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Comptes rendus

Cathrine O. Franck, Law, Literature and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925

Marion Charret-Del Bove
p. 241-245
Bibliographical reference

Cathrine O. Franck, Law, Literature and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925, Farnham, Ashgate, 2010, 250 p. ISBN 978-1-4094-0014-1

Full text

1The purpose of this book is to follow and analyse the reciprocity between the realist novel’s use of the will, its negotiation with legal culture, and the construction of Victorian cultural identity between 1837, a year marked by the coronation of Queen Victoria and the enactment of the Wills Act and 1925 when the Administration of Estates Act was passed. Cathrine O. Franck’s main argument is that during this period of time there was a change in the conception of subjectivity. Such a change was epitomized by a shift from the private notion of character to the social label of identity. Hence, the author seeks to explain how wills participated in that shift in so far as it was, as she puts it, “a legal register of identity” (3). She also argues that literature developed alternative ways of defining one’s self and one’s culture.

2In the introduction, Franck goes back to the establishment of the legal will as one single document in 1837: it was adopted through the merging of the two forms of bequest that had existed before, namely the devise to dispose of real property and the testament to dispose of personal property. Then, the author clearly announces the sources used in her study, the wide range of texts examined here includes articles taken from periodicals and magazines from a wide spectrum: statutes, case law and legal texts governing inheritance as well as legal wills especially those by the same Victorian authors whose books are studied in the course of the analysis (Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, Collins...).

3The book is divided into three main parts, respectively entitled “Writing the Will”, “Proving the Will” and “Contesting the Will”, each part comprising two chapters. Part 1 deals with the last will and testament which was, Franck claims, the intersection of personality, character, agency and legal identity, all concerns that can be considered as typical of the Victorian era. It comes as no surprise to read that the figure of the testator was widely portrayed, from legal texts, to popular periodicals and novels. Chapter 1 is concerned with the significant place held by the will in the Victorian cultural, imaginary and legal world. Franck notes that it was a document of popular and professional interest alike. The entire chapter is devoted to the description of the will as an expression of the testator’s desire and control, of his intention being brought into conformity with the law. Franck takes as a starting point the Wills Act 1837 which “contributed to a concept of modern individuality that was intimately linked to the material possession of goods and the assumption of agency” (42). She substantiates her claim by resorting to relevant case law construing testamentary rights and their development. Chapter 2 concentrates on the twin figures of testator and novelist, both having control of their narrative. Franck aptly points out that writing wills is like writing novels for two reasons. Firstly, the will follows a dramatic arch, building suspense as it progresses (60) quite in the same way as a narrative; secondly, wills are sources of dispute, tension and potential narrative conflicts. To make her point, Franck convincingly draws on testators in the process of drafting wills in novels such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862) and The Moonstone (1868), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872). Her demonstration is at its most convincing when she refers to Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865). She argues that the novel “provides in miniature a model for the transition from the Victorian to modernist literary aesthetic” (93), that is to say a shift from the documentary will to questions of inheritance and personal identity.

4Part 2 looks at the figure of the heir who inherits both property and identity at the same time. In chapter 3, the analysis of the heir contains an examination of the reform of inheritance laws and property laws concerning married women, a reform which deprived women of property despite the fact that it was supposed to protect it. Franck’s reference to Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857), George Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866) and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) are perfectly relevant as these stories of heroines rejecting an inheritance provides readers with an assessment of Victorian women’s testamentary capacity. In chapter 4, the author turns to Edwardian writers. She first underlines how Edwardian novels focused on the same themes as their Victorian predecessors (inheritance, identity, last will and testaments, material property and its transmission). However, as she remarks, the literal will became “an obsolete rhetorical device” (17) relegated to the background. She develops her approach based on the stimulating close-readings of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903), John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1922) and Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger (1910), three novels “emblematic of shifting generations” (116). Here the question of subjectivity is interestingly discussed as writers have adopted a modernist treatment of interiority, telling stories from the perspective of the rising generation. Edwardian novelists, Franck notes, concentrate on how characters struggle to possess themselves, to enact their private selves, reflecting the “response of a new generation asserting its own self-possession” (149). Her conclusion is that these narratives carried a sense of an ongoing process of transition, stressing the role of Edwardian authors as a bridge between two eras, the Victorian and the Modern.

