Thursday, May 7, 2020

Wright on Privilege and Peril in the British empire

This one is literary in focus, but there's lots on the history of legal ideas here, too. Nicole Mansfield Wright (University of Colorado, Boulder) has published Defending Privilege; Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel with Johns Hopkins University Press. The book is described as "a critique of attempts by conservative eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors to appropriate the rhetoric of victimhood and appeals to 'rights' to safeguard the status of the powerful." From the publisher: 
'Defending Privilege' cover imageAs revolution and popular unrest roiled the final decades of the eighteenth century, authors, activists, and philosophers across the British Empire hailed the rise of the liberal subject, valorizing the humanity of the marginalized and the rights of members of groups long considered inferior or subhuman. Yet at the same time, a group of conservative authors mounted a reactionary attempt to cultivate sympathy for the privileged. In Defending Privilege, Nicole Mansfield Wright examines works by Tobias Smollett, Charlotte Smith, Walter Scott, and others to show how conservatives used the rhetoric of victimhood in attempts to convince ordinary readers to regard a privileged person's loss of legal agency as a catastrophe greater than the calamities and legally sanctioned exclusion suffered by the poor and the enslaved. In promoting their agenda, these authors resuscitated literary modes regarded at the time as derivative or passé—including romance, the gothic, and epistolarity—or invented subgenres that are neglected today due to widespread revilement of their politics (the proslavery novel).
Although these authors are not typically considered alongside one another in scholarship, they are united by their firsthand experience of legal conflict: each felt that their privilege was degraded through lengthy disputes. In examining the work of these eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century authors, Wright traces a broader reactionary framework in the Anglophone literary legacy. Each novel seeks to reshape and manipulate public perceptions of who merits legal agency: the right to initiate a lawsuit, serve as a witness, seek counsel from a lawyer, and take other legal actions. As a result, Defending Privilege offers a counterhistory to scholarship on the novel's capacity to motivate the promulgation of human rights and champion social ascendance through the upwardly mobile realist character.
 Praise for the book:

"This book will change the way scholars think about law in relation to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fiction. Wright departs from conventional wisdom and makes provocative original arguments that cast fresh light on topics both familiar and un-familiar, connecting British literary history to some of the most pressing questions of our own time." - Jenny Davidson

"Defending Privilege is that rare thing, a truly original, indeed provocative work. That word in some ways does a disservice to the impressive scholarship, research, and thoughtfulness that mark its every page, but it identifies the dazzling perversity the book everywhere displays, not least in selecting the subjects at its heart. Nicole Mansfield Wright not only illuminates writers and texts that have been neglected or maligned within the broad canon of the long eighteenth century, but offers a way of reading for the law and for new models of agency within this motley assortment of conservative authors. Weaving their works together into a fine, elegant, and complicated recapitulation of the essential cultural questions of power and narrative, Wright brings to the fore unexpected voices of social resistance within even the most reactionary fictions and offers a clarion call to take seriously those claims, these legal standards, and the novel's peculiar capacity to represent complexity. This is a book that calls upon all of us to rethink some of our most comforting, if least rigorous, ideas about what kind of literature 'matters'—which is simply to say, this is a book that itself matters deeply even as it impresses and delights." - Hilary M. Schor

"Defending Privilege reconstructs a literary tradition in which fallen aristocrats mourn their own loss of status; the rich complain about the mediocre aspirations of the poor; and slaveholders feel a love for the enslaved that would be threatened, not fulfilled, by their emancipation. Nicole Wright's argument is compelling and resonant, too, since today, as in the eighteenth century, some of the most eloquent, elaborate, and tortured lamentations against liberal justice systems arise, like a shriek, from the wounded entitlement of elites." - Caleb Smith

Further information is available here.

--posted by Mitra Sharafi