Law, Seduction, and the Sentimental Heroine: The Case of Amelia Norman
American Literature, Vol. 78, No. 325, 2006
31 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2006
This article examines the notorious mid-nineteenth-century American trial of Amelia Norman, who was acquitted - very much against the weight of the evidence - of attempting to kill the man who seduced her. In particular, we explore the role in the trial and its aftermath of 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."
In Norman's case, once newspapers, defense lawyers, and reformers such as Lydia Maria Child recast the defendant as a sentimental heroine, the trial became about seduction, not attempted murder. The sentimental emplotment of Norman's life marshaled a powerful set of emotional responses and moral judgments on her behalf. For example, 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.
Going further, 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. Other women facing similar charges used the same legal strategy to gain acquittals in a substantial number of cases. Indeed, Norman's sentimental strategy proved so powerful that men on trial for killing their wives' seducers appropriated it to bring their own stories before juries and to reinforce male sexual norms through the so-called honor defense. In the end, then, Norman's trial fostered legal reform, but it also suggested - as Lydia Maria 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.
In addition to its legal, literary, and historical insights that it provides, we also intend this article to contribute to debates on the nature of scholarship in law and literature. 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). We would argue that to the extent legal change motivates rather than simply mirrors cultural change, it needs literature to be effective. 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, in short, 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, jurisprudence, law and the humanities, law and literature
JEL Classification: K10, K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation