Law in Literature

Yesterday, I talked about Lawyers in Literature (lucky lawyers) – today, it’s the law itself. The law pops up in all sorts of fiction – not just detective stories. For instance, there’s bigamy in Jane Eyre, poaching in Danny the Champion of the World, and the export of wealth in Trustee from the Toolroom. None of these books is about the law, but the law is an important part of the plot. In Jane Eyre, the bigamous nature of the marriage ceremony with Rochester is why Jane leaves him; in Danny the Champion of the World, the main reason for poaching pheasants is that Danny’s dad doesn’t like the owner of the woods – but it’s still illegal. In Trustee from the Toolroom, Keith Stewart has to travel to the Caribbean to find a fortune in diamonds hidden in the wreck of his sister’s yacht, so that he can use them to pay for his orphaned niece’s education and upbringing. The book isn’t about the diamonds as such – it’s about Keith’s journey and the people he meets along the way. (And there’s a Congreve Clock in it.) However, the fact that it was illegal to convert one’s entire personal wealth to diamonds and emigrate with it to America, hence the need to hide them in the yacht is what starts the whole tale off.

The law is something that touches everyone’s lives, and it is also a means of making people do – or not do – things in a way they wouldn’t otherwise choose. The law, then, produces conflict, and conflict is what makes a story.

However, it’s quite important for authors to know when they’ve just brushed up against a law, because it has pretty big narrative implications. And the law now isn’t always the same as the law then, nor is the law here necessarily the same as the law there.

In Jill Paton Walsh’s The Attenbury Emeralds, Walsh gets it right. A central part of the plot is that Lord Attenbury has just died, and in order to pay the Estate Duty (which is now Inheritance Tax) the new Lord Attenbury has to sell the family’s huge, famous, emerald. Only, someone is saying that the emerald – which has been in the family for generations – isn’t really theirs at all. A key driver for the plot, therefore, is the Estate Duty. And nowadays, it’s a flat rate: 40% tax to be paid on everything over £325,000 of a person’s estate when they die. However, The Attenbury Emeralds is set in 1951, and the Estate Tax then was a progressive tax, with the top rate (for estates worth over £1,000,000) being a whopping 80% (44% on agricultural property). This kind of tax would certainly induce the financial panic required to make the book exciting: if the emerald isn’t located (or proved to be the right one) and sold, then Lord Attenbury will have to sell his ancestral home.

On the other hand, not every author gets it right. Sometimes, this is probably due to differences in culture between the author and the book’s setting. A Deadly Affair is set in 18th-century England – in 1763. A major plot point is a marriage which takes place in an inn bedroom. I suspect that the Australian author doesn’t realise that in England, it isn’t legal to get married in anything other than premises licensed for that purpose. So that important wedding wouldn’t have been a wedding at all… And, to add insult to injury, the statute that introduced regulations regarding where weddings could take place was the Marriage Act 1753. So if she’d set the book a mere eleven years earlier, she would have got away with it!

Other times, it seems to be more a result of assuming that something is illegal when it isn’t. In Frozen Charlotte, a woman walks into an Accident and Emergency department holding a baby that is not just dead, but mummified. It turns out that the baby was the result of a clandestine surrogacy arrangment, involving a home birth supervised by an unqualified midwife, and so forth. However, the author didn’t seem to realise that surrogacy arrangements are not, in fact, illegal. The characters’ motivations – and thus the story – really only make sense if surrogacy isn’t legal, requiring all the secrecy and complicated (illegal) arrangements made by the couple. Once you know that surrogacy is legal, the story collapses because the characters’ motivations just don’t make sense. Why do something a complicated and illegal way if there’s an easier, legal, way to do it?

So the law presents both opportunities and pitfalls for the author – it can form the basis of a whole narrative, or it can destroy a plot. Either way, you can’t afford to ignore it.

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