Friday, February 16, 2007

Meyler on Wilkie Collins and Written Law vs. Literature in the Transmission of Legal Ideas

Another paper that is, in part, about the way legal ideas are transmitted. Bernadette A. Meyler, Cornell, has posted an essay, Transparency and Textuality: Wilkie Collins' Law Books. It is forthcoming in Austin Sarat, ed., IN THE SECRETS OF LAW, (Stanford University Press, 2007). Here's the abstract:
This article takes as its starting point the priority that Anglo-American legal thought has, in recent centuries, placed upon transparency, a priority that has relied, in large part, on the notion that the law should increasingly be recorded and publicly accessible. Through his representation of trial narratives - an extremely popular quasi-literary form during the nineteenth century - as well as the work of William Blackstone in his supposedly comprehensive Commentaries on the Laws of England, nineteenth-century novelist Wilkie Collins calls into question the idea that simply disseminating textual versions of the law or the records of legal processes will be able to furnish transparent access to the law for the lay reader. One of the difficulties he identifies is that of translating the law from the printed page into action; an exchange between two of the protagonists in Armadale who flip through Blackstone to determine whether any impediments would block their marriage demonstrates some of the challenges inherent in imagining the law in action in the absence of knowledge of the legal institutions that implement it. The other obstacle to transparency that Collins represents concerns the unreliability of the accounts of the proceedings of these same legal institutions. In The Law and the Lady, Collins focuses on the trial report, a form that first took on a literary dimension with the causes celebres of pre-Revolutionary France and acquired a similar cultural place in nineteenth-century England and America, and upon which Collins himself relied in constructing the plots of his novels. Through incorporating a fictional trial report into The Law and the Lady, Collins elucidates some of the ways in which trial narratives themselves partook of a literary construction, emphasizing aspects of coherence and continuity over factual accuracy. In both cases, Collins appears to suggest a model of legal reading that does not simply treat the written law as self-executing or the report of a trial as an entirely accurate account but instead adopts a critical and active stance.

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