Mary Wollstonecraft and the Historical Romance Heroine

If you don’t take care my gel, you’ll turn into a radical like that Wollstonecraft woman.”
The Stanforth Secrets, Jo Beverley, 1989.

Mary Wollstonecraft John Opie Tate Museum
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1790.
by John Opie
(The Tate)

Born on April 27th 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 when she was only thirty-three years old.  In it, she argued against the natural inferiority of women, writing that “…it cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man, because she has always been subjugated” and that it was the neglected education of her “fellow creatures” that was the primary source of their misery.

As modern readers, it seems to be a perfectly reasonable, wholly uncontroversial argument.  Indeed, basic commonsense.  But what of readers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, you ask?  Surely they must have been scandalized by Wollstonecraft’s arguments for equality.[…]Continue Reading

Villains, Shysters, and Pettifoggers: The Lawyers and Law Clerks of Bleak House.

Charles Dickens, 1852.

In my last article on Law and Literature, I discussed the workings of the early nineteenth century British Court of Chancery, both in reality and as portrayed by Charles Dickens in his magnificent novel, Bleak House.  Such a serious subject in a work of fiction, especially one written in serial form for the Victorian masses, must necessarily be offset by a strong cast of characters with whom the reader can relate.

As always, when it comes to depicting the frailties of human nature, Charles Dickens does not disappoint.  From the noble to the ridiculous, we are given a glimpse of the people whose lives have been touched by the infamous lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  And none of them are more fascinating than the range of lawyers and law clerks that navigate (with varying degrees of skill) the murky waters of Chancery dysfunction.

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Edwin Henry Landseer: 19th-Century Britain's Foremost Animal Painter

Many of us know Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (7 March 1802 – 1 October 1873) as the sculptor of the four magnificent bronze lions that guard Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square.  During the mid-19th century, however, Landseer’s fame derived from his unrivalled talent as an animal painter.

A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society exhibited 1838 by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873
A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, 1838.
by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer
(Tate Collection, London)

From the upper echelons of Victorian society to the working middle-class, there were few who were not familiar with Landseer’s work.  […]Continue Reading

Diderot's Encyclopédie: The Age of Enlightenment in 28 Volumes

Encyclopedie Title Page
Title Page to Volume I of the Paris Edition, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.

Founded on logic, reason, and the spirit of critical enquiry, the mid-18th century publication of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers  (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts) was the culmination of everything that the Age of Enlightenment stood for.

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Wolf Hall and Sir Thomas More: Historical Fact vs. Historical Fiction

Anton Lesser portrays Thomas More in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC.

Like many lovers of historical fiction, last Sunday night, I tuned in to the Masterpiece Theater premiere of Wolf Hall.  In scope and scale, I was not disappointed.  The sets were magnificent.  The costumes designed with understated accuracy.  And the acting and dialogue quiet, thoughtful, and a great deal less soapy than the last television series to feature this particular cast of historic characters.  (*Disclaimer: Soapy or not, I thoroughly enjoyed The Tudors.)

Somewhat surprisingly, Thomas Cromwell is depicted as the protagonist of Wolf Hall.  We learn about his working class upbringing, his abusive father, and his struggles to fit in at his job.  We meet his devoted wife and angelic daughters.  And somehow along the way, with what can only be described as a hefty dose of artistic license, the Cromwell of history – a man who was both hated and feared – becomes a sympathetic figure.

This novel version of Cromwell should have prepared me for an equally novel version of Thomas More.  It did not.  When More first appeared on the screen, I was astonished.  Could it be that in the fictional world of Wolf Hall Saint Thomas More is the villain?[…]Continue Reading

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