For many of us, summertime means reading. A lifelong bibliophile, Thomas Jefferson considered fiction to be useful reading for anyone who wanted to understand the law. University of Virginia Law School faculty and staff agree. Here are some of their picks for fiction that helps explain the law.
Michael J. and Jane R. Horvitz Distinguished Professor of Law
Director, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (1596-98)
“In addition to being fantastic literature and containing one of the greatest trial scenes of all time, [The Merchant of Venice] pits justice against mercy and leads the reader to question those who advocate either position to the exclusion of the other. In the end, both sides’ absolutes appear cruel.”
David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law
John Galsworthy, In Chancery (1920)
In Chancery “deals with the difficulties of getting divorced in England in the early years of the twentieth century, where virtually the only two ways to obtain a divorce were through cruelty or adultery, and both had to be publicly proven in court. Two of the characters in In Chancery, Soames Forsyte and his sister, Winifred Dartie, who is married to Montague Dartie, would both like to be rid of their spouses, Soames because he wants to remarry and Winifred because her husband has run off to South America with his mistress. Soames’s wife is only too happy to divorce him, but neither he nor she wants to admit in public to having an affair, which would amount to social ostracization for members of their upper-middle class. Winifred is capable of bringing an action against Dartie but wants to avoid public scandal.
“The novel demonstrates the grip of the law on persons in England in its time period. ‘In Chancery’ refers to the fact that divorce proceedings took place in chancery court, whose procedures enforced the adultery and cruelty preconditions for a divorce decree. It also signals that any persons seeking to divorce in England at that time were ‘in the grip’ of those procedures.”
Albert Clark Tate, Jr., Professor of Law
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-1853)
The renowned English author’s ninth novel, Bleak House satirizes the English legal system through its exploration of families and wills in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. “Bleak House is a thrilling read that touches on how the law can be–or at least feel–for those who experience it as parties. That is only one minor reason that it is a great book.”
T. Munford Boyd Professor of Law
Director, Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)
“The book loosely follows the sordid career of Huey Long. It’s both a gripping narrative and a cautionary tale about corrupt influences in political life. When I recall re-reading the book about five years ago, I can still see, hear, and smell a number of vivid and memorable scenes. Highly recommended.”
Julian Bishko Professor of History, University of Virginia
Professor of Law
Jane Austen, Persuasion (1817)
“I don’t think one could do better than look at almost any of Jane Austen’s six novels. I suppose Persuasion is my favorite. The social confines in which the heroine, Anne Elliot, operates were constructed by the ways her family, and most landed families of the Regency period, used the law of property. Contrary to what many think, the property interests of Anne Elliot (or Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood) were not undermined by common law. By common law rules, Austen’s protagonists would have inherited their father’s property, though where there were multiple daughters, they would have split the inheritance with their sisters. Instead, it was the use of entails that meant that their father’s property would pass to a distant male relative. Thus the equitable practice of entails was used to defeat a common law practice: the common law rule that land descends to a daughter in the absence of a son and in preference to collateral males. What daughters lost was less a matter of law than of the cultural norms that shaped people’s choices about the use of law.
“As with everything else, Austen handles law more subtly than other authors. Law is not idiotic (think Fielding), nor is it obscure and self-serving (think Dickens). Austen doesn’t bore us with legal details, nor does she dish out easy criticisms of law and lawyers. Instead, law forms a quiet yet critical a backdrop in her novels. Austen knew that her contemporary readers would appreciate how law could function as a synecdoche for what really mattered: the patriarchal norms about women and families that were her real concern.”
Associate Professor of Law
C.J. Sansom’s “Matthew Shardlake Series”: Dissolution (2003); Dark Fire (2004); Sovereign (2006); Revelation (2008); Heartstone (2010); Lamentation (2014)
Sansom’s mystery series feature Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in King Henry VII’s court. “Sansom is a lawyer as well as a historian, so his books do a great job of portraying the legal practice of the time, while also exploring the moral ambiguities of the Reformation.”
Professor of Law, General Faculty
Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (2015)
Harper Lee’s second novel was published in 2015, just before her 2016 death. “It is much more subtle and nuanced than To Kill a Mockingbird, and it better illustrates the nature of the power and influence that lawyers traditionally exercised within their communities.”
Law Library Special Collections Metadata Research Team Lead and lawyer
Donald Barthelme, Concerning the Bodyguard (1978)
“Concerning the Bodyguard is a short story told almost entirely through questions. For members of a profession that often relies on questions–from discovery to cross-examination–it’s a fascinating meditation on the uses of questions and the challenge of telling a story within formal constraints that preclude a more straightforward narrative. You can hear Salman Rushdie read the story on this New Yorker Fiction Podcast.” The story can also be found in Barthelme’s collection of short stories, Forty Stories.
Mortimer M. Caplin Professor of Law
Director, Center for the Study of Race and Law
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
“I’d probably recommend a book that many others have recommended: To Kill a Mockingbird. For me, it reveals that the law is only as good as society is. In the book, a fair trial was conducted but the jury verdict was unjust and based on racism.”
Assistant Professor of Law, General Faculty
Director of the Environment and Regulatory Law Clinic
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)
“I re-read Charlotte’s Web with my kids a few years ago, and was blown away by how poetic it is…For aspiring lawyers, it carries two powerful lessons. The first comes from Fern, the young girl who initially saves Wilbur from her father’s axe. Her father announces the ruling that awards Fern custody over Wilbur, reasoning, ‘Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice.’ Every client deserves to have an advocate as zealous as Fern.
“The second comes from Charlotte, who reminds us that great writing (legal or otherwise), often requires the most efficient use of language. ‘Terrific. Radiant. Humble. Some Pig.’ Not a 70-page brief with voluminous footnotes. Just five simple words. That’s all it took for Charlotte and Wilbur. I think most attorneys would benefit from adopting a similarly economical–and thoughtful–approach.”