- Law & Literature
Cathrine Frank's Law, Literature, and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925 is a welcome addition to the ever-growing scholarship on law and literature. It extends the scope of this scholarship not only thematically—into the important realm of wills and inheritance—but also in the periods that it covers. Frank moves beyond the more common preoccupation of law and literature in the Victorian era and follows their concerns into the twentieth century and into the complexities of modernism.
There are several reasons for the curious fact that much law and literature scholarship to date has focused on the Victorian period, the novel in particular. The first, most obvious reason is the law's potential for narrative exploration. Where better to locate this interdisciplinary endeavor than in the British nineteenth century, which, by virtue of its realist novels, has long been a privileged site for narrative inquiry? The second reason is more historically motivated (and more implicit in current scholarship) and pertains to the common law's role in preserving and maintaining the idea of Englishness itself, an idea that was crucial to the political and social reform characterizing much of the era's concerns. It is thus no wonder that Victorian novelists who were concerned with political and social change were obsessed with the law, and no wonder that Victorianists—especially those who attach supreme importance to context—are fascinated by the striking similarities and telling differences between law and literature of the nineteenth century.
Frank's extension of these concerns into the transition to the twentieth century is not only commendable but especially apt in a book whose stated focus is the transmission of culture. Her periodization makes apparent this double importance. The 1837 of her title marks not only Victoria's ascension to the throne and the opening of her eponymous period but the enactment of The Wills Act, which constructed the last will and testament as we know it today: "As a specifically written document, one whose authenticity was declared in writing by testator and witness alike, the will provided a permanent, visible record of the writer's worldly goods, and of the writer." The will, Frank argues, thus becomes "a legal register of identity," and as she shows throughout the book, its implications are vast. Her study ends in 1925, the publication year of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and the passage of the Administration of [End Page 110] Estates Act, which by abolishing primogeniture shed the last of inheritance law's medieval characteristics to become truly modern.
If we agree with Frank that a will is not only a way of transmitting material property between generations, but also a way of transmitting culture, it behooves us to understand not what those wills contained, but how they were written and constructed as authoritative. The twin arcs that she traces—from the realist novel to its modernist counterpart, and from a messy, unlimited Victorian testamentary control based on the primacy of individual character to a more professionalized, bureaucratic mode that reflected a modern personhood—are both underwritten by what Frank recognizes as cultural shifts in the epistemological value of empiricism. In other words, Frank argues that Victorian legal empiricism had affinity to the epistemology that also undergirds the realist novel. However, the collapse of empiricist epistemology in modernist literature was not accompanied by a similar move in the law. As a result, the transition to modernism created a growing divergence between law and literature.
Frank supports these arguments with numerous examples in both the literary fiction and the popular press of this long era, as well as in its legal documents: wills, legal manuals, parliamentary acts, and contemporary legal scholarship. Her first chapter is exemplary in this methodology as she shows how in the early Victorian period the will became a nexus for the construction of identity and character and for imagining the relationship of these private dimensions with a social order and economy founded on property.
The book is comprised of six chapters organized in three parts...