Chapter 4: Contract and Freedom(?): Constrained Existence in Middlemarch and The Mayor of Casterbridge
Liberalizing Contracts: Nineteenth Century Promises Through Literature, Law and History (Routledge 2018)
42 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2017
Date Written: September 22, 2017
The book examines nineteenth-century liberal thought in England, as developed through, and as it developed, the concept of contract, understood as the formal legal category of binding agreement, and the relations and human practices at which it gestured, most basically that of promise, most broadly the capitalist market order. It does so by placing canonical realist novels in conversation with legal-historical knowledge about Victorian contracts. Liberlalizing Contracts argues that current understandings of the liberal effort in contracts need reconstructing from both ends of Henry Maine’s famed aphorism, which described a historical progress “from status to contract.” On the side of contract, historical accounts of its liberal content have been oscillating between atomism and social-collective approaches, missing out on forms of relationality in Victorian liberal conceptualizations of contracts which the book establishes in their complexity, richness, and wavering appeal. On the side of status, the expectation of a move “from status” has led to a split along the liberal/radical fault line among those assessing liberalism’s historical commitment to promote mobility and equality. The split misses out on the possibility that liberalism functioned as a historical reinterpretation of statuses – particularly gender and class – rather than either an effort of their elimination or preservation. As the book shows, that reinterpretation effectively secured, yet also altered, gender and class hierarchies. There is no teleology to such an account.
The chapter examines the liberal association of contracts with freedom. With George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castebridge we see a move from the midcentury project of pressing on readers the importance of relationality for individual agency and for the morality of choice, toward explorations of the constraining implications of living in a web of relationships. The consciousness of constraints highlighted relationality as the basis of the contractual order, yet reversed associations of contracts with freedom.
Keywords: contract, legal history, Victorian novel, freedom
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