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Literary scholar Cathrine Frank's new book examines the relationship of wills and novels in the transmission of British culture

posted May 28, 2010, 12:58 PM by rbuhr@une.edu

An individual's last will and testament reveals much about a person's sense of self and place in the world. 

In her new book, Law, Literature, and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925 (Ashgate Press), Cathrine Frank, associate professor of English at the University of New England, explores how the legal bequest of property through the will also reveals the transmission of cultural values. 

Focusing on the last will and testament as a legal, literary, and cultural document, Frank examines fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian eras alongside actual wills, legal manuals relating to their creation, case law regarding their administration, and contemporary accounts of “curious wills” in periodicals.

Her study begins with the Wills Act of 1837 and poses two basic questions: What picture of Victorian culture and personal subjectivity emerges from competing legal and literary narratives about the will, and how does the shift from realist to modernist representations of the will accentuate a growing divergence between law and literature?

Frank’s examination of works by Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Samuel Butler, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and E.M. Forster reveals the shared rhetorical and cultural significance of the will in law and literature. Her study also highlights the competition between these discourses to structure a social order that emphasized self-determinism while at the same time viewing individuals in relationship to the broader community.

Her study contributes to our knowledge of the cultural significance of Victorian wills and creates intellectual bridges between the Victorian and Edwardian periods that will interest scholars from a variety of disciplines who are concerned with the laws, literature, and history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“It's easy to play ‘spot the will’ in novels,” Frank said, “but one of the most fascinating things I found in my reading, from judges' opinions to magazine articles, was how widespread the interest in wills was. Everyday people, not just the wealthy and their lawyers, were deeply interested in the idea of the will. It's wonderful to see the book in print and be able to share what I learned. “

Cathrine Frank

Frank, a member of the UNE Department of English and Language Studies, teaches and publishes in the areas of Victorian studies and law and literature. She is co-editor of Law and the Humanities: An Introduction, a collection of original chapters by a selection of distinguished scholars in both the law and the humanities from institutions around the world.

She has presented conference papers on the subject of testamentary law, realism, and legal and literary modes for creating individual and cultural identity. She has published in Law and Literature and in a special issue on law and literature in College Literature.

She is currently working on an essay about privacy, which is part of a new book project on character, or the relationship between writing and reputation in law and literature.