The Real Power of Fictional Grievance


Review of Defending Privilege: Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel, by Nicole Mansfield Wright

Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020


Nicole Mansfield Wright’s Defending Privilege asks an extremely timely question: how is it that narratives of victimhood at the hands of arbitrary and excessive power are deployed so frequently in defense of those in power already? To answer this question, Wright turns to the eighteenth-century British novel, a genre long understood to be entwined with liberal modernity, the emergence of human-rights discourse, and the elevation of the “ordinary person” to a level of cultural prominence that anticipated the increasing figuration of “the people” as the legitimate seat of political power. 

However, Wright turns her focus to a less commonly acclaimed or studied body of work: conservative novels that stage critiques of the law in order to reframe privilege as vulnerability and thus justify the protection of the wealthy and powerful against the “threats” posed by marginalized people’s demands for expanded legal and political agency. Wright makes a powerful case for understanding this body of work as formally and ideologically significant to the history of the eighteenth-century British novel. Her attention to how these texts use some of the most prominent novelistic tropes of the period—the restoration of a protagonist’s fortune through the revelation of a lost inheritance, the young woman imperiled by the tyrannical exercise of patriarchal authority, the insurgent counter-sovereignty of the picaresque, and the complexities of voice, agency and representation staged by epistolarity—as crucial strategies in defense of privilege offers an original and challenging reinterpretation of the history of the novel, one that demands we rethink the seemingly “humanitarian” capacities of fiction itself.   

This is a precise and incisive book, one that intervenes in the history of the British novel with arguments deeply rooted in the specificities of eighteenth-century legal history. But the stakes of Wright’s analysis also reach far beyond eighteenth-century studies. Defending Privilege opens, after all, by noting the frequent defense of literary study as part of a necessarily “humanitarian” humanistic tradition, one that fosters empathy for the downtrodden and marginalized. But what about the many literary texts, she asks, that use this very capacity in order to foster empathy for the privileged? This question, as it drives the entire book, leads her to delineate a fresh history of the novel: one that untethers the novel from liberalism and convincingly traces an anti-liberal novelistic tradition. 

“The standard history of the eighteenth-century novel,” she writes, “casts it as a dismantler of traditional hierarchies and associates it with the emergence of the liberal subject…By bringing to light the interiority of its subjects, so the logic goes, the novel as a literary form created pressure for institutions to validate this worth through the conferral of legal roles and access hitherto withheld” (9). However, she argues, this history has largely ignored an equally important and historically popular literary tradition: one of “antidemocratic texts that deploy legal agency not for reformist purposes but rather for reactionary ones” (9). 

Wright thus unearths a compelling paradox: these conservative novels at times anticipate radical critiques of liberalism, even as they deploy these critiques toward reactionary ends: “Some of the most provocative—and, at times, unintentionally forward-thinking—visions of the expansion of legal agency can be found in the unlikely vehicle of the conservative novel” (14). At the same time, she argues, some of the most cherished rhetorical tools for progressive advocacy have no inherent allegiance to the empowerment of the marginalized. If contemporary, self-described progressives are frequently taken aback when the language of victimhood is appropriated by the privileged and the powerful, then Wright’s analysis offers a valuable and challenging counternarrative: this phenomenon is not appropriation at all, nor is it new or surprising; rather, this defense of privilege is precisely how the “pervasive logic of legal merit, based on victimhood” emerged, “making strange bedfellows of right and left” from the very beginning (3).  

Each chapter embeds a cluster of literary texts in a specific legal history whose terms open the text to nuanced and incisive close readings of the novels, while at the same time conveying an impressive depth and breadth of legal-historical research in consistently stylish, clear, and compelling prose. By highlighting authors whose biographies include extensive personal experience with legal disputes, Wright emphasizes how the conjunction between law and literature plays out not only in the abstracted realms of representation, metaphor, or ideology, but also in the more intimate and particular lived experiences of legal and literary practice as materially intertwined and contiguous. 

