Legal and literary discourse on the jury in the Victorian period

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2015-05

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Shapley, Kathleen Adelaide

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This dissertation critically examines representations of the jury in Victorian novels. I argue that studying the jury, as a concept and in practice, offers a unique window to both the social and literary vision of Victorian novelists. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a decline in the use and cultural perception of the jury, and the controversy surrounding the jury’s competency to administer justice implicated broad social questions of education and class that shaped the formation of British identity. The Victorian debate over the future of the jury was a public conversation occurring in legal treatises, the press, and in literature. By engaging in the debate over the future of the institution of the jury, Victorian novelists forge their own “juryman’s guidebook” to educate the readers, the potential jurors of England. In addition to social questions, I examine how the novel uses features of the jury—the jury’s role as a “finder of fact” and the jury’s narrative silence—as narrative techniques. Novelists explore the jury’s role as a “finder of fact” while negotiating their own role as “finder of fact” by balancing legal realism with legal imagination in fictional legal narratives. Additionally, examining the jury’s narrative silence is essential to understanding each author’s legal imagination. By analyzing the narrative techniques and descriptive strategies surrounding the jury in the works of Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, M.E. Braddon and Henry Rider Haggard, this project demonstrates how the Victorian cultural anxiety over the future of the jury is captured in literature across genres. The responses of these authors to the jury debate range from ambivalence to concrete visions for legal reform; however, each of these authors, through serious engagement with a legal controversy, writes the law.

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