Winning the inaugural Penny Pether Prize for Scholarship in Law, Literature and the Humanities is an honour imbued with sadness for Griffith University’s Professor William MacNeil.
Professor Pether, who taught in Australia and the US and whose love of the law and language was paired with a profound commitment to education and research, succumbed to cancer in October.
“Penny was a good friend, a wonderful human being, a dedicated mentor and she is sorely missed,” Professor MacNeil said. “As much as I am thrilled to be the first recipient of this award, it also brings home how deeply so many people are feeling her loss.”
The Penny Pether Prize is awarded by the Law, Literature and Humanities Association of Australasia. Professor MacNeil won for his 2012 monograph, Novel Judgements: Legal Theory as Fiction.
The work takes an intriguing and insightful approach to 19th century Anglo-American law and literature, using the fiction of the era to redefine and reimagine the law.
It contends that, read jurisprudentially, novels of the time abounded in representations of the law’s controlling concepts, many of which continue to exist. For example, rights, justice and the morality of law were encoded in familiar fictional devices including the country house, friendship, love, courtship and marriage.
“Modern law begins in this era. It was a crucible in which new ideas and new structures were formed around the law and the letter,” said Professor MacNeil, Griffith’s Dean of Law and Head of School.
“There is no underestimating the influence of the prominent writers of the time such as Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Henry James. Their work was read in all tiers of society and by both genders.
“Dickens’ initial career aspirations were legal, but he failed, perhaps explaining why solicitors are mostly evil in his writing. The more you read Dickens, the more you realise he was observing the legal system and hoping for a different kind of law.
“Jane Austen had limited contact with the law, although the class to which she belonged was the most likely to litigate. Scott and James had links to the law.”
Professor MacNeil said that for legal and literary scholars alike, the 19th century novel exposed how the law came to mediate all relationships – individual, collective, personal and political – and explored the difference between law and justice.
“The law is too important to be confined to the courts, the legislature and law libraries. Literature is critical in this regard,” he said.
“Then as now, literature finds different ways to interpret, question and cope with the law. It exposes its strengths and flaws and can make the case for change.”