Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Summer Reading: Legal Fiction

TopTenList

I made a rash promise earlier this week during the Dean’s Welcome Webcast to post a top ten list of legal fiction by way of a bit of suggested summer reading. I’m not exactly going to make good on that promise here as I’m highly resistant to the “top ten” part of the proposition. To truly come up with a top ten, I’d have to have an exhaustive knowledge of the field and, while I read a lot, I certainly haven’t read everything. Plenty of worthy books are bound to be left off my list simply because I haven’t yet read them. Further, I’m mindful that this is an inherently subjective exercise. The books I choose to highlight are those that appeal to my particular literary tastes and legal interests, not necessarily the best books by any objective criteria. So consider this list not a top ten, but simply a preliminary reading list of legal fiction that I found entertaining, insightful, or challenging (in the best cases, all three). Here they are, in order of publication, with (I hope) enough detail to pique your interest without giving too much away:

Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens: More than a century and a half after its initial publication, this novel centering on the seemingly interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is still distressingly relevant on issues related to legal ethics, legal obfuscation, and justice delayed as justice denied. It also contains some of the most memorable and entertaining lawyer characters in literature including the sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn, the odious Mr. Vholes, and (possibly my favourite) young Mr. Guppy who is utterly enamoured with the language of the law. It’s nearly a thousand pages long, but when I reached the end, I wished there was more of it. (Incidentally, if you like to listen rather than read, there’s a wonderful audio version available narrated by Robert Whitfield.)

The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka: Kafka stands alongside Shakespeare, Dickens, and Orwell as one of the authors most frequently referenced in legal decisions. And when judges or lawyers refer to proceedings or outcomes as Kafkaesque, they are likely thinking of The Trial, a novel in which the main character, Josef K., finds himself caught up in the nightmare of a trial on charges which are never specified via processes that he doesn’t understand.

Strong Poison (1930) by Dorothy Sayers: This is the installment in Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series in which Harriet Vane, one of my favourite characters in crime fiction, is introduced. Bohemian author Vane is on trial for the murder of her former lover, and Wimsey must solve the mystery of who killed him in order to prove her innocent and save her from the gallows.

Tragedy at Law (1942) by Cyril Hare: Hare wrote a series of mystery novels set in the legal world based on his own experiences as an English barrister and judge. In this one, regarded by many as his best, High Court judge Mr. Justice Barber first receives threatening letters, then is subjected to an attempt on his life while moving from town to town to preside over cases in the southern English circuit. Barrister and amateur detective Francis Pettigrew sets out to discover who wants Barber dead before that person succeeds in the endeavour.

Tales of Manhattan (1967) by Louis Auchincloss: Auchincloss was an extraordinarily prolific writer as well as a practicing lawyer for seven decades, beginning in the 1940s until his death in 2010. In his fiction he depicted the world of New York high society and the Wall Street lawyers and bankers who served its interests. Gore Vidal wrote of him: “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs.” Tales of Manhattan includes a suite of stories which depicts a fictional New York law firm from multiple perspectives. These stories are very much of their time and place and thereby illuminate a particular historical moment in U.S. society and legal practice. But they also explore, as do many of Auchincloss’s works, tensions between legal ambition and creative aspirations in a way that may resonate for the would-be lawyer-writers among you.

The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie (2005): This book unites Komie’s many law-themed stories that were originally dispersed throughout earlier collections published between 1983 and 1999. Like Auchincloss, Komie is at once an acclaimed fiction writer and a practicing attorney but his territory is Chicago and the legal world that he depicts in these stories is that of the 1970s and 80s. Consequently, the cast of law students, lawyers, and judges that he depicts is much more diverse. Legal practice has changed considerably in the intervening years, but many of the personal and professional conflicts that Komie’s characters face will still seem familiar to today’s lawyers and law students.

Alias Grace (1996) by Margaret Atwood: This Giller prize winner is my favourite of Margaret Atwood’s books. It’s a historical novel that is based on a notorious 19th century Canadian case in which a maid was convicted of the brutal murders of her employer and his housekeeper. Atwood’s rendition of the story takes the reader into the mind of the convicted murderer, now serving out a life sentence and claiming to have no memory of the crime. It also explores the question of her innocence or guilt through the eyes of a fictional doctor who is researching her case.

George & Rue (2005) by George Elliot Clarke: This novel is based on the story of two African Canadian brothers who were convicted of and executed for the murder of a taxi driver in the course of a robbery in New Brunswick in 1949. Clarke became intrigued by the story upon learning that he was related to the brothers and set out to imagine, through innovative use of the historical record, what led up to the commission of this crime.

The Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich: Erdrich’s National Book Award winning novel tells the story of 13-year-old Joe’s quest for justice in the aftermath of an assault on his mother on their Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. The richness of the novel is nicely summed up in its National Book Award citation: “Erdrich has created an intricately layered novel that not only untangles our nation’s history of moral and judicial failure, but also offers a portrait of a community sustained by its traditions, values, faith, and stories.”