Chapter 1 traces how Tobias Smollett invokes legal and legislative debates on Jewish naturalization, habeas corpus, and due process under international law in his figurations of nation, class, religion, and the boundaries of both legal and social “community.” Smollett, Wright argues, offers a defense of individual rights and due process—but ultimately in service of a transnational male elite he imagines as uniquely deserving of freedom, mobility, belonging, and protection from overreaching state power. 

Chapter 2 examines how Charlotte Smith draws on the genre of the pitaval—fictionalizations of real-life court cases that played a central role in eighteenth-century French and German legal education—to translate technical legal procedure into the feminized idiom of domestic fiction. Smith, she argues, thus savvily produced “a field guide to an exploitative legal system in the guise of derivative tales of treacherous relatives and thwarted love” (80). However, Smith’s goal was not the broad democratization of legal access or expertise, but rather the figuration of the high-born woman deprived of her entitlement (like Smith herself) as the quintessential subject of legal dispossession. 

Chapter 3 argues that Walter Scott negotiates growing political unrest in the wake of Peterloo alongside debates regarding access to legal representation by reviving the then-outmoded epistolary form, which “furnishes a literary analogue to his legal and political solution: the voices of the lowly ought to be embedded in, and contained by, the authorized expression of the educated” (84). This formal solution allows Scott, Wright argues, to turn away from the reality of mass protest by individualizing the problem of political representation, allowing “tense private encounters between the marginalized and those who purport to represent them” to stand in for and thus contain demands for broader and more systematic change (84). 

The fourth chapter offers an exemplary set of legal and literary readings that, for me, show the book at its best and most generatively unsettling. Turning to rarely-studied proslavery novels of the 1820s—most centrally Cynric Williams’s Hamel, The Obeah Man (1827) and the anonymous Marly; or, A Planter’s Life in Jamaica (1828)—Wright examines how abolitionists and increasingly embattled defenders of slavery fought a series of legislative skirmishes over proposed expansions in the legal admissibility of testimony by enslaved people in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Given the much-discussed stakes of eyewitness testimony for abolitionist writing, Wright’s insights about the redeployments of these narrative forms of testimony by proslavery novelists offer a fascinating and troubling reassessment of the political work done by testimony, sympathy, and novelistic characterization as rhetorical tactics. 

The central literary phenomenon she documents—enslavers’ cooptation of testimony of the enslaved as a rhetorical tool to be deployed in defense of slavery—offers a powerful reminder of the vulnerability of all rhetorical tools, no matter how much we may regard them as inherently liberatory, to cooptation to serve the interests of the powerful. Wright argues that in their attempts to portray the possibility of legal testimony by enslaved people as a threat, proslavery novelists show their enslaved characters as savvy, intentional, and strategic legal actors. Ironically, she argues, the terms of the debate about legal testimony ended up encouraging their abolitionist opponents to rely more heavily on racist tropes, such as the characterization of Black potential witnesses as transparent, uncalculating, and incapable of rhetorical strategy, while the proslavery novels imagined the more well-rounded, complex, intelligent, and narratively powerful Black characters. It has long been a truism, both in scholarship and in popular commentary on contemporary fiction, that complexity and interiority counter the flattening imaginary of racial stereotypes. This chapter, however, poses a caution against presuming the inherent political allegiance of this—or any—form of literary characterization. 

Wright’s provocations pose generative potential questions for the field of eighteenth-century studies, especially in conversation with increasing calls for the field to reckon with and take responsibility for its structural racism and foundationally colonial epistemologies. While the state of eighteenth-century studies is not an explicit object of analysis in Defending Privilege, the book has much to offer a project of collectively rethinking the field. 

