I agree that in Austen’s time, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, was well known and his memory was held in high regard; not universally, because he was at one time involved in politics and therefore he was a member of a political party, which means he had political opponents. More on that coming up.
Although the readers of the Regency remembered Lord Mansfield, this doesn't mean that he was primarily remembered for the Somerset v. Stewart case. He was a famous legal reformer and a highly respected jurist, so he was remembered for a lot of things. The Somerset case in particular was not, as far as I can see, the top of mind association for a reader in Austen's time, and I'll give examples to show that in this and future posts.
So far, we've looked at novels in which the authors used the name "Mansfield" for their characters--some good, some bad, some central, some peripheral--with no evