– Ten literary classics

October 18, 2005

Ten literary classics

The Merchant of Venice — William Shakespeare

The legal questions that bubble in this momentous play are of great social significance. In the famous trial scene, Portia says: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d;/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:/ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” A point, among many in the drama, to have resonated through centuries of legal debate. Another is whether rules should be bent in order to produce justice. Lord Denning once said of the play: “I have quoted lines from it a thousand times.”

Bleak House — Charles Dickens

A viscerally funny and critical tour of the law and the legal system. Published in 1853, this panoramic, epic tale spins from the interminable Court of Chancery case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce. “This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least . . .” It presents timelessly comic characters and wonderful plot intrigue. Of books involving legal system critique and sociolegal studies, this is among the most enjoyable in the library.

The Old Munster Circuit — Maurice Healy

A charming unstructured anthology of humorous legal anecdotes from Ireland. The stories include instances of judicial severity like that of Lord Justice Holmes’s sentencing an old man from a farming community to 15 years. The convict cried for mercy saying he would not live to finish the sentence. “Well,” said the judge, “try to do as much of it as you can!” The contribution of litigants is also well documented, such as that of the defendant in a case about the allegedly unfair sale of a horse. Examining the ethics of horse-dealing, the judge barked at the defendant: “That’s not what you told (the purchaser) at the Bandon Fair.” “Oh no, but I’m on me oath now” came the reply which won him the case.

To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee

A tense and exquisitely told story about adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of America in the Thirties. It is told through the eyes of a child. At the heart of the story is Atticus Finch, an heroic lawyer who struggles with the bitter prejudice around him. The drama features the case of a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. There is a tantalising unpredictability about much of the story. As Calpurnia, one character in the story, notes: “First thing you learn when you’re in a lawin’ family is that there ain’t any definite answers to anything.”

The First Rumpole Omnibus — John Mortimer

In the barrister Horace Rumpole, Sir John Mortimer, QC, has created a ubiquitously treasured character who occupies a part of the national consciousness. He is enthusiastic about wine and Wordsworth, and works dedicatedly for his clients. He has an endearing joie de vivre and he is not worried about career advancement. The writing captures the scent of the legal system.

The Winslow Boy — Terence Rattigan

This play was first produced on stage in 1946. Set just before the First World War, the drama revolves around a father’s attempts to have his young son, who has been charged with petty theft, exonerated. Ronnie Winslow, 14, is expelled from the Naval Academy, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. The drama unfolds many parts of the relationship between truth, justice and social attitudes.

Uncommon Law: Being 66 Misleading Cases — A. P. Herbert

This amusing collection of concocted cases contains episodes and lines that have become part of legal legend. The cases, many involving the fictional veteran litigant Albert Haddock, exude the wit of Sir Alan Herbert. The stories include courtroom lines such as: “A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.”

The Trial — Franz Kafka

In a letter, Kafka once wrote: “I think you should only read those books which bite and sting you.” Decidedly, this brilliant book does not induce in most readers a state of blissful karma. It is a terrifying nightmare of what can happen in excessively bureaucratic or totalitarian states. Kafka, who had studied law, wrote it in 1914 while he was an insurance official in Prague. In the book Joseph K., a bank worker, is shocked to find himself suddenly arrested for an unspecified crime, and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information.

Orley Farm — Anthony Trollope

This 1862 novel revolves around a case of forgery. It paints the emotions of its main character, Lady Mason, and examines her involvement in the drawing up of a codicil to her husband’s will. The prose critically exposes aspects of the morality of 19th-century law and lawyers. It is a marvellous study of the subtleties of language. Trollope, whose father was a Chancery barrister, creates a vivid personality in the barrister Mr Chaffenbrass who could “maintain his opinion, unshaken, against all the judges in the land”.

Cannibalism and the Common Law — A. W. B. Simpson

In 1884, Captain Thomas Dudley and Edwin Stephens were convicted of the murder of a cabin boy, Richard Parker. After the capsize of their yacht Mignonette, the boy was killed on a dinghy 1,600 miles from the nearest coast, after 20 days adrift. They ate his liver and drank his blood to survive, and were rescued four days later. Their defence of “necessity” was rejected, although their death sentences were later commuted to prison sentences with hard labour. This book is a superbly vivid account of the events, their background and the legal and philosophical reasoning that came to bear on the case.


The author is Professor of Law, and director of the Centre for Law, The Open University

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