Alice in Legal Wonderland: A Cross-Examination of Gender, Race and Empire in Victorian Law and Literature

Publication Year:
2001
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Repository URL:
https://scholarship.law.uc.edu/fac_pubs/14
Author(s):
Kalsem, Kristin (Brandser)
Tags:
women; gender; race; literature; novels; narrative; fiction; nonfiction; legal history; nineteenth century; victorian; Law and Gender; Legal History
article description
Lewis Carroll's 1865 scene of a recalcitrant Alice in the courtroom, defying the court's authority as she grows (literally) into a large and threatening presence, dramatizes what was becoming an increasingly common Victorian spectacle: a woman questioning and critiquing the law and claiming a place for herself within its institutions. Women have played a significant (but much overlooked) role in legal history and, in this paper, I argue for the importance of examining various narratives of the past (including literary accounts) that explored women's relationship to the law. Against the backdrop of several legal cases in which women sought entry into law and politics, I focus on representations of two surprising nineteenth-century characters - female judges, one fictional and one real: She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, or Ayesha, from Rider Haggard's 1887 novel She; and the real-life missionary Mary Slessor, who was the first woman appointed as a magistrate in the British Empire. Employing a theoretical approach I term cross-examination, I analyze representations of these women in sources of direct testimony, including fictional descriptions of Ayesha in her capacity as judge and written accounts of Slessor's courtroom persona by the Chief Magistrate of Calabar. These texts, like the legal cases, reveal cultural anxieties about women in the public and powerful realm of law. In my analysis, I discuss the negotiations at the level of narrative to keep these nineteenth-century Portias within their proper womanly roles. Also, both Ayesha and Slessor exercised legal power in Africa, a place where, in the context of Empire, traditional ideas about gender were complicated and disrupted by racial politics. In reading these texts that cross continents, I explore intersections of gender and race, illuminating the differences in the perceptions of women and power when those women were white women judging indigenous people in Africa.