Romantic Legalism

Date of Award

May 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Mike Goode

Second Advisor

Erin S. Mackie


Chivalry, Criminal, Law and Literature, Masculinity, Novel, Violence

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


Romantic Legalism is primarily about the cross-pollination between two emergent notions of character in the long eighteenth century, especially in the Romantic Period: character as constructed in the realist novel, and character evidence as constructed in the criminal courtroom. I argue that the novel’s rise was in part sustained by the genre’s self-presentation as a better historian—and consequently a better judge—of “character” than the criminal courtroom. It is no coincidence that the realist novel, the defense attorney, and character evidence as a paradigm opposed to what was more broadly considered evidence drawn from ‘circumstance’ were all culturally ascendant at roughly the same time. Romantic Legalism complicates existing critical models that track the internalization of judgment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and also seeks to challenge existing readings of circumstantial evidence’s centrality in structuring the novel’s narrative elements. Instead, I propose that novels defend their protagonists like attorneys defend their clients: building mitigating factors into their descriptions from the very first page onward, novels by authors as politically and formally distinct as Frances Burney, William Godwin, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and others make use of what I call the ‘barristerial’ or lawyerly narrator to exculpate their transgressive characters. In pursuit of these claims, Romantic Legalism puts well-known novels into conversation with famous cases like the treason trials of the 1790s as well as under-explored legal archives, including judgments related to dueling and Scott’s decisions from the bench in his capacity as the Sheriff of Selkirk in Scotland.


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