Category Archives: History/Biography

The Very Brief Legal Career of Robert Louis Stevenson

Last month, I wrote of lawyer-writers who successfully pursued simultaneous legal and literary careers. Robert Louis Stevenson was not one of them. Indeed, despite years of legal study at the University of Edinburgh, admittance as an advocate after passing his Scots Bar examinations “with credit,” and the above bewigged photograph (taken to please his mother), I don’t think that Stevenson can rightfully be claimed for the law at all.

Law wasn’t even his second choice after literature, but his second second choice. He came from a famous family of engineers, known as the Lighthouse Stevensons, and he began in that field. But, according to biographer Claire Harman, after “four years studying at the university” and “three summers on the works,” including stints “in a carpenter’s shop, a foundry and a timberyard,” Stevenson “still couldn’t tell one kind of wood from another or make the most basic calculations.” Even his father Thomas, who so dearly wished it otherwise, had to concede that Stevenson wasn’t cut out for the family business. That is not to say, however, that he was prepared to endorse a literary career for his son.

Stevenson’s cousin Etta tells the story thus:

I happened to be in the house when Lou told his father he did not want to continue to be a civil engineer. This was a great blow and a terrible disappointment to Uncle Tom, as for generations the Stevensons had all been very clever civil engineers; and already Lou had gained medals for certain inventions of his in connection with lighthouses. And Uncle Tom was more disappointed still when Lou declared that he wanted to go in for a literary life, as Uncle Tom thought he would make nothing at that⎯in fact that it was just a sort of excuse for leading a lazy life! Eventually it was well talked over, and Uncle Tom said that if he agreed to read for the Bar in order to become an advocate, after passing the examination, if he still persisted in wishing to go in for literature, he would not prevent it, for then he would have a good sound profession at his back.

Alas, Stevenson was as indifferent a student of law as he had been of engineering. His friend Charles Guthrie (later Lord Guthrie) recalled, “we did not look for Louis at law lectures, except when the weather was bad.” Harman elaborates: “A notebook that survives from his law studies is peppered with caricatures and doodles, and the few notes there are on Roman citizenship segue with comical readiness into a much more engaging daydream containing lines of a later poem.” Andrew Murray (later Lord Dunedin), stated bluntly that, although he and Stevenson were “very good friends,” they “did not really see much of each other” even as fellow law students, for: “I was interested in my profession⎯a profession which he frankly cared nothing about.”

If, in the words of another friend, John Geddie, Stevenson paid only “desultory attention” in his law classes, he did buckle down to study for the Bar examinations. But this study awakened no new interest in the subject, and it interfered with the work that really mattered to him. In a letter to Fanny Sitwell (later his wife), dated April 1875, he lamented: “I had no time to write, and, as it is, am strangely incapable. [...] I have been reading such lots of law, and it seems to take away the power of writing from me. From morning to night, so often as I have a spare moment, I am in the embrace of a law book – barren embraces.”

Stevenson passed the examinations and was admitted to the Bar on July 14th, 1875. For a time thereafter, as was the custom, he “walk[ed] about the Parliament House five forenoons a week, in wig and gown,” seeking work from solicitors with cases before the Courts. He was not altogether unsuccessful in this endeavour. Guthrie recounted: “I do indeed remember one morning in the Parliament House, when he came dancing up to me waving a bundle of legal papers in great glee: ‘Guthrie, that simpleton So-and-so has actually sent me a case! Now I have tasted blood, idle fellows like you will see what I can do!’” But he was not offered many briefs, and he accepted even fewer. Guthrie made reference to only “four complimentary pieces of employment [Stevenson] is said to have received, the fees for which did not run into two figures.”

Stevenson wrote to Fanny that he found it “a great pleasure to sit and hear cases argued or advised,” but nevertheless bemoaned the fact that: “I lose all my forenoons at Court!” Before long, he gave up the charade and devoted himself full time to writing. The brass nameplate engraved “R.L. Stevenson, Advocate” that his parents had affixed to the door of their home at 17 Heriot Row remained, but Stevenson no longer walked the halls of Parliament House in wig and gown. In fact, he soon quitted Edinburgh, and Scotland, altogether.

Stevenson “had no natural taste for the law,” Guthrie concluded. Nor, it seems to have been generally agreed among his legal friends, did he have any particular talent for it. So Stevenson’s defection was no great loss to the law. But it was a great gain to literature. And his keen readers, among whom I count myself, can be grateful that, in the end, he chose a literary life.

