- The Heiress vs the Establishment: Mrs. Campbell's Campaign for Legal Justice
This book tells the story of Mrs Elizabeth Bethune Campbell, a Toronto-born socialite, untrained in the law, who in the 1920s carried the claim that her mother's estate was defrauded by its trustee, a prominent member of the Ontario legal community, up to the Privy Council, where, as the first woman to ever appear before them, she represented herself and won her case.
At the centre of this book, prepared by legal historian Constance Backhouse and her sister, Ontario Superior Court Justice Nancy L. Backhouse, is a reproduction - not a retelling - of Campbell's own account, Where Angels Fear to Tread, published by Campbell herself in 1940. This is a tract, breathless in style, eminently readable and enjoyable, in which Campbell names names, casts aspersions, and formulates conspiracies. Essentially, Campbell argues her case in the way that she never could in the fourteen-year-long litigation.
The prefatory materials tell us that the book was something of an 'underground' text, spoken of in hushed voices among members of the [End Page 327] Ontario legal profession and considered a censored text by University of Toronto law students. Many copies were available in Jamaica Plain, Boston, where Campbell lived most of her adult life. One of the notes reports that everyone a local historian spoke with said that 'their mother had a copy' and Campbell's grandson recalled 'many copies of the book lying around his childhood home; apparently a number were used to prop up the couch!'
The notes - there are eighty pages of them - are filled with colourful details like this. They also provide background on each person mentioned in the text and serve as a 'reality-check,' signalling, for instance, when a claim that Mrs Campbell made is confirmed by the Privy Council judgment.
The authors have clearly given a great deal of thought to the tricky issue of how to present Campbell's story in a way that piques interest and gives context without giving away too much, and, more importantly, without providing a pre-interpreted experience of the text. The primary strength of their presentation is that they allow Campbell to speak and readers to have their own reaction - alternately to laugh at her audacity, gasp at her brashness, and admire her persistence and fortitude.
A good example of this 'just the right touch' is the introduction, which says very little about what is to come beyond the facts. However, it includes a marvellous selection of photographs, which include Campbell as a Toronto debutante, a photo of her in her wedding dress, and pictures of her parents, including a long-dead lawyer father. Present here, though conspicuously absent in her own text, is her Boston clergyman husband, along with their spitting-image children.
The decision to refrain from providing an up-front analysis of Campbell also allows suspense to build, so that by the time the epilogue arrives, one is dying to hear what the author-editors think of the burning questions at the heart of the story: Was the trustee a crook? Was there really a conspiracy to cover for him?
Different perspectives are provided on these questions, along with reflection on Campbell's motives and speculation on why various members of the legal establishment reacted to her in the way that they did. Much of the Backhouses' presentation takes the form of a summary and accompanying photo of each participant in Campbell's legal ordeal, what they did and how that squared or did not square with what Campbell said about them. The author-editors clearly admire Campbell's spunk, as most readers will, but here is where they ask questions about the accuracy of some of her views, comment on some of her less positive personality traits, and compare her account of what happened to what others said.
No doubt readers of this text will each emerge with their own...