Barbara Hughes-Moore, Nicole Mansfield Wright’s Defending Privilege: Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020) (Book Review) @Barbara_Elin @JHUPress

Book Review: Nicole Mansfield Wright, Defending Privilege

Barbara Hughes-Moore


In Defending Privilege: Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel, Nicole Mansfield Wright impressively critiques the ways in which conservative writers have appropriated the compassionate power of the novel from  “the rightful objects of empathy” – namely, “the lowly and marginalized.”[1] Wright homes in on the work of select authors writing between 1750-1830. Among her deserving targets are Tobias Smollett, Charlotte Smith, Walter Scott, and proslavery authors, who repurposed literary forms with the aim of “cast[ing] the privileged as society’s most vulnerable.”[2] Wright vividly characterises the conservative novel as “a Trojan horse” which worked to “conceal [its] propagandistic agenda in plain sight” in the guise of “mere entertainment.”[3]

The book is divided into two main sections: Part I: Downward Mobility and the Safety Net of the Law, which covers Smollett and Smith, and Part II: The Pen as a Weapon Against Reform of the Law, which focuses on Scott and the proslavery novel. Chapter one, Bad Citizens and Insolent Foreigners: Tobias Smollett’s Elite Outsiders and the Suspension of Legal Agency, notes that a frequent theme of Smollett’s writing is that legal agency should be assigned according to who is “‘deserving of it.[4] Wright observes that Smollett’s novels “cas[t] elites not primarily as enforcers of the law so much as victims of it” and “common folk” as “offenders… who use jurisdictional advantages to abuse the legal system.”[5] Wright cross-references Smollett’s bitter response to his own legal misfortunes with the portrayal of law in his works in a particularly effective way.

Chapter two, Covert Critique: Genteel Victimhood in Charlotte Smith’s Fictions of Dispossession, reframes Smith as a ”key adapter of the French and German pitaval’(sic), a literary genre in which ”traditionally marginalized litigants — including women, the enslaved, and orphans — gain justice through the courts.”[6] Wright investigates the ways in which Smith  “converted” the “pitaval”(sic) “from progressive to reactionary by selectively translating tales of female aristocrats or members of the gentry” who had fallen on hard times.[7] Wright reveals how Smith employed the novel to express discontent over women’s lack of legal agency, and redress the gender imbalance – in the furtherance of garnering empathy solely for privileged white women. The interplay of history, nostalgia, and the divine right of the “deserving” classes within Smith’s works is especially cogent.

Chapter three, Letters of the Law: Ambivalent Advocacy and Speaking for the Voiceless in Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet,  describes Scott and other educated men as being “conflict[ed] between the safeguarding of their own privilege and the upholding of their professional responsibilities as advocates for the lowly.”[8] The “privileged advocates” in Scott’s novels may “have no reservations about speaking for the lowly,” but Wright argues “they do so in a way that reinforces their own power and social standing and does little to effect systemic change” – something that gains resonance when learning of Scott’s legal education and his position as Laird of Abbotsford.[9] Indeed, Wright seems to identify a voyeuristic concern possessed by Scott (and the privileged classes in general) regarding the plight of the less fortunate that borders on schadenfreude.[10]

The final chapter of this excellent book is easily its most powerful – and its most haunting.  The  “noxious politics” of the early nineteenth century British proslavery novel makes it an infrequent source of study,[11] but in the chapter,  “Masters of Passion and Tongue: White Eyewitnesses and Fear of Black Testimony in the Proslavery Novel,” Wright addresses the genre head-on. Finding that “well-meaning” but “patronising” portrayals of black people in antislavery texts “reinforced the very same racist notions promoted by supporters of slavery,”[12] she examines the proslavery novel as a form of propaganda in favour of curtailing the rights of black people to serve as witnesses against their white oppressors. Wright compellingly observes that the “contradictions” within the proslavery novel had an ”unintended and paradoxical outcome” in a “richness of representation of black people that was largely absent” from antislavery literature.[13]

The epilogue, “Abiding the Law,”, explores the mythologization of the eighteenth century by recent Anglo-American legal scholarship. Wright, for example, highlights the glorification of the eighteenth century in David Cameron’s 2012 address to the European Court of Human Rights, which emphasised Britain’s supposed reverence for the rights of the marginalized that dates back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Wright demonstrates that the truth is more complicated than this speech would suggest; indeed, she observes that Cameron and Ronald Reagan interpret the century very differently – the former viewing it as an era that eroded individual rights and the latter as expanding them.[14]

Keenly researched and persuasively conveyed, Defending Privilege is a fascinating, dynamic, and wonderfully engaging book. Brimming with originality and insight, Wright’s stunning work reminds us  “of the more nuanced legacy to which we all are heirs.”[15] The novels of Smollett, Smith, Scott, and proslavery advocates manipulatively  “foregrounded the plights of characters whose status or class privilege does not prevent them from seeing themselves as beleaguered minorities” over the genuine hardship of those who are subjected to inequality and discrimination.[16] For Wright,   “the specter of authoritarianism” looms over these texts and their modern-day descendants.[17] In an increasingly conservative climate, where right-wing world leaders conceal their true motives behind a noisome façade of patriotism, Wright’s book is a welcome and timely read indeed.

Barbara Elin Hughes-Moore is Doctoral Researcher, Cardiff School of Law and Politics, and Reviews Editor, Romantic Texualities

[N.B.: Dr. Hughes-Moore received a free copy of Defending Privilege from the publisher in exchange for her honest review.–Ed.]

[1]  Nicole M. Wright, Defending Privilege: Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University press, 2020), at 1 (hereinafter Wright).

[2] Wright, at 2.

[3] Wright, at 11-14.

[4] Wright at 21-22.

Wright, at 43.

[6] Wright, at 17.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Wright, at 91.

[10] Wright, at 103-107.

[11] Wright, at 108-109.

[12] Wright, at 111.

[13] Wright, at 144.

[14] Wright, at 149-150.

[15] Wright, at 154.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.