- Law and the Brontës by Ian Ward
Novels by the Brontë sisters are not typically considered standard texts in the forty-year-old interdisciplinary field of law and literature. Ian Ward’s new book corrects this oversight. Jurisprudence, he argues, can be discerned “below the surface” of much of the Brontë oeuvre (4). Even though they do not explicitly engage with law, novels by the Brontës function as important supplements to the project of feminist jurisprudence committed to recovering female voices silenced by the patriarchal legal system. [End Page 237]
More specifically, Ward observes, the Brontës’ novels provide an opportunity to examine relations between gender and the law, inviting readers to exercise judgment on matters of concern to mid-Victorian women, such as spousal abuse, child custody and the status of single mothers, divorce and matrimonial property law, illegitimacy, the incarceration of certified lunatics, and even the regulation of pornography. In the Brontës’ novels, formal law is ever elusive, and that is another reason these texts are so valuable for feminist legal history and theory. Law remains subterranean in these novels because it is virtually absent from the lives of people marginalized in, or excluded from, Victorian society: the insane, the simple-minded, the illegitimate, criminals, foreigners, and women. According to Ward, law is an “ordinary failure” for these people (140).
Ward’s background as a legal scholar contributes considerably to one of the book’s central claims: that Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall testify to the ways in which law facilitated patriarchal dominance in the mid-Victorian era. For instance, when discussing Helen Huntingdon’s circumstances in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ward cites precedent-setting legal cases to illustrate the ways that English law consistently failed women. English law did not protect wives from marital cruelty (Evans v. Evans, 1790; Dysart v. Dysart, 1847), nor did it assist such women in leaving abusive spouses (even after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, as Ward points out). And finally, with regard to child custody, the law showed marked preference for fathers (Eyre v. Countess of Shaftesbury, 1722; De Manneville v. De Manneville, 1804; and several others).
Like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights is concerned with the limits of law and justice. Ward notes that Emily’s novel revolves around the question of Heathcliff’s origins and “the brutal marginalization of a category of persons, which was constructed by social prejudice and confirmed by legal prescription” (52). This chapter surveys legal provisions for bastardy, revisiting the Poor Laws of 1733, 1834, and 1844 to substantiate its claim that it is his legal dispossession due to illegitimacy that prompts Heathcliff’s violent revenge. Following a complex explanation of how Heathcliff gains control over the Linton and Earnshaw estates, Ward concludes that English property law, “written to help men like Heathcliff consolidate estates,” abets his criminal behaviour (61).
In his discussion of Jane Eyre, Ward focuses on the law’s failure to adequately address non-criminal lunacy as it is displayed in Rochester’s extra-legal solution to incarcerate his mad spouse in the attic. The inefficacy of the law vis-à-vis the insane has recently been covered in Christine Krueger’s Reading for the Law (2010) in an argument about the gendering of legal agency in the development of equal treatment procedures. Ward’s emphasis differs, in that he sees the catastrophic consequences of Bertha’s incarceration as Charlotte’s intervention into ongoing debates about the efficacy of home-confinement of insane relatives. Neither common law nor civil jurisdiction rescues Bertha; courts were historically reluctant to intervene in cases of asylum brutality and wrongful [End Page 238] confinement, and they refused to intervene in cases of domestic abuse of wives certified insane.
In the final two chapters, Ward takes up Shirley and Villette, respectively. Shirley, he argues, is imbued with a Burkean sense of the proper governance of a familial national polity through paternalistic charity, and an indictment of failed magistracies—those of the local landed elite...