- Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law and the British Novel ed. by Martha C. Nussbaum, and Alison L. Lacroix
In the introduction to the essay collection Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law and the British Novel, editors Martha C. Nussbaum and Alison L. LaCroix set forth a weighty aim: “to reinvigorate the law-and-literature movement” (6). In furtherance of this ambitious goal, Nussbaum and LaCroix bring together an eclectic mix of interdisciplinary essays on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels by leading scholars of law, philosophy, and literature. What unites the collection is an emphasis on gender and, more specifically, the ways in which novels of this period acknowledge a widespread absence of female agency while also revealing opportunities for female characters to find—even create—“spaces for choice despite large-scale absence of choice” (5).
To organize diverse essays into a cohesive whole is no small feat, but Nussbaum and LaCroix skillfully group their material into four thematic sections, the first three of which line up with seminal legal frameworks for the period. The opening section focuses on the most obvious law and gender nexus, “Marriage and Sex.” The essays within this section are anything but predictable, however, and investigate such varied issues as marriage laws and folk practices in Thomas Hardy’s novels; the question of whether the law is central or peripheral in Jane Austen’s novels; and the history of obscenity within the British novel.
The second section, entitled “Law, Social Norms, and Women’s Agency,” migrates naturally into a neighboring area of legal inquiry with a series of essays on rape, illegitimacy, and criminal culpability. Including some of the strongest essays in the collection, the breadth of coverage is expansive here. Topics range from “pious perjury” (the nineteenth-century equivalent to our present concept of jury nullification) in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, to rape versus seduction in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to the tropes of illegitimacy and women’s criminality in the many novels of Anthony Trollope. What is refreshing here is the forceful demonstration that marriage is certainly not the only—or even primary—legal issue facing female characters in the nineteenth-century novel. This section also demonstrates the power of varying methodologies within the law-and-literature movement. Julia Simon-Kerr and Nicola Lacey, for example, draw upon legal history to develop their arguments [End Page 129] about the novels of Scott and Trollope. In contrast, Nussbaum traces a genealogy of the bastard character back through Shakespearean drama in order to develop her argument on Trollopian “subversion” of gendered norms of illegitimacy as they appear in literature. When taken together, these essays demonstrate the many ways that the law-and-literature movement can shed light on human experience.
The third and fourth sections of the collection are less developed than the first two, but nonetheless open up additional areas in which to explore the intersection of legal concepts and literature. The essays in section three are grouped under the moniker “Property, Commerce, Travel,” and they encourage readers to consider esoteric legal instrumentalities such as the bill of exchange and the law of primogeniture. Bernadette Meyler’s essay on “Defoe’s Formal Laws” is a particular asset to the collection for its lucid description of the frequent “pitfalls” of scholarship coming out of the law-and-literature field of inquiry (230), and its stunning analysis of Roxanna and Moll Flanders, which argues for a relationship between the travels of these female deviants and their “liminal relation to the law” (233).
The final section of the collection broaches the topic of “Readers and Interpretation” rather than a specific legal concept. This represents a shift from a micro to a macro view of the field, and a greater emphasis on understanding networks of law and literature in a wider social context. LaCroix offers a fascinating essay on the foundational role that literature played in the development of sympathy for early nineteenth-century American legal professionals. Analyzing speeches and...