History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 December 2009

Law and Literature

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at the Massachusetts Bar Association with three other lawyers turned author. When asked if my legal training had any impact on my writing, I blithely declared that the two had nothing to do with one another, other than both taking up space in my life at the same point in time. Law? Nineteenth century spies? Couldn't be more different.

In retrospect, that isn’t entirely true.

It isn’t just that I took terribly useful vocational classes at law school like Ancient Athenian Trials, on the theory that you never know when you might want to write a crime thriller set in Ancient Athens (apparently, there are still embarrassing pictures of me in Ancient Greek garb defending Eratosthenes floating around out there somewhere. Thank you, Harvard Law School Gazette). Law has all sorts of bearings on the world I write about and the characters I create, whether they realize it or not. The chance decision of a legislator or a judge can change the entire course of a character’s life—even when that decision takes place years before in a case that has nothing at all to do with that character.

It makes more sense than it sounds. My favorite example of this is Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. You know all those novels where the lead couple is frantically dashing towards Gretna Greene? The entire elopement industry, in both fact and fiction, was spurred by this one piece of legislation, which decreed that the marriage of individuals under the age of twenty-one required parental consent, as well as that banns be published or a special license acquired in order for the marriage to be deemed valid. Marriages contracted in Scotland, which had its own set of laws, were not subject to these requirements, hence the mad dash for the nearest town across the border: Gretna Greene.

I’ve been thinking about this because the indirect consequences of impersonal legislation play a defining role in the lives of the characters in my latest book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, which is set in India in 1804. Under the Governor-Generalship of Lord Cornwallis (yup, the same Lord Cornwallis who was forced to surrender to those pesky Colonials at a little place called Yorktown), laws were passed banning anyone with one Indian parent from serving in the East India Company’s army or civil service, the main source of income and advancement in British India. This meant that any offspring of an English father and Indian mother were banned, by birth, from most means of gainful employment. Only the more lowly trades remained open. James Skinner, later famous as Skinner of Skinner’s Horse, was apprenticed to a printer, from whom he ran away. Many took service as mercenaries in the armies of local rulers, a practice which exposed them to suspicion from both sides when war broke out between the British and the Mahratta Confederacy.

In The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, my hero, Alex (based loosely on a real life figure, his compatriot, James Kirkpatrick, Resident of Hyderabad), whose mother was Welsh, is reliant upon the Company for his livelihood, first as a captain in cavalry regiment, later as a member of the diplomatic corps. At the same time, his two half-brothers, product of his father’s liaisons with local ladies, are both banned from following in his footsteps, a source of deep conflict for Alex, who finds it difficult to serve and uphold an institution which excludes his family—although, for financial reasons, he has no choice but to do so. Cornwallis’ legislation, passed when Alex’s younger brothers were little more than toddlers, changed the whole course of his life and provides much of the backbone for the book.

So perhaps law has had an impact on my writing after all…. And if you’re looking for an attorney to defend an ancient Athenian, I’m your girl!

6 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lauren! I love the law in historical fiction. There's so much scope for plot in wills, entails, marriage contracts, and chancery cases. And a lot of MPs were also barristers (in fact, Kenneth Fraser, Charles's father, is a barrister as well as an MP).

As I think I mentioned to you in NY, my mom and I wrote (as Anna Grant) an historical romance, Dark Angel, with a half-Indian, half-British hero. He'd been sent back to England when both his parents were killed (his soldier father trying to stop a British attack on an Indian village). He becomes a British diplomat, but he doesn't real feel he belongs in either country.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating stuff, Lauren. And it must be true that when it comes to writing anything you know, anything your learn can come into play if you write long enough!

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lauren, I love this post, Law of course, influences people which makes it story. Georgette Heyer was married to a barrister, which particularly influenced her murder mysteries, but also to some extent her histories as there are references to specific laws and events in her book.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Christine Trent said...

Lauren, I'm a "current" Athenian (my father came to the U.S. from Athens back in the 1950's), so if I ever need a defense attorney, I know who to call!

5:00 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

It's quite funny that you should mention Hardwicke’s Marriage Act. It's the genesis for the series I just sold! One of the reasons that it was sooooooooo hard to pass was that the House of Commons was filled with younger sons, and one of the great paths to advancement for said younger sons had been the abduction and forcible marriage of heiresses. So the Lords kept putting it up and Commons kept voting it down. When it did eventually pass (I’m assuming with some serious arm twisting and bribery by a lot of the fathers of the members of the House of Commons), the new thing to do was to dash for the border . . . though now the bride had to also be willing (one of the tenets of the act was that marriage under duress was voidable; previously girls had been married at gun point and it was considered perfectly legal). I’m not sure if the act was also what made proxy marriages illegal, but I think it was (I know they had been outlawed by the Regency period, though I still see them used in novels).

8:31 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Lauren -- I love your posts so much! And I have a feeling that Ancient Athenian Trials may have been juicier than Contracts or Torts ... come to think of it, you can probably apply what you learned in Contracts to reviewing your publishing ones!

Seriously ... I believe that just about everything we've ever turned our minds to will eventually have some connection to our writing, whether it's the creative or the business end of the business.

5:38 PM  

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