Literature as Equity in British Cultural History
The project undertakes two of the central questions posed by the CRC: Does law need literature? And does literature need the law? These questions are a point of departure for this project, which focuses on British literary, cultural and legal history during the 18th and 19th centuries. During the first four years the specific focus of the project is geared towards equity jurisdiction in the Court of Chancery in Britain from 1800 to the mid-19th century. The PIs postulate that the cultural dominance of the rule of law post-monarchy wanes throughout the 19th century when a new national English literature begins to take over. This shows, for instance, in literature’s equity function. The project identifies a moment in British history when Rule of Law is instituted as an ideal means of government over all elements and group of society, which is the result of the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent constitutional monarchy at the close of the 17th century. This transition also concerns literary production, for literature considers itself an elemental pillar in this construction of law, but at the same time, literature is also seen as a disruptive power that must be controlled due to its critical and subversive voices. The notion of literature as embedded in a primarily juridical idea of society experiences its highpoint and simultaneous first crisis in Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism as it clashes with Romantic notions of the role of literature. We can see a paradigm change from a literary practice that negotiates the nature of the law, confronts jurisdiction as oppressive and discusses legal practices, which means that at this moment literature is partly constituted by the law, until during the 19th century literature increasingly turns away from the law and emancipates itself as a cultural entity in its own right. At the same time, literature’s dramatization of itself as such a cultural entity in its own right also falls back on legal patterns and foundations, so that there is a perpetual reciprocity between literary and legal discourses. In the event, writers such as Charles Dickens and Matthew Arnold arrive at a concept of society that rests on literary pillars, until this understanding of a literary society comes to a crisis towards the end of the 19th century.