Sources:

Sidney Colvin, ed., The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (1900).

Lord Guthrie, Robert Louis Stevenson: Some Personal Recollections (1920).

Claire Harman, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography (2005).

Rosaline Massin, ed., I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson (1922).

* The photos of Robert Louis Stevenson as an advocate, and of his doodles in lieu of note-taking (albeit from his engineering rather than his law school days) are from the digital collection of the National Library of Scotland. The photo of 17 Heriot Row is one I took myself the last time I followed Stevenson’s footsteps round Edinburgh.

The Rights (& Wrongs) of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

It has become something of a ritual for me at this time of year, just when I’m most eagerly anticipating the change of seasons, to attend a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and, most years, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra obliges me by staging one. Last night’s performance, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, was a triumph. Sufficiently blood-stirring to bolster me through however many weeks of winter we have left to endure.

There are a couple of legal stories associated with The Rite of Spring that I recalled only vaguely going in. But the excellent program notes by Don Anderson filled in some of the details. And, diligent law & the arts blogger that I am, I did a bit of research today to ferret out more.

The most interesting tale relates to its debut performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. Though most often performed as a concert today, The Rite of Spring was conceived and debuted as a ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and performed by the Ballets Russes. The combined effect of Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s choreography was such a shock to the sensibilities of its first audience that it provoked what has been termed the best-known classical music riot in history. (How many contenders might there be for that honour? If you know any other stories that challenge the genteel image of classical music, please share them in the comments!)

Stravinsky wrote of the event: “Mild protests against the music could be heard from the beginning. Then, when the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke.” Carl van Vechten, who was in attendance that evening, explained: “A certain part of the audience was thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began to make catcalls and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed.” Others chimed in with contrary views. The vociferous debate soon degenerated into fisticuffs in the aisles. The police were summoned but were unable to fully restore order. Some accounts assert that the police shut the performance down at the intermission, others that it continued on chaotically to the end. Subsequent performances were not similarly disrupted. In fact, they were ecstatically received, and ultimately the controversy surrounding the debut served only to further burnish Stravinsky’s rising star.

The Rite of Spring’s second brush with law involved courts rather than police, after it was prominently featured in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film, Fantasia. At that point, Rite was in the public domain in North America, but it was protected by copyright elsewhere in the world, so Disney negotiated a licensing agreement with Stravinsky for a total of $6,000 to secure foreign distribution rights. Stravinsky was not impressed when he saw a preview of the film. He was unhappy with alterations that had been made to the music and he pronounced the performance of it “execrable.” But he did not seek legal recourse, whether because he believed the agreement he had signed precluded him from doing so or he was simply disinclined to litigate.

It was Boosey & Hawkes, music publishers who had purchased rights to the composition from Stravinsky in 1947, who took Disney to court decades later on the occasion of the release of the film on videocassette, alleging breach of contract and infringement of copyright in at least 18 countries. The litigation began in 1993 and continued for eight years, raising all manner of interesting issues about the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in international copyright matters, the effect of unforeseen technological advancements on licensing agreements, and the assignability of moral rights. Ultimately, however, after multiple court rulings, most but not all in their favour, Boosey & Hawkes settled for three million dollars.

To return focus to the music, here’s a bit of Rite-related viewing, courtesy of YouTube, to take you into the weekend.

Conductor Simon Rattle on Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring:

A recreation of the debut performance from the BBC drama Riot at the Rite:

And, finally, a snippet from the animated version in Disney’s Fantasia that Stravinsky found so objectionable:

Lawyer-Writers: Louis Auchincloss’s Compromise


The first fiction that I assign in my Law and Literature class each year is a couple of stories by lawyer-writers. I do this partly to provide inspiration to students who are writers and who fear that embarking on a legal career will mean abandoning their literary aspirations. But mostly, because it seems to me that one of the best ways to begin an exploration of the connections and tensions between law and literature is in the company of guides who straddle the boundary. On both counts, Louis Auchincloss fits the bill perfectly.

Auchincloss, who died last year at the age of ninety-two, spent forty years practicing law in a Wall Street firm, and also published more than sixty books in his lifetime, including forty-seven works of fiction. His star has never burned as brightly in the literary firmament as those of fellow New Yorkers Edith Wharton and Henry James, but his work garners sufficient respect that his name is sometimes mentioned alongside theirs.