NW (2012) by Zadie Smith: In this novel, Smith paints a portrait of contemporary London through the eyes of a group of characters linked by the shared history of growing up in a housing estate in the city’s northwest. One of the key characters is barrister Natalie Blake who confronts sexism and racism in the legal profession, and struggles with the gulf between the world in which she grew up and the one she inhabits now to which law has, in part, provided a conduit. The picture that emerges of London, of the legal profession, and of Natalie is complex and challenging.

I could very easily add twenty more books to this list, but I said ten so I’ll stop there. But I also said preliminary, so I invite you to add your own favourites in the comments below, and also any reflections you may have on the books I’ve highlighted here. I would be very happy to come away with some new titles to add to my summer reading!

Take-Homes from the Museum of London’s Dickens Exhibition: An App & a Facsimile Manuscript

I’m immersed in Dickens these days, completing a draft of the chapter devoted to his 1844 copyright case in my book about writers’ lawsuits, and am consequently paying even more attention than I might otherwise have done to news of publications, exhibitions, and events related to the 200th anniversary of his birth.

This week, all the buzz is about Dickens and London, an exhibition opening today at the Museum of London which “recreat[es] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections,” thereby taking visitors “on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired [Dickens'] writings.” On display are “paintings, photographs, costumes, and objects” including rarely seen hand-written manuscripts of Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. See the Telegraph, the Guardian, and BBC News for tantalizing previews.

But what is the Dickens fan who dwells far outside of London to do, besides book a flight immediately? Happily, there are a few elements of the exhibition that can be enjoyed at home.

First, there is Dickens: Dark London, an app for iPads and iPhones. Described as “an interactive graphic novel” based on Dickens’ late night walks about the city as described in Sketches by Boz, it includes narration by actor Mark Strong, and marvelously atmospheric drawings by illustrator David Foldvari. Also included is an 1860s map of the terrain overlaid with a current one for the viewer to navigate, as well as other interactive features. The first edition focuses on Seven Dials, with more material due to be added in subsequent editions each month through June 2012, echoing the serial publication by which most of Dickens’ work initially appeared. (NYT, Reuters)

Second, a facsimile edition of the original hand-written manuscript of Great Expectations is due to be published this month by Cambridge University Press. Crammed with crossings-out and scribbled-in additions, it enables a glimpse into Dickens’ creative process. See a detailed description and a slide show of some of its pages in the Guardian. For the frisson of seeing Dickens’ words in his own handwriting firsthand, a visit to the exhibition to see the original is still in order. But what luxury to be able to acquire a facsimile of it to study in leisure at home.

So, if a trip to London is not currently in the cards, a trip to the app store and/or the bookstore may provide some consolation.

New on my Bookshelf: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

My latest acquisition is a book that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for some time: Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. Why such excitement over a new biography of a figure as well known and much written about as Charles Dickens? I concede that I’m not expecting any grand new revelations on the eve of the 200th anniversary of his birth. But I’m something of a connoisseur of literary biography, and despite having delved into a number in my recent research on Dickens (you may recall that he’s the subject of a chapter in my book-in-progress on writers’ lawsuits), I haven’t yet found one that strikes quite the right balance for me. I’m hopeful that Tomalin’s new book will prove to be just what I seek.

What is it that I look for in literary biography? There are those who contend that writers’ work is all that matters, that their life stories are irrelevant, indeed, that knowledge of their lives may well impede rather than enhance appreciation of their work. I have some sympathy for that view. Certainly I would always put the work first. But, both as a writer and a reader, I’m deeply interested in process, in how the work that we value so highly was created. What were the material conditions within which the work was produced? How did the subjects develop as writers? Which authors and what books did they read along the way? Did they have collaborators, supporters, detractors, helping or hindering their work? If they drew on their lives in their work, how did they transform their experiences into literature? (On that last point, I hasten to add that I have little patience for simplistic quests to identify which real person a fictional character was based on, and so on. I believe that most writers find fodder for writing in their lives, but that good fiction is seldom a direct representation of experience but rather a transformation of it into something else, independent of its origins.) Thus whether or not learning about writers’ lives enhances my appreciation of their work very much depends on where biographers’ emphases lie in their explorations of those lives.

Based on Claire Tomalin‘s track record, I have high hopes that her biography of Dickens is just the sort that I would like to read. (Of her many highly-lauded biographies, her most recent, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, was a particular favourite of mine.) Certainly the reviews in the UK, where the Dickens biography has been out for a few weeks now, are promising. In the Telegraph, Judith Flanders writes that “Tomalin’s psychological analysis is acute, isolating that elusive something that made Dickens great [...] and when it comes to analysing the novels, she is magisterial.” In the Guardian, William Boyd concurs and elaborates: “The work remains and endures – and Tomalin analyses the novels with great acuity – but what is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges.” In the Independent, Boyd Tonkin opines: “Even dedicated Dickensians will know, and understand, much more about the novelist after reading Tomalin’s close-packed but free-flowing narrative,” then concludes: “For the moment, she has captured Dickens, in sun and shadow, with all the full-hearted exuberance, generosity and keen wit that he merits.”

I’ll share my own views here once I’ve read it. In the meantime, if you fancy learning more about the book, click here to read an excerpt, and here to watch an interview with Tomalin about it. And below, you can find Penguin’s video introduction to the book in which Tomalin provides her own answer to the question of why another biography of Dickens seemed worth doing:

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).