters treat the Edwardians as a bridge between empiricism and an aesthetics of interiority. Chapter Four explores the "inheritance" that plagued Edwardian writers and attempts to explain how and why they struggled with the cultural legacies left them by their Victorian fathers. Likening their situation to that of the Victorian women discussed in the previous chapter, Frank's main purpose seems to be recuperation, defending Edwardian writers from modernist accusations of traditionalism and Victorian emulation. Against these charges, Frank contends that "the Edwardian novel by continuing to emphasize subjectivity as character -- specifically as consciousness and as a character's purposeful response to the institutional frameworks of the previous generation -- renewed cultural emphasis on individual experience, on the self and its 'becoming' rather than its 'being'" (139). Frank shows that novels by Samuel Butler and John Galsworthy (among others) exemplify the Edwardian questioning of legal forms of inheritance in favor of more subjective and personal ones. Returning to "individual character and metaphysical thought," she writes, the Edwardian novelist represented the Victorian will with all its associations accurately, but, rather than focusing on the testator, turned to highlight the beneficiaries and his attempt to exert his own will (156). The pronoun here is masculine because this chapter examines the plight of "Edwardian sons" : seeking to implement their desires, they were hindered not by any restriction on their legal rights as testators but by the cultural legacy of the Victorian documentary will (135). This chapter nicely complements the previous one on the legal restrictions faced by Victorian women, but the deliberate gender divide leaves some questions unanswered, such as "What of Edwardian women?"

Furthermore, some of the chapters on the Edwardians are confusingly organized. Up to Chapter Five, the book moves chronologically from the Wills Act of 1837 through the rest of the century. But Chapter Five backtracks from Arnold Bennett to Trollope's The Warden (1855) so as compare it to Gosse's Father and Son (1907). Though this evenly divided focus on both novels makes sense within the chapter itself, it has the overall effect of making the book's content lean more heavily towards the Victorians, which either complicates the book's claim that it is properly examining the Edwardians or -- on the other hand -- cleverly shows that the Edwardians did indeed struggle to free themselves from their Victorian fathers. Nevertheless, the overarching point of this chapter is clear and valuable. Centering on the doctrine of cy près, which empowers the court to determine intent when a bequest to a charitable cause is ambiguous, Frank shows how each of the novels accesses intent in ways the law cannot. Frank's prime example is Father and Son. While returning to the moral expressions to be found in the fictional wills that Frank treats in the second chapter, Gosse revises their form in this novel, which tries to break the links between realism and the law by means of fictional autobiography. Nevertheless, since the transition from Trollope to Gosse involves a major point about genre, and since the concluding chapter treats the increasingly spiritual nature of Edwardian wills, Frank might have explained at greater length how the literalness of the law was replaced -- in (auto) biography -- with a more spiritual form of the real.

In her convincing broader arguments, Frank thought-provokingly examines not only the will, but also the imbrications of law and literature. In the final chapter she shows that by the century's end, the Victorian will as both a document and legal function was being highly contested. In her treatments of Trollope's Ralph the Heir and Mr. Scarborough's Family, and of Forster's Howards End, she effectively demonstrates that other, more spiritual forms of bequeathal are more important and in some ways more real than legal documents about inheritance and legitimacy. Concluding with an explanation of The Administration of Estates Acts in 1925, Frank argues that its favoring of a system of equal distribution -- property descending not through primogeniture but to nearest relatives downwards -- decidedly changed the will "from the 'speaking likeness' of the testator's personal character to a uniform and utilitarian legal text of his social identity" (219). In this light, Frank reads Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925) as an effort to fully reject a Victorian sense of realism because it focuses on "horizontal relationships played out in the present, in a single day," instead of the "vertical continuum" of the documentary will's concern with past, present, and future (223).

Compared with the links she draws between Victorian fiction and the law, however, Frank tells something less than a full story of Edwardian struggles with the law, and particularly of how they culminate in the work of Woolf. She is at her best when separating out the delicate strands of the will's influence on literature through her many concrete examples and readings. The book gives more space to the Victorian era than to what follows it, but this may be due to two factors: first, the argument itself traces a shift from a more material to a largely interiorized sense of priority, and second, the task of tracking in compact length both the history of the will and the development of the novel inevitably requires the sacrifice of some detail. In seeking not so much to provide a modernist perspective as to construct a bridge between the Victorians and the Edwardians, Frank succeeds. While some of the later chapters strike me as uneven, they raise complex intellectual questions. As a useful, thoughtfully conceptualized contribution to studies of literature and the law, Frank's book invites further study of the impact of law on the genres of the novel.

Jane J. Lee is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Washington. She is currently completing a dissertation on intellectual property, models of reading, and Victorian liberalism.


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