Law Text Culture


This spectacle of the promiscuous widow is described in a legal self-help book printed for women (and, in this case, by a woman). It was designed, claims its anonymous author, to inform the "fair Sex . . . how to preserve their Lands, Goods and most valuable Effects" (vii). Mixed in with this "serious matter" are anecdotes from customary law, provided by the author as "Things of Entertainment" (vi), of which this story of the widow-whore is one. In Patrick O'Brian's contemporary historical romance, The Mauritius Command, set in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars, we find a re-enactment of the custom. In the novel Mr. Farquhar, a gentleman "bred to the law" (1977:72), who is en route to his position as Governor of Mauritius, newly "liberated" from French occupation by the English, asserts the superiority of English law over Buonaparte's "new French code." (164). It does not surprise the reader familiar with eighteenth century culture to discover that Mr. Farquhar has been led to reflect upon the difference between English and French law by "considerations on the inheritance of landed property" (164). For him, the law's wisdom lies in the way in which it protects property from illicit dissemination; or, put another way, the law's effects are most precisely realized in its capacity to distribute man's property, including women's bodies and their products, in an orderly and predictable fashion.