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Chapter 4 explores the legal position of women through William Blackstone’s pronouncements on the law of coverture. The chapter considers the dissemination of ideas about women’s legal disabilities in marriage through popular literature, educational material and handbooks for magistrates. It concludes that, by the end of the eighteenth century, coverture was far more important for poor women (and men), interpellated by the laws of settlement and removal, than it was for elite women.
Chapter 5 continues the discussion of Chapter 4 through a consideration of the unfinished manuscript that Mary Wollstonecraft left behind at her death: The Wrongs of Women; or Maria. Under coverture, William Godwin owned Wollstonecraft’s writing during their brief marriage and after she died. Copyright law, as experienced by men and women, is discussed in relation to coverture. Wollstonecraft’s polemic in the novel, on the law of marriage, is discussed in relation to the working-class figure of Jemima, whose own account of the law focuses the next chapter.
William Godwin’s condemnation of all law in Political Justice is explored through his novel Things As They Are; or Caleb Williams. Caleb’s failure to hate the law reasonably and well is his very point—as a character. Lawyer-reviewers of the novel were more than unkind about Godwin’s knowledge and understanding of the law; Godwin had the troubles that most historians experience with the law.
This final part of History and the Law is deliberately not labelled a chapter, in order to match ‘A Beginning’, which reproduces Stephen Dunn’s poem ‘History’. There is further reflection on history and the law as narrative, and the practical difficulties facing any historian who attempts to write about the law. The development (and their demise) of legal aid and advice in twentieth-century Britain is related to William Godwin’s writing about law that didn’t happen – wasn’t enacted – in the Commonwealth period. Such narrative difficulties in writing about the law are discussed in reference to the law imaginings of Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and George Agamben.
Chapter 6 uses the fictional working-class Jemima’s account of the poor laws and the laws of settlement and removal to discuss a series of cases involving poor and pauper women in interaction with the law. Material is drawn from magistrates’ proceedings and from the records of the court of King’s Bench, where some of the cases, including that of the slave servant Charlotte Howe, were sent on appeal. The judges’ (including William Blackstone and chief justice Mansfield) attitudes towards the poor laws are discussed.
Chapter 3 has a dual focus: it describes the law troubles of E. P. Thompson and his research assistant Edward Dodd in investigating eighteenth-century threatening letters for ‘The Crime of Anonymity’, and it explores threatening letters themselves as windows onto popular law consciousness. The research relationship between Thompson and Dodd was conducted by letter, and the chapter raises questions about letter-writing as a social and legal practice.
In the 1790s Godwin was implacable in his dislike of the law; thirty years on, as a historian rather than a political philosopher, he fell a little bit in love with it as he described the law projects and reforms of the Commonwealth period. His approbation grew thought the four volumes of his History of the Commonwealth of England. The chapter traces his journey from hatred to love. It also consider Godwin’s theoretical piece on ‘History and Romance’ (1797) in order to draw together the discussion of history-writing that runs through the book.
The ‘ziggy shape’ comes from Stephen Dunn’s poem ‘History’, which is explored throughout the chapter. It engages with Penelope Corfield’s Time and the Shape of History. It sets out the troubles that historians have had in writing about law experience in the past. Using Laurence Sterne’s account of writing history in Tristram Shandy, Chapter 2 explores the narrative shape of history and of the law. The chapter also explores Sterne’s own experience of the law in eighteenth-century Yorkshire.
Some ordinary working people at the turn of the nineteenth century appear to have had the knowledge and the means to employ an attorney to write a legally threatening letter to those who had offended them in some way, thus bypassing the ‘official’ legal channel of the local magistrate. Their law consciousness is explored by examining four specific cases of a purchased ‘lawyer’s letter’ and by the variety of jokes – terrifying comedy – they made about the law.
Focusing on everyday legal experiences, from that of magistrates, novelists and political philosophers, to maidservants, pauper men and women, down-at-heel attorneys and middling-sort wives in their coverture, History and the Law reveals how people thought about, used, manipulated and resisted the law between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries. Supported by clear, engaging examples taken from the historical record, and from the writing of historians including Laurence Sterne, William Godwin, and E. P. Thompson, who each had troubled love affairs with the law, Carolyn Steedman puts the emphasis on English poor laws, copyright law, and laws regarding women. Evocatively written and highly original, History and the Law accounts for historians' strange ambivalent love affair with the law and with legal records that appear to promise access to so many lives in the past.