Inheritance and insanity: transatlantic depictions of property and criminal law in nineteenth century Scottish and American fiction
Wall, Brian Robert
Participants in the critical enterprise of “Law and Literature” tend to center their arguments on the question of literature’s utility to the study and practice of law. I focus instead on the reciprocal corollary: how can an understanding of law influence a critical reading of literature? Taking cues from discussions in Renaissance studies of law and literature and drawing on my own legal training, I assert that transatlantic literary studies provides both a conceptual framework for positing a reciprocal relationship between law and literature and, in nineteenth century Scottish and American depictions of property and criminal law, a crucial test case for this exploration by uncovering new “legal fictions” within these texts. I begin my first chapter by situating my work within recent critical work in Law and Literature. While most scholarship in the “law in literature” subcategory since James Boyd White’s influential 1973 text The Legal Imagination has focused on how (and if) literary studies can help current and future legal practitioners through what Maria Aristodemou calls “instrumental” and “humanistic” mechanisms, recent work, particularly by a dedicated group of interdisciplinary scholars in Renaissance studies, has focused on the law’s benefit to literary studies in this field. I explore the critical mechanisms employed by these scholars as well as by scholars in nineteenth century literary studies such as Ian Ward. I then turn to transatlantic literary studies, arguing that the approaches outlined by Susan Manning, Joselyn Almeida, and others provide a framework that can give nineteenth-century literary studies a similar framework to that proposed by Aristodemou: an “instrumental” method of giving greater precision to discussions of how historical institutions and hierarchies are depicted in nineteenth century literature, and a “humanistic” method of extending beyond historicist approaches to see beyond the often artificial demarcations of literary period and genre by finding commonalities that transcend disciplinary and historical borders. I conclude this introduction by identifying the legal and literary parameters of my project in the legal-political tensions of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Scotland and America. My second chapter focuses on property law and the question of inheritance, reading Walter Scott’s Rob Roy and The Bride of Lammermoor alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables to demonstrate how the narratives play with two dueling theories of inheritance law – meritocratic and feudal – and how those dueling legal theories impact the events of the tales themselves. After outlining tensions between older but still prevalent ideas of feudal succession and newer but admittedly flawed in execution notions of meritocratic land transfer, I explore how Scott’s and Hawthorne’s narratives demonstrate the inability of their characters to reconcile these notions. Both Rob Roy and The House of the Seven Gables seem to demonstrate the triumph of deserving but legally alienated protagonists over their titled foes; both novels, however, end with the reconciliation of all parties through ostensibly love-based weddings that perform the legal function of uniting competing land claims, thus providing a suspiciously easy resolution to the legal conflict at the heart of both stories. While reconciliation makes the legal controversies at the heart of these stories ultimately irrelevant, the legal nihilism of The Bride of Lammermoor takes the opposite tactic, demonstrating both the individual shortcomings of the Ashton and Ravenswood families and the systemic failure of Scottish property law’s feudalism to achieve equitable outcomes. I next turn to the question of insanity in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and James Hogg’s “Strange Letter of a Lunatic,” arguing that both narratives complicate the legal definition of insanity by showing gaps between the legislative formulation and actual application to their fictional defendants. After developing the different viewpoints towards criminal culpability articulated by the American (but based on English law) and Scottish versions of the insanity defense, I turn first to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe’s narrator, I argue, deliberately develops a narrative that takes him outside the protections of the insanity defense, insisting on his own culpability despite – or perhaps because of – the implications for his own punishment. Meanwhile, Hogg’s narrative, both in its original draft form for Blackwood’s and its published version in Fraser’s, paints a different picture of a narrator who avoids criminal punishment but finds himself confined in asylum custody. These two areas of inheritance and insanity collide in my exploration of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frank Norris’s McTeague, where I illustrate the relationship between the urban demographics and zoning laws of both the real and fictional versions of London and San Francisco and the title characters’ mentally ill but probably not legally insane murderers. After demonstrating Stevenson’s and Norris’s link between psychology and the complex amalgamations of their fictional cityscapes, I demonstrate how these cityscapes also allow them to sidestep rather than embrace mental illness as an excuse for their murderous protagonists’ crimes, indicting the institutions at the center of their texts as equally divided and flawed.