Law and the Brontës
Today the law and literature movement is still, as it was forty years ago when James Boyd White published his seminal The Legal Imagination, a controversial approach. Not only because other law scholars, prominently Richard Posner and his law and economics school, criticise the use of literary criticism techniques in the study and/or interpretation of the law, but also because periodically an article is published signaling the failure or the death of the movement(1).
It's no surprise then that the author of Law and the Brontës, Ian Ward(2), in his excellent introduction spends some time defending this approach and literally saying
"I write as a member of the legal academy. The 'law and literature' movement has been nurtured, in the main, from within this academy. Its commonly stated virtues tend to focus on how best to educate and sensitize law students, and this apparent insularity, has attracted critical commentary from within and without the legal academy. To some degree such a prejudice is to be expected. Everyone writes from somewhere. (...) The continuation of such disciplinary scepticism benefits no one".His approach to the novels of the Brontës is "unapologetically historicist", concerned with "moments of writing and moments of reception". His study selects from the Brontë Opus: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette. Only The Professor (which, nevertheless, is quoted in the text) and Agnes Grey are left out of the book. The critical outlines that define Ian Ward's approach are perfectly described by the author himself in the introduction:
[The Law and the Brontës] it seeks to excavate a subterranean literary jurisprudence through a close examination of one set of texts which enjoy an obvious if sometimes perplexing relation. It is, ultimately, a study of various kinds of interconnected exclusions, literary and legal. (...) And it is about one category of people who, for reasons of gener alone, were denied legal personality and cast, in effect, outside the common law of England.As we mentioned before the book begins with an introduction, where Ian Ward justifies his approach and selection of texts and offers a clear and convincing contextualisation of his project. Not only historically but also in the context of the ongoing conversation dialogue between nineteenth-century literature and law scholars. The book is structured, in the best law tradition, using cases - Brontë cases:
'Huntington vs Huntington'. Probably the novel that more explicitly deals with legal issues in the Brontë opus, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall proposes several interesting lines of study for a law scholar: married women's absence of rights (property in particular), domestic violence, divorce and child custody. Many of them have been explored before even recently(3). Ward contextualises Anne Brontë's novel historically with a reference to contemporary issues and cases(4) and the internal (most of the time quite intricated) evolution of English law (common or equity). Interestingly, the author doesn't stop at the description of the legal failures and injustices which cause Helen's abandonment of her husband but also explores the fiscal and legal situation of the protagonist in the light of her possible remarriage.
'Heathcliff's Case', is concerned with Wuthering Heights, but essentially through the figure of Heathcliff as an illegitimate child. The author looks into the notable failure (elusiveness in his words) of the law which, in a way, clearly protects Heathcliff's abuses, notably by the gender-oriented and patriarchal conception of contemporary property and inheritance laws.
'The Rochester Wives' is the chapter obviously devoted to Jane Eyre. Here, Ian Ward discusses mainly the lunacy laws, the intense debate about how and when a person could be considered a lunatic (and therefore, unable to inherit property) and the conditions of her confinement. Although such a study is interesting per se, we rather think that Charlotte Brontë's novel poses several other jurisprudential issues more central to the story which deserve a proper study: the situation and legal status of charity schools (including the imputability of their managers), and most prominently bigamy and illicit marriages.
Both Shirley's chapter ('The State and Shirley Keeldar') and Villette's conclusion chapter are more concerned with general critical issues than with specific narrative facts and their legal subtexts. The Shirley chapter explores the 'condition of England' status of the novel, the Church of England's charity role or the boundaries between private and public affairs. Being more general, these chapters lack the immediacy of the previous chapters and deals more in the 'law and literature' agenda of the author.
In short, Law and the Brontës is a clever and, in general, fascinating account of the subterranean and immanent relation that novels (Brontë or otherwise) have with their historical contexts. It's a matter of discussion if Brontë literature influenced in some elliptical way the evolution of English law, but it's a matter of fact that law topics are a very decisive issue and a thought-provoking new angle to approach many of the Brontë novels. Ian Ward has made a very good case about it(5).
(1) Check Jane B. Baron , Law, Literature, and the Problems of Interdisciplinarity Yale Law Journal, Vol. 108, Pp. 1059-1085, March 1999 ; The Death of Law and Literature, Paul J. Heald , UGA Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-006
(2) Ian Ward is an important figure in the Law and Literature movement, author of numerous books dealing with law and literature and legal theory, like Law and Literature: Possibilities and Perspectives (2008) or Law, Text, Terror (Law in Context) (2009).
(3) Bleak Houses, Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction by Lisa Surridge,Ohio University Press (2005).
(4) Like the (in)famous Caroline Norton (1808-1877) case.
(5) Which is not helped by the somehow arbitrary cover featuring a still from Jane Eyre 1944.