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Defending Privilege

Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel

As revolution and popular unrest roiled the final decades of the eighteenth century, authors, activists, and philosophers across the British Empire hailed the rise of the liberal subject, valorizing the humanity of the marginalized and the rights of members of groups long considered inferior or subhuman. Yet at the same time, a group of conservative authors mounted a reactionary attempt to cultivate sympathy for the privileged. In Defending Privilege, Nicole Mansfield Wright examines works by Tobias Smollett, Charlotte Smith, Walter Scott, and others to show how conservatives used the rhetoric of victimhood in attempts to convince ordinary readers to regard a privileged person's loss of legal agency as a catastrophe greater than the calamities and legally sanctioned exclusion suffered by the poor and the enslaved. In promoting their agenda, these authors resuscitated literary modes regarded at the time as derivative or passé—including romance, the gothic, and epistolarity—or invented subgenres that are neglected today due to widespread revilement of their politics (the proslavery novel).

Although these authors are not typically considered alongside one another in scholarship, they are united by their firsthand experience of legal conflict: each felt that their privilege was degraded through lengthy disputes. In examining the work of these eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century authors, Wright traces a broader reactionary framework in the Anglophone literary legacy. Each novel seeks to reshape and manipulate public perceptions of who merits legal agency: the right to initiate a lawsuit, serve as a witness, seek counsel from a lawyer, and take other legal actions. As a result, Defending Privilege offers a counterhistory to scholarship on the novel's capacity to motivate the promulgation of human rights and champion social ascendance through the upwardly mobile realist character.

About the Author

Nicole Mansfield Wright is an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Endorsementss

"Instead of focusing on texts that present themselves as making rights claims on behalf of the dispossessed, Wright intriguingly focuses on conservative and even reactionary texts that prove, on close analysis, to afford such rights claims. This is a fascinating approach that will make a significant contribution to the work of scholars who have explored such questions from the perspective of the marginalized. An excellent, innovative, and well-researched study."

- Simon Stern, University of Toronto, coeditor of The Routledge Research Companion to Law and Humanities in Nineteenth-Century America

"This book will change the way scholars think about law in relation to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fiction. Wright departs from conventional wisdom and makes provocative original arguments that cast fresh light on topics both familiar and un-familiar, connecting British literary history to some of the most pressing questions of our own time."

- Jenny Davidson, Columbia University, author of Reading Jane Austen

"Defending Privilege reconstructs a literary tradition in which fallen aristocrats mourn their own loss of status; the rich complain about the mediocre aspirations of the poor; and slaveholders feel a love for the enslaved that would be threatened, not fulfilled, by their emancipation. Nicole Wright's argument is compelling and resonant, too, since today, as in the eighteenth century, some of the most eloquent, elaborate, and tortured lamentations against liberal justice systems arise, like a shriek, from the wounded entitlement of elites."

- Caleb Smith, Yale University, author of The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War

"In Nicole Mansfield Wright's important, timely, and surprising book, previously ignored or misunderstood eighteenth-century literary and legal texts are brilliantly illuminated. Her persuasive readings of Tobias Smollett, Charlotte Smith, Sir Walter Scott, and repugnant pro-slavery texts compel us to re-see cultural history in the making. Defending Privilege takes us far beyond canonical humanitarian fiction in order to describe how the era's conservative novelists cast the privileged as vulnerable and thus crafted a shared antipathy toward authoritarianism. Wright argues that we must grasp with greater nuance the complicated ways that conservative British authors made characters with class privilege into a new kind of beleaguered minority. It is a fraught eighteenth-century legacy that has never seemed more important to come to terms with than it does now."

- Devoney Looser, Arizona State University, author of The Making of Jane Austen

"Defending Privilege is that rare thing, a truly original, indeed provocative work. That word in some ways does a disservice to the impressive scholarship, research, and thoughtfulness that mark its every page, but it identifies the dazzling perversity the book everywhere displays, not least in selecting the subjects at its heart. Nicole Mansfield Wright not only illuminates writers and texts that have been neglected or maligned within the broad canon of the long eighteenth century, but offers a way of reading for the law and for new models of agency within this motley assortment of conservative authors. Weaving their works together into a fine, elegant, and complicated recapitulation of the essential cultural questions of power and narrative, Wright brings to the fore unexpected voices of social resistance within even the most reactionary fictions and offers a clarion call to take seriously those claims, these legal standards, and the novel's peculiar capacity to represent complexity. This is a book that calls upon all of us to rethink some of our most comforting, if least rigorous, ideas about what kind of literature 'matters'—which is simply to say, this is a book that itself matters deeply even as it impresses and delights."

- Hilary M. Schor, University of Southern California, author of Curious Subjects: Women and the Trials of Realism
Johns Hopkins University Press
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