First, the kinds of rhetorical moves she traces in the novels analyzed here can be strikingly familiar to anyone who has tried to challenge the existing culture of an academic field or department. Take, for instance, her account of Tobias Smollett, which could at times also double as a description of how academic fields and departments attempt to “diversify” their ranks through rubrics of “inclusion” rather than foundational challenges to their structures of power and dominant epistemologies:

Smollett celebrates a flexibility of affinity that overrides both rigidity of jurisdiction and default parochialism to reinforce local connections. He suggests that true justice thrives when the community of the deserving is continually subject to ad hoc redelineation of legal access. Smollett’s method of refashioning community appears to promote evenhanded appraisal while, in fact, bolstering veneration of privilege. (22)

The key ideology developed by the eighteenth-century conservative novel, Wright argues, ultimately sought to maintain the exclusivity of legal privilege, but to extend this privilege based on individual “merit” rather than lineage alone (148). Academia abounds with claims to exclusivity based on “merit,” from student admissions to the artificial scarcity of full-time, secure teaching jobs, and Wright turns our attention to an intellectual and political prehistory we may not want to, but must, claim as our own.

Furthermore, Wright’s chosen archive—a body of work that has been understudied, she argues, because critics have historically found it literarily or politically unpalatable—also offers important lessons on the real value of separating careful, critical attention from love or attachment to our objects of analysis. Literary scholars, feeling the undeniable need to defend the continued existence of minimally viable jobs in our fields, sometimes presume that we have to promote, defend, or love our objects of study in order to make a claim that these materials are worth teaching or studying at all. Wright, however, doesn’t presume that these novels are—or need to be—particularly defensible or lovable in order to justify her careful attention to these texts’ projects on their own terms, and that’s precisely what enables the book’s key insights. 

Indeed, what she ends up concluding is instructive not only for these specific novels but for the novel in general: there’s nothing inherently progressive or empowering about the novel form itself, and its capacities can just as easily entrench existing hierarchies through the very means that we, when we try to recruit more English majors, often like to promote as the humanizing and equalizing power of the novel specifically and literature more generally. Wright thus offers a crucial contribution to a growing body of work that shows the critical and pedagogical generativeness of not necessarily loving the archives that define our fields and curricula. When the archives that define our fields are largely racist and/or colonial—as is certainly the case for eighteenth-century British literary studies—it becomes even more crucial to emphasize the absolute non-necessity of loving these texts in order to teach or study them fruitfully. 

Threaded through Defending Privilege is a recurring meditation on the intertwined legal and literary histories of liberalism. In the introduction, and in a number of suggestive readings—in particular, her deft analysis in the third chapter of how legal representation poses conceptual challenges to the very ideals of individual autonomy and free consent that such representation is simultaneously imagined to guarantee—Wright suggests that conservative novels can, ironically, be more amenable to contemporary left critiques of liberalism than are the eighteenth-century intellectual and literary traditions more commonly seen as the precursors to contemporary “progressive” politics. The book thus might also be productively put into conversation with work on liberalism beyond eighteenth-century studies, such as Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents, Elaine Hadley’s Living Liberalism, and Kandice Chuh’s The Difference Aesthetics Makes. Chuh in particular makes for a compelling interlocutor here, as both Wright and Chuh open with similar dilemmas: what happens when you want to defend your humanities field (and, let’s face it, your job) against austerity, but common sense justifications of literary study prove inadequate or even damaging? 

For Wright, the main problem with the liberal-humanist defense of literary study is that it’s false. The kinds of novelistic work we often like to think of as “humanizing” or liberalizing in both the classroom and the minds of readers—empathy across difference, the heteroglossic staging of social and material contradictions, sympathetic representations of minoritized people—are not inherently on the side of extending rights or legal agency to the marginalized or oppressed. For Chuh, however, the problem with the liberal-humanist defense of literary studies is the liberalism itself: 

The history of the humanities and the disciplinary structures organizing their emergence is of a piece with the history of the civilizational discourses subtending the legitimation of empire and capital, and bespeaks the onto-epistemologies that have come to secure liberal modernity’s common sense. In this light, the crisis confronting the humanities calls less for their defense and instead prompts the crafting of a vision of what a defensible humanities might be and do, and how it differs from its dominant iteration. (1-2)

I see a generative and compelling friction here, one that I think teases out some of the internal tensions attending how Wright frames the concept of liberalism in the discernable shadow of Trump. 