As he revealed in his 1964 memoir, A Writer’s Capital, by virtue of his family, Auchincloss felt himself situated at the intersection of law and literature almost from birth. His father practiced corporate law at a single New York firm for fifty-seven years, and his mother was “an omnivorous reader” whose “literary opinions were pungent, incisive, always interesting,” and she was a skilled storyteller besides.

That’s not to say that law and literature fell into an easy accord for Auchincloss in adulthood. He spent many years zigzagging between the two pursuits. Initially, he doubted his literary powers, and was all but resigned to the idea that it was his destiny to follow his father into the legal profession: “I believed … that a man born to the responsibilities of a brownstone bourgeois world could only be an artist or writer if he were a genius, that he should not kick over the traces unless a resounding artistic success, universally recognized, should justify his otherwise ridiculous deviation. The world might need second-class lawyers and doctors; it did not need a second-class artist.” Perhaps it’s not surprising then that when his first novel, written as a Yale undergraduate, was rejected, he promptly enrolled in law school.

Auchincloss found, to his surprise, that he enjoyed the study of law: “For what was a case but a short story? What was the law but language?” For a time, his duties on law review served as a satisfying substitute for fiction writing. But once he’d graduated and taken a job in practice, the fiction bug bit again. He spent all his spare time writing and before long he had a couple of published novels under his belt. It didn’t interfere with his legal work and the partners at his firm regarded his writing good-naturedly as an interesting quirk. But if the writing didn’t interfere with his legal work, he feared that the same could not be said in reverse: “I was increasingly bothered by a nagging apprehension that I might be slighting my literary muse by not devoting myself full time to her.”

Once again, Auchincloss felt he must choose and this time he chose literature. He resigned from the firm to write full time. But after only a couple of years, he realized that this was a failed experiment: “To sum up the account of my nonlegal years, they added nothing to my stature as a writer. The main thing about them, of course, was to have been time, but even that proved an undependable friend. My writing hours increased, but both the quantity and quality of my writing remained the same.”

Auchincloss continued to write but also returned to practice: “People ask me how I manage to write and practice…. All I can say is that a great step was taken when I ceased to think of myself as a ‘lawyer’ or a ‘writer.’ I simply was doing what I was doing when I did it.” He termed this a “compromise” but it seems to me that it was something more than that. For it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing the two to co-exist, but of recognizing that both were of central importance to him and that, ultimately, they fed each other. He chose to practice in an area of law rich in human drama that offered inspiration for his fiction: “It is probably not a coincidence that my work has been largely with people and personal problems: planning of wills, of estates, setting up trusts, handling marital separations, divorces, as opposed to the more impersonal matters of corporate or municipal financing.” And in several of his novels and stories, he shone a light back on his legal milieu, creating incisive portraits of law firms and lawyers.

Much of Auchincloss’s fiction has no overt legal content, including the novel that many critics regard as his best, The Rector of Justin. (Although even here there is a legal footnote, as Auchincloss once revealed that he based the main character on Judge Learned Hand⎯yes, he of the formula that still lies at the heart of negligence law.) If you’ve not yet encountered Auchincloss’s work, you may wish to start there. But if you’re interested in his legal stories, I recommend the suite of stories in Tales of Manhattan about the firm of Arnold and Degener; the “loose-leaf novel” The Partners; and his final novel, Last of the Old Guard.

* The photograph of Louis Auchincloss that heads this post is taken from the cover of his posthumously published memoir, A Voice From Old New York.

Charles Dickens’ 1844 Copyright Suit

In January 1844, Charles Dickens launched a copyright suit in the Court of Chancery against printers and publishers Richard Egan Lee and John Haddock.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had been published on December 19, 1843, and not quite three weeks later, on January 6th, Lee & Haddock’s version, “re-originated” by Henry Hewitt, had appeared for sale under the title A Christmas Ghost Story. An outraged Dickens instructed his solicitor to “stop the Vagabonds” at once. Over a whirlwind three days, his bill of complaint was filed, and an interim injunction sought and obtained.

Dickens was known to be an advocate of copyright, having caused quite a stir during his 1842 visit to the U.S. with speeches agitating for an international agreement. But despite having been a frequent victim of domestic piracy, he had never before taken legal action to enforce the copyright protection available to him at home.

