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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2014

Introduction

Summary

Thomas Hardy was an acting magistrate for most of his fiction-writing career and was deeply immersed in the law at a time of prolific legal reform when common law, based on tradition and precedent, was rigorously examined and reformed based on the principles of reason rather than tradition. This reform can be traced back to 1776 when Jeremy Bentham argued that the law, as it was set out in William Blackstone's four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England, was a defunct system that had evolved into an expansive mass of contradictory precedent-based rulings. He urged the need to reform and codify the law according to the principles of precision, uniformity and universal applicability. Bentham's criticism led to the wide-ranging legal reforms of the nineteenth century, which began in earnest on 7 February 1828 when Lord Henry Brougham made a six-hour speech (the longest in the history of the Commons) which instigated the reform of the legal system. This reform was overseen by the Law Amendment Society and driven by the principles of utilitarianism advocated by Bentham. What I am interested in here is not fictional responses to utilitarianism, which was of course famously undermined by Dickens, but how this unprecedented overhaul of a long-established legal system exposed the law as a construct and how in turn that affected fictional evaluations of the law in the nineteenth century.