In the epilogue, for instance, the term “liberalism” drops out, and Defending Privilege concludes by emphasizing opposition to authoritarianism as a shared goal of both “conservative” and “humanitarian” eighteenth-century legacies: 

As the eighteenth-century past becomes ever more distant, it is imperative that scholars correct the record and remind the general public—most of whom do not have the privilege of reading books for a living—of the more nuanced legacy to which we all are heirs. Recognition of the common ground between conservative and humanitarian values could help facilitate the drawing together of disparate interests into a coalition to oppose the specter of authoritarianism. (154) 

I don’t disagree with Wright’s assertion about the commitments shared by these otherwise politically disparate strains of eighteenth-century fiction. But I found myself wondering whether there was still room in this book for a present-day political horizon that didn’t feel quite so, well, bipartisan. In the epilogue, liberalism and the rule of law, both crucial and supple categories of analysis throughout the book, seem to morph into the analytical ground itself—shaky ground that nobody wants to disturb any further, lest it fall away entirely into an abyss that could be infinitely worse. This is, perhaps, where Defending Privilege felt most clearly haunted by Trump and the way he made insurgent critiques of liberalism, empiricism, law, and science feel, for some, like dangerous excesses that put our only remaining bulwarks against fascism at unacceptable risk. Meanwhile, Chuh, in navigating similarly anxious terrain, proposes letting go of these defenses precisely because they are so shaky: “The weakness of liberalism as a defense against the voraciousness of racial capitalism and colonialism’s pasts and presents is evident in every sector of society, not least in the university. Such failure presents not so much an opportunity—laden as that term is with optimistic connotation—as an exigent condition that compels reckoning with liberalism’s end(s), with its participatory history in the precipitation of the current conjuncture” (10). 

Thinking alongside where Wright and Chuh diverge, I ultimately wonder whether Defending Privilege might nonetheless have within it a more risky and less conciliatory implicit conclusion than the one it literally ends with. After all, if Wright is correct—and I think she is—in concluding that no narrative trope, rhetorical device, or formal feature of the novel is inherently liberatory, then one could conclude that it becomes all the more imperative to pay careful attention to whose side a given text or author is really on. In fact, Wright consistently does this throughout Defending Privilege; as her careful attention to authorial biography shows, these authors were also political and legal actors, and they certainly took sides. 

Ittai Orr has recently proposed a similar approach to semantic “common ground,” in explaining the editorial decision to retain the name Insurrect! for the online journal of radical early Americanist scholarship despite the popular naming of the January 6 failed coup attempt as an “insurrection.” As Orr writes, “many progressives are justifiably squeamish about insurrection, since U.S. history provides so many examples of the insurrection of the powerful,” but that fact, he argues, should not authorize forms of “false equivalence” between all insurrections, or between legality and morality. What must be condemned about this insurrection, he writes, is not the fact that it was an insurrection, but the fact that it was a white-supremacist one: “Some causes that oppose existing legal frameworks promote human flourishing while others mean to curtail it. The tricky question of moral right and wrong must enter into what is being presented to the public as a question of legality and security.” 

The events of January 6th, of course, also starkly played out many of Wright’s key insights about the power of privileged grievance to weaponize fantasies of victimhood in defense of entrenched systems of hierarchy, confirming the vital importance of this book’s argument and analysis. As Defending Privilege ably demonstrates, narrative wields enormous political power to cast privilege as vulnerability and to figure the loss of dominance over others as an unbearable violation of human dignity. This rhetorical tactic has a very long history indeed, a history that the present moment demands that we attend to with care, wariness, and a clear-sighted willingness to ask, as readers and thinkers: whose side are you on? 



Posted on 28 May 2021

SAL NICOLAZZO is Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego and the author of Vagrant Figures: Law, Literature, and the Origins of the Police (Yale University Press, 2021).