Why, then, did he act with such alacrity in January 1844? Perhaps because his hopes for A Christmas Carol were so high. Dickens had attained enormous success by this time, but his fortunes appeared to be on the wane. Critics had not been enthusiastic about his most recent books, and sales had dropped so precipitously that his publishers were poised to invoke a contractual clause that entitled them to reduce their payments to him accordingly. Indeed, their faith in the marketability of his work had soured to the extent that they rejected A Christmas Carol. Dickens had to self-publish, taking all of the responsibility and the risks upon himself. But he did not hesitate to do so, so convinced was he that the book would revive his critical status and earn him a quick profit as well.

Dickens’ confidence proved well founded. The reviews were raves; even William Thackeray, usually his harshest critic, had nothing negative to say, pronouncing A Christmas Carol to be “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” The book went through three printings in two weeks, with 15,000 copies sold in that space of time ⎯extraordinary numbers given the steep price of 5 shillings charged for each lavishly produced volume. But that lavishness, particularly the inclusion of colour plates, rendered the profit margin very slim, so runaway success though it was, many more copies would have to be sold before Dickens could pocket the “thousand pounds clear” on which he had set his heart.

Thus Dickens’ concern over the potential undercutting of sales by Lee & Haddock’s penny edition was understandable. But if bringing suit against them was initially a business decision, the affidavits they filed in support of their motion to dissolve the interim injunction transformed it into a matter of personal honour.

Lee & Haddock maintained that A Christmas Ghost Story was not simply a copy of A Christmas Carol, but a considerable improvement upon it, and hence an original work. Henry Hewitt had, it was averred, “tastefully remedied” the “defects and inconsistencies” in Dickens’ work, and supplemented it with “a more artistical style of expression” and “large original additions.” For example, Lee pointed out, where Dickens had made only a brief mention of Tiny Tim singing a song about a child lost in the snow, Hewitt had penned an original song of sixty lines that was “replete with pathos and poetry.” They went further to allege that Dickens was in fact indebted to Hewitt, having obtained “the germs of many of his works” from the “hints” and “criticisms” contained in Hewitt’s earlier re-originations of The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, both also procured, published and sold by Lee & Haddock. Finally, Hewitt himself claimed that Dickens owed more “to the works of an author named Washington Irving for the material of his Christmas Carol” than Hewitt did to Dickens for his Christmas Ghost Story.

Judge Knight Bruce, before whom the motion to dissolve the interim injunction was heard on January 18th, was not convinced. He opined: “The defendant has printed and published a novel, of which the fable, the persons, the names of persons, the characters, the age and time, and scene and country, are wholly the same. The style of language in which the story is told is in some instances identical, and in all similar.” He concluded that, in his view, the defendants’ publication was “plainly colourable,” and, on that basis, he upheld the injunction.

Dickens was ebullient, declaring: “The pirates are beaten flat. They are bruised, bloody, battered, smashed, squelched, and utterly undone.” Of course, these were only preliminary motions. For a final resolution from the courts, Dickens would have to bring the matter to trial. But given the decisiveness of the judge’s rejection of the defendants’ arguments, Dickens suspected that a trial would not be necessary, and so it proved. After some hedging, the defendants accepted Dickens’ terms, agreeing to apologize for their affidavits and to pay all of Dickens’ costs.

Alas for Dickens, it did not end there. Lee & Haddock promptly declared bankruptcy, thereby evading their obligation to pay his costs and leaving him on the hook for a substantial sum. In the end, Dickens’ costs swallowed nearly all the profits that A Christmas Carol had generated, leaving him feeling much scarred by the experience. Some years later, when it was suggested that he take action against another instance of piracy, Dickens recalled “the expense, and anxiety and horrible injustice of the Carol case,” and declined to proceed. He concluded that “it is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.”

If Dickens obtained neither justice nor financial recompense from his foray into the Court of Chancery, the experience did provide direct inspiration for one of his finest novels, Bleak House. For that, I can’t help but think it was worth every bit of “the mental trouble and disturbance” he had to endure.

Sources:

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).

E.T. Jaques, Charles Dickens in Chancery (1914).

Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (2008).

Kathleen Tillotson, ed., The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 4 1844-1846 (1977).

* The above illustration is The Court of Chancery, drawn by Augustus Charles Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11).