- Thomas Hardy’s Legal Fictions by Trish Ferguson
Exploring the intersections of Victorian literature and law, Trish Ferguson’s Thomas Hardy’s Legal Fictions (2013) is a compelling study of how Hardy’s fiction engaged with prominent legal debates and reforms of his time. Drawing on the biographical background of Hardy’s interest in the law as a magistrate, Ferguson reads Hardy’s novels and short stories as vehicles for reform—literature that exposed the fissures between existing legal structures and the need for social progress, thereby “training readers in judicial reasoning” (16). Ferguson organizes this compelling argument into four chapters that address the flux and contestation of major legal issues in the period: the gender dynamics of domestic abuse cases, the fraught legal definition of insanity, the subordination of married women’s rights, and problems of inheritance. Ferguson succeeds in giving a thorough, persuasive account of the dialogue between Hardy’s literary output and Victorian legal discourse. Her analysis gains particular rhetorical force in her discussions of how Hardy’s work drew attention to women’s legal rights. Ferguson’s text further adds to the corpus of recent scholarship situating Hardy’s fiction in conversation with other discourses of the era, such as Tony Fincham’s study of Hardy and medicine, Hardy the Physician: Medical Aspects of the Wessex Tradition (2008). In addition, like Richard Nemesvari’s Thomas Hardy, Sensationalism, and the Melodramatic Mode (2011), Ferguson’s monograph examines Hardy’s use of the sensation genre to question the status quo in Victorian culture.
Particularly convincing are Ferguson’s observations about how the legalistic aspects of Hardy’s prose fiction affected his narrative choices. Ferguson finds strong evidence in Hardy’s first published novel, Desperate Remedies (1871), a text that is becoming indispensable to Hardy scholars with growing interest in Hardy’s sensationalist roots, as evinced by recent works such as Nemesvari’s. According to Ferguson, Hardy forayed into sensation fiction with Desperate Remedies because of the genre’s preoccupation with legal concerns, yet his subsequent novels would eschew the pat conclusions associated with sensation texts in favour of more open-ended narrative structures that anticipated Modernism (5). This open-endedness allows Hardy to engage his readers in what Ferguson deems a kind of legal reasoning.
Ferguson elaborates on this technique in chapter 2, “The Legal Defence of Insanity.” She refutes criticisms of William Boldwood’s characterisation in Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) by contending that Hardy purposefully limits the reader’s access to Boldwood’s interior consciousness in order to “[create] a narrative like a legal trial,” with “conflicting evidence” that “attests to Boldwood’s state of mind,” but deliberately leaves ambiguous “whether or not this evidence would support an insanity defence” (69). This reading [End Page 161] construes Hardy’s narrative in legal terms, developing Ferguson’s central premise that Hardy’s fictions draw on the reasoning of legal procedure even if they rarely depict the scene of a literal trial. The deft comparison of a limited narrative viewpoint to the procedure of a trial keeps Ferguson’s analysis within the realm of the literary while opening up the metaphorical possibilities for locating legalistic structures in Hardy’s writing.
Some of Ferguson’s strongest points occur in the third chapter, which touches on cases of domestic abuse as an impetus for reforms that increased the legal rights of married women. Ferguson contends that Hardy “sought to expose the limited definition of marital cruelty and also to show that marital abuse was a symptom of more widespread economic control” (91). Thus, the plights faced by the heroines of Desperate Remedies, Far From the Madding Crowd, Two on a Tower (1882), and The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) gain a sense of urgency in the context of the severe limitations that Victorian laws imposed on married women.
The historical contextualization in this chapter is illuminating. Ferguson refers to the trial of Martha Brown for the murder of her violent and unfaithful husband, as well as to the famous case of Caroline Norton, who was unable to...