The Occasional Triumph of the Moral Sentiments Over Legal Technicalities: Law, Seduction, and the Sentimental Heroine
Posted: 7 Feb 2004
Date Written: January 30, 2004
Our paper explores how the affective energies and cultural expectations set in motion by best-selling American sentimental novels like Hannah Foster's The Coquette and Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple informed the notorious mid-nineteenth-century American trial of Amelia Norman, who attempted to kill the man who seduced her. Once newspapers, defense lawyers, and reformers such as Lydia Maria Child recast the defendant as a sentimental heroine, the trial became about seduction, and Norman was acquitted against the weight of the evidence.
Sentimental novels turn on the contrast between the passive victim status of the heroine and the active libidinal quest of the rake-villain. As Cathy Davidson points out, this fiction is "about silence, subservience, stasis (the accepted attributes of women as traditionally defined) in contradistinction to conflicting impulses toward independence, action, and self expression (the ideals of the new American nation)." The seduction plot diverts attention from this disparity by establishing an affective solidarity between heroine and reader and elevating the ruined woman to a tragic status.
The sentimental emplotment of Norman's life marshaled a powerful set of emotional responses and moral judgements on her behalf. Norman claimed insanity. And since sentimental heroines are supposed to go mad when they are seduced and abandoned, the jury was prepared to interpret her symptoms according to her lawyers' very strategy for establishing her innocence. Ultimately, however, Norman embodied the plight of the sentimental heroine at the same time that she contested her fictional counterpart's fate. In this way, her trial spectacularized the disparity which the sentimental novel conjures up and displaces but never resolves.
The common law theory of coverture, which severely limited the legal personhood of married women, has received a great deal of scholarly attention. Cases like Norman's remind us that unmarried women were also subject to draconian constraints on their legal personhood. The tort of seduction is a key example. Legal historians trace the development of the seduction tort from its common-law origins, when men's property interest in women's bodies formed the basis of the cause of action, to 1851, when Field Code authors (including Norman's lawyer David Graham) persuaded several states to grant seduced women standing to bring their own cause of action. Consequently, courts were forced to reckon with the seduced woman as a moral agent capable of consenting to sex. As trials like Norman's demonstrate, sentimental novels helped lay the groundwork for this shift in the law by elucidating a subjectivity for the seduced woman.
Yet the doctrinal implications of Norman's precedent-setting trial had a second, more ambiguous strain. Norman's sentimental strategy proved so powerful that men on trial for killing their wive's seducers appropriated it to bring their own stories before juries and to reinforce male sexual norms. In the end, then, Norman's trial fostered legal reform, but it also suggested - as Child's fictionalization of the case in "Rosenglory" recognized - that only sustained and multifaceted efforts to change cultural as well as legal norms could improve the sexual status of women.
Scholars such as Wai Chee Dimock have argued for a focus "on the historical and historically shifting relations between law and literature" - a view we endorse. Where we differ from Dimock is in our diversion of attention away from abstract ideas of law laid out by treatise writers and philosophers in favor of law experienced and manipulated by individuals. So, too, we are interested less in representations of concepts such as justice in legal and literary texts than we are in the ways in which literature (broadly conceived) can create provisional and fragile opportunities for concrete instantiations of justice and even generate legal change (for good or ill). Going further, we would argue that to the extent legal change motivates rather than simply mirrors cultural change, it needs literature to be effective. Thus, we see no need to characterize - and indeed reject the depiction of - law as "a limited arena" in which ideas of morality have little place. This project, then, responds to Gregg Crane's call for attention to "the complex and slippery historical interactions of law and literature that shape and are shaped by an ever changing cultural idiom of justice." The extended story of Amelia Norman not only constitutes a case study in the inescapable interaction between the overlapping and interdependent discourses of law and literature, but also reveals the literary and legal consequences of that interaction.
Keywords: Criminal law, procedure, legal history, law and literature
JEL Classification: K14, K40, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation