by Susan Sage Heinzelman. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books, 2010. 200pp. Cloth. $50.00. ISBN: 9780804756808. eBook. $50.00. ISBN: 9780804773683.

Reviewed by Margaret S. Hrezo, Department of Political Science, Radford University. Email: mhrezo [at] radford.edu.


One of the perennial questions of law, literature, and political science provides the driving force for Susan Sage Heinzelman’s RIDINGTHE BLACK RAM. How do we represent what is true or real in politics? In law? In literature? In life? Her argument is that between approximately 1675 and 1750 two parallel movements, each with origins as far back as the mid sixteenth century, separated the study and practice of law, literature, and politics into distinctive movements with territorial claims concerning the nature of the true and the real. As a result of this evolution, law proclaimed itself arbiter of the true and the real based on its epistemology – “fact as a kind of truth” (p.ix) – and literature grounded its claim to truth and reality in ethics, or “character as a kind of truth” (p.ix). This evolution took place during the final breakdown of the mediaeval system and the rise of classical liberal ideology and of the modern liberal state, which are grounded in Machiavelli’s dictum that the state is an artificial creation designed to meet the need of the ruler for power and of the ruled for security and prosperity through war and commerce. Heinzelman understands these developments, as did Bachelard and Lefebvre, as evidence that social space is a human construction, something evoked through language and action as a reflection of human consciousness. In five thoughtful and carefully constructed chapters, Heinzelman’s excellent book guides its reader through the separation of law, literature, and politics from a relatively unified narrative and their development into separate, distinct, and competing disciplines each with its own truth claim. Outwardly these claims to truth appear different. However, at bottom all three rest their claim to truth on the modern construction of social space – a space that, as Heinzelman argues, was built “through and on the body of the woman” (p.x). The common thread at the foundation of law, literature, and, as she argues in chapter 5, politics is the view that the female must be marginalized because of its “licentious,” and “secretive private” character (p.xi). The goal of literature, politics, and law remained in modernity what it had been in the mediaeval period – the “management of the unruly woman” (p.xiv). The marginalization of women, Professor Heinzelman maintains, has been detrimental to each of the disciplines she considers because it masks the intertwined character of legal and literary representations of the truth and the “historicity of the relationship between law and literature, making it appear static and universal rather than . . . historically specific and gendered” (p.92). Marginalization of women meant marginalization of the genre in which they wrote. However, she argues, “Romance offers what one might call the most just version of the real” (p.106). [*27] Romance, defined as an idealization of what exists, suggests that “questions of truth and justice can only be mediated through representation” (p.106) and that attempts to locate them solely in ‘facts’ will fail.

At first glance, this argument seems similar to that made by most proponents of the law and literature movement. However, Heinzelman’s work enriches the study of law and literature in several ways. First, most of us who maintain the importance of including literature in the study of the law and of politics focus on the ‘canon.’ Nussbaum, for example, has written extensively on the Greek playwrights, Charles Dickens, and Henry James. Important scholarship also has been done on such authors as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain. But if the canon is a problem because of its epistemological colonization of social space, then scholars also should be moving beyond these authors to those who have been marginalized or entirely forgotten. We see steps in that direction most often taken in scholarly work on such contemporary authors as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Toni Morrison. However, Heinzelman demonstrates both why contemporary non-realist authors need to be studied and the relationship of the choice of canonical works to the construction of social space in chapter one’s comparison of “The Man of Law” and “The Wife of Bath” from Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES, in chapter two’s remarkable presentation of the French roman (novel) writers and of Aphra Behn’s OROONOKO, and in her interpretation of RIVELLA in chapter three.

A second contribution made by RIDING THE BLACK RAM is that the author avoids the usual feminist critique of literature, law, and politics. This critique argues that law and literature tend to portray women as struggling for power. In Heinzelman’s reading, women already had and used power, but power of a different sort. Women, she maintains, bring the power of love to literature and the law – love in all of its four faces – eros, caritas, storge, and filia (THE FOUR LOVES). This argument is very interesting when viewed in the light of Simone Weil’s understanding of power. Weil argues that even critics of social injustice are trapped by modernity’s values and way of thinking. Those critics, and the social movements they organize, still seek power as an end and believe that if only the right people are in power, social justice is possible. Heinzelman, like Weil, suggests that power, as modernity defined it, is not the answer.

One of the most interesting parts of Heinzelman’s book underlies the contributions to the study of law and literature discussed above. That is her use of the terms Nomos and Nostos. Nomos (law, convention) is a term frequently used in discussions of law. However, as Heinzelman suggests, Nomos also connotes a “broader sense of equity upon which a community generally agrees” (xii). Nomos, thus, is a narrative – a constructed social space – that informs those who live within it of what is and is not acceptable and of the penalties for non-conformance with social norms. Nostos, according to Heinzelman, is transformative desire. It is gendered, female, and reflects a broader understanding of community than does Nomos. Nostos is what allows human beings to desire new stories about themselves and to transform old ones. Properly understood, both Nomos and Nostos are ways of making meaning, [*28] and both ways of making meaning are important. Singly they are incomplete methods of understanding truth and reality; together they foster a more complete human understanding of private and public relationships.

Understanding the contributions of Heinzelman’s scholarship helps guide us through what is a challenging, but very rewarding book. In chapter one, she relies on Chaucer to provide concrete examples of Nomos and Nostos. In particular, she emphasizes how Nostos unsettles and destabilizes Nostos by providing arguments for the inclusion of that which Nomos works so hard to regulate, that is, desire. Both the Man of Law and the Wife of Bath invent a romance narrative. The Man of Law’s narrative illustrates his ideology and highest values, “constancy and fidelity” (p.10). The Wife of Bath presents a counter-narrative that “explodes the imperial romance of women’s commodification represented in the Man of Law’s tale” (p.13). Her tale unsettles the Man of Law’s ideology by outlining a transformative law based on a negotiated model of justice and equity (p.17).

In chapter 3, Heinzelman picks up the thread of Nostos in a discussion of mediaeval courts of love and the romance novels of the seventeenth century. Her theme is that romances whose narrative includes Nostos express “the private intimacy necessary for the creation of shared, symbolically rich, public space (Nomos). She argues that in these romance novels (her example is LE PRINCESSE DE CLÈVES) the private and the public cannot be separated. The private life of Anne of Cleves is played out not only in public space but for public purposes. A number of novels from the period, Heinzelman argues, use the inter-play of the amorous and the political to ask what sort of society would hold as a social goal a loving relationship freely chosen by women. Always, these novels suggest that individual and personal relationships constitute the stuff of politics (p.34). Then, Heinzelman contrasts these novels of Nostos (primarily French) with the development of the British novel during the same time period. Her reading is a reaction to Ian Watt’s definitive history of the English novel, THE RISE OF THE NOVEL. Watts maintains that the English novel specifically and the genuine novel in general begin with the works of Richardson, Fielding, and Defoe. They focus on individual characters rather than character types and the real versus the ideal or heroic. Further, they portray reality and truth as a single, unmediated concept that applies to all people the same way at all times and in all places. The acceptance of this view of the history of the novel, condemns the work of female, especially French female, authors of the same time period as unreal and untrue and marginalizes the most popular form of literature in favor of novels that embody and reinforce the virtues of the commercial world.

Chapter four investigates the case of Mary Blandy who was tried and executed for parricide in 1752. Presenting three separate accounts (Mary’s own, the semi-official legal transcript of William Roughead, and Henry Fielding’s pamphlet), Heinzelman convincingly argues that “fictional discourse aligned itself with the culturally weighty narratives of law and theology and against female-authored [*29] romance narratives” (p.73). Thus, Mary Blandy, who wrote in the style of the romance and embodied the woman who must be regulated, was condemned before she ever spoke. Law is literature, just as Heinzelman argues in this chapter. Every trial presents competing narratives. There are facts; however, those facts must be told as a story, and in the end it is the story that counts as much as the facts of which it is composed. And some stories our construction of social space pushes us to accept before we ever hear them.

Finally, Susan Heinzelman takes up the political implications of her history of modernity’s privilege of Nomos over Nostos in chapter five. In it she juxtaposes the very real trial for treasonous adultery of Queen Caroline (1820) and the fictional trials of queens for adultery in Shakespeare’s A WINTER’S TALE and HENRY VIII in order to argue that they “insist on a truth not recognized by court or sovereign” and test “the limits of what the law can prove” (p.104). The point of this chapter is that the stories often embodied in law are partial stories played out in humanly constructed social space. Women play “treason with what ought to be” (p.72) not just socially, but politically. But what “ought to be”? Is Nomos all there is to what ought to be? Not for Susan Heinzelman. She argues that justice and political community depend on the inclusion of Nostos in that “ought.” For fantasies (of whatever kind), the stuff of Nostos, are “not illusory representations of an imagined world, but rather the real world imagined differently” (p.106). They contain public and private truths with which we must reckon and which we need to weave together in our political spaces.

This book, I believe, is most useful to scholars who specialize in law and literature. The arguments are clear and well-presented. However, it is a book that requires attention. Unlike many works today, it does not endlessly repeat its theme. This is not a 120-page text that reads like it could have, and possibly should have, been done in 60-70 pages. It is a fascinating book that helps one understand the origins of the sometimes touchy relationship of law and literature. Still, reading it I constantly was thinking of colleagues in a variety of fields (criminal justice, English literature, sociology of law, gender studies, and psychology) to whom to recommend it. Ultimately, then, I will recommend it to all of you.

Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. THE POETICS OF SPACE. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. 1991. THE PRODUCTION OF SPACE. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Lewis, C.S. 1991. THE FOUR LOVES. New York, NY: Houghton Miflin Harcourt.

Watt, Ian. 1957. THE RISE OF THE NOVEL: STUDIES IN DEFOE, RICHARDSON, AND FIELDING. Berkeley: University of California Press.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Margaret S. Hrezo.