The Mistrials of Reading: Reimagining Law in British Literature, 1787-1819 Open Access

Whitney, Julian (Spring 2018)

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This dissertation investigates how Romantic-era literature can legislate a code of ethics in a way the law is not always able to do, thus making the literary text an important counter-weight to abusive legal regimes in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Britain. In my project, I argue that trial scenes in Enlightenment and Romantic-era works become an important focal point for a more extended analysis of the legal, political, racial, class, and gender norms of the time. I provide readings of William Blake, William Godwin, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Shelley, as they challenge the systems of marriage law, masculinist authority, the death penalty, and the transatlantic slave trade.


By showing how these authors problematize notions of justice and judgment, I expose the extent to which law in their writings remains at odds with ethical principles. As a result, I contend that Romantic literature not only reveals the fallacies within the legal system, but also calls for a reimagining of justice that challenges us to re-evaluate the role of ethics in law. My own intervention in Romantic literary studies consists of critiquing literature as a genre with a disciplinary legislative function, one that ultimately helped inform the public view about the legal debates taking place in England at the time. I consider events such as the 1794 Treason Trials and 1795 Gagging Acts in my critique, looking for ways to show how these authors wrote literature to address the crises of literary censorship, government surveillance, slave trafficking and state-sanctioned violence. In a sense, what we discover is that these writers were practitioners of political persuasion who contributed to a greater discourse of legal critique motivated by their collective opposition to English tyranny and the corrupt legal foundations that sustained it. In the end, my project comes full circle – it shows how literature exposes the ethical limitations of law while prescribing how one can re-imagine the parameters of justice and thus better conceptualize a vision of equal rights.

Table of Contents

           Introduction: Legislating Romantic Literature                                                      1




          I.     Mythologies of Tyranny in The Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas                  17




        II.     Confessional Narratives in Caleb Williams and The Wrongs of Woman            56




      III.     Crime and Punishment in Percy Shelley’s The Cenci                                       100




      IV.     Cugoano’s Critique of Law and Slavery in Thoughts and Sentiments              146



           Bibliography                                                                                                      190






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