Lawyers in Literature

I have just finished reading The Children Act by Ian McEwan and it has made me think about how lawyers are described in fiction. The immediate names that come to mind are Tulkinghorn from Bleak House, Dickens’ masterpiece about the law, incidentally a novel that was on the reading list when I first began to study law at the University of Sheffield, Soames Forsyte from John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga’s and Rumpole, John Mortimer’s delicious character. Tulkinghorn and Soames Forsyte are both solicitors and are rather dry characters, brooding over wills and conveyances in dingy offices. In Bleak House the lawyers are the villains of the  novel, in an interminable legal action  41-bleak-house-cover-full

In Bleak House the lawyers are the villains of the  novel, in an interminable legal action Jarndyce and Jarndyce which only comes to a conclusion when all the money in the estate has been used in paying legal bills. Tulkinghorn is a manipulative lawyer who glories in the power he has over his clients as he learns their secrets.

Soames Forsyte is equally unimaginative and scheming as he tries to control his wife who he sees as his property as indeed women were until the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882 which gave women the right to own property in their own names. The series of novels by John Galsworthy were written between 1906 and 1921 when that independence had taken root. Soames is obsessed with property and considers his wife as just another chattel. He is a cold character with little to commend him to the reader.

On the other hand John Mortimer by creating Rumpole as a caricature of the people around him at the Bar, some of whom are recognisable to me from my own career, has created a likeable rogue. Put upon by his wife, she who must be obeyed and his colleagues who he always gets the better of in the end, most readers enjoy reading about him.

In The Children Act, the main character is Fiona Maye, a High Court Judge in the Family Division who hears a case which involves the refusal of medical treatment. McEwan has written with great elegance about the reasoning HH Judge Maye uses to arrive at her decision. The character has her own private sorrows but as Tessa Hadley says in her review of the novel in The Guardian, nothing in the character’s life is as interesting as the legal arguments. In my own experience, this is true my own difficulties always seemed so petty compared with the troubles my clients face. It is perhaps the reason that writing giving  a lawyer the main role in a novel is so difficult.

About scribblingadvocate

Born in Lancashire, Law degree from Sheffield University and MA in Creative Writing from Exeter. A barrister for twenty five years, who appeared in the Crown Courts in and around London. When I retired we moved to live in Devon, first on Dartmoor, more recently overlooking the Exe Estuary. After twenty years I still feel an exile from London. Married, no children but own an affable Springer Spaniel. I love reading, walking and travel. I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University and have written three books, Crucial Evidence, Reluctant Consent and Legal Privilege, all set in London. You can email me

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