5Part 3 turns to situations in which the will is contested or when it is difficult to construe or implement the intention of the testator whose freedom of bequest depends on a network of law wider than the mere Wills Act. Consequently, chapter 5 evokes the conflict between legality and justice in several Victorian and Edwardian novels: Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855) and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). This chapter gives a theoretical basis of the notion of trust, “one of the most common forms of testamentary bequest” (166), through a detailed study of test cases in the early nineteenth century. Such a study emphasizes the possible subversions of the testators’ intentions when they were construed by the courts. At this stage, Franck examines the doctrine of cy près and its development up to the establishment of a new court by the Court of Probate Act in 1857. This doctrine provided that “where a trust demonstrates the testator’s ’general charitable intention,’ but the mode of the trust is in jeopardy of failure, the court reserves the right to determine a new mode of enacting that purpose that is as near as possible to the originally stipulated intention” (167). The book’s specific centre of interest lies mostly where the author evinces how wills were sometimes limited when they were used to frame and convey the testator’s intention, thus demonstrating how intention and subjectivity are gradually represented as an internalized experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

6In the final chapter, Franck focuses on bastardy and introduces the figure of the illegitimate child, the “bastard”. She offers a short presentation of the legal category of the filius nullius prevented from inheriting by descent from his father even if subsequently legitimized. She explains in detail the provisions of the Bastardy Act of 1845 and the Bastardy Laws Amendment Acts of 1872 and 1873. Moreover the author analyses the conflict between the legal professional and the man of property which enabled writers to develop a space for an alternative view of the legal reality: even though testators claimed their freedom of bequest, such a freedom was far from being absolute. This issue is part and parcel of three novels: Anthony Trollope’s Ralph the Heir (1871) and Mr. Scarborough’s Family (1883) as well as E.M. Forster’s Howards end (1910). In the first one, Squire Gregory, the testator, tries to circumvent the legal reality so as to bequest his estate to his illegitimate son, Ralph, instead of his spendthrift cousin. In the second novel, according to Franck, Trollope staged the testator’s plot to defeat the laws of primogeniture (declaring that his oldest son and heir is illegitimate) in order to question the law’s practical relationship to justice and its inefficiency when it is manipulated. Eventually in Howards end, Franck does cogently demonstrate how the focus is less on the legal documents themselves than on the consciousness of the donors and inheritors. Thus the novel, Franck argues, investigates the question of whether a testator (Mrs. Wilcox) had the right to determine to shape her will in opposition to legal constraints upon it, thus leaving Howards End to Miss Schegel.

7In the conclusion, Franck rapidly explores the main provisions of the Administration of Estates Act 1925 which abolished primogeniture and contributed to the consolidation of legal principles, hence curtailing the nineteenth century idea of unlimited testamentary control. The book closes with a brief analysis of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921) and two novels by Virginia Woolf’s: Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Franck highlights how literature became more and more committed to the inner workings of character and reaches the conclusions that it enabled writers and readers to have access to subjective experiences through the stylistic devices of the interior monologue and stream of consciousness.

8All in all, this jargon-free study is worthwhile reading and will prove useful to Victorian and Edwardian scholars. Indeed, each chapter is well-structured, beginning with an extensive research on the legal background of the era in order to provide the reader with the amount of information required to understand her in-depth study of major Victorian and Edwardian novels. This book, as the above summary of contents shows, constantly returns to literary and legal texts to shed new light on important issues of property, inheritance, intention and subjectivity. Despite the intrusive presence of notes throughout the essay, Franck’s thoroughly-documented analysis is detailed and nuanced, usefully completed by a comprehensive bibliography and a detailed index both rerum and nominum.

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Bibliographical reference

Marion Charret-Del Bove, Cathrine O. Franck, Law, Literature and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 75 Printemps | 2012, 241-245.

Electronic reference

Marion Charret-Del Bove, Cathrine O. Franck, Law, Literature and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 75 Printemps | 2012, Online since 05 February 2015, connection on 24 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marion Charret-Del Bove

Université Paris 13.

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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