- Defending Privilege: Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel by Nicole Mansfield Wright
In changing the way we narrate the history of novels, social class, and reform, Nicole Mansfield Wright's Defending Privilege provides a timely and illuminating read. Wright argues that conservative novelists of the Romantic century (1750–1850) use the language of rights, reform, and victimization that we often associate with humanitarian appeals to defend instead the legal and economic status of the privileged. In chapters focused on Tobias Smollett, Charlotte Smith, Walter Scott, and on anonymous and pseudonymous pro-slavery novels, and with significant research into Romantic-era debates over legal access, Wright demonstrates that even writers who call for reform often limit and condition how and whether the lower classes and racial others find justice.
The novelists that Wright discusses identify flaws in the legal system. However, they protest these flaws when downtrodden members of the upper class are the system's "victims," and they critique as upstarts the middle-class lawyers who attempt to infiltrate high society. Smollett (in his less-discussed mid-career novels Ferdinand Count Fathom and Sir Lancelot Greaves and his comic drama The Reprisal) recommends a two-tier legal system, in which legal consequences are reduced for deserving upper-class citizens; he will admit foreigners into the ranks of these privileged beneficiaries, but only if they demonstrate the requisite manners, education, and ability to contribute to the community. When Charlotte Smith complains about women's inability to represent themselves in the courts, she does so with the aim of regaining for herself and her children the upper-class status into which she was born. Walter Scott argues for the importance of providing legal representation for the lower classes, but with the intent that educated advocates should filter the demands and frivolous claims with which he assumes lowly individuals would otherwise clog the justice system. And pro-slavery novels argue that enslaved blacks should be able to testify in cases against whites, but only [End Page 113] when the black individuals are trustworthy and emotionally transparent, and only with the goal that loyal blacks will report on disloyal slaves and Methodist ministers who attempt to stir revolt. In all of these cases, novelists note injustices in the legal system, but trust that benevolent authority figures will adjust problematic practices just enough to reward those deemed unjustly deprived, without changing the system as a whole.
Wright's approach is especially convincing because she grounds her law-and-literature scholarship in a well-researched history of changing legal practices and of specific legal and legislative battles over what she terms legal agency, the question of who could speak in and through the courts. Scott's discussion of legal representation, for example, looks ahead to the 1836 English Prisoners' Counsel Act, which provided advocates for defendants but required those defendants to stay silent. And Charlotte Smith, Wright demonstrates, complains specifically and accurately about the way in which the escalating costs of legal representation increasingly reserve legal access for the well-to-do. In a welcome contribution to Smith scholarship, Wright argues that Smith's novels (including Emmeline, The Old Manor House, and Marchmont) and her selections and translations of French real-life legal stories, the pitavals, incorporate "didactic primers in the guise of sentimental romances"; Smith portrays male and female characters interacting with the law to show female readers how to deal with specific legal situations "from refusing a request for a warrantless search of one's home to negotiating the fees of legal counsel" (56, 60). But Smith writes her "field guide to an exploitative legal system" to help individuals like herself, poor descendants of upper-class families (80).
The readings in Defending Privilege are also impressive when attending to how the form of the novel works with and against an author's conservative aims. Wright's reading of Scott's Redgauntlet is especially ingenious in arguing that Scott's sections in epistolary form (a form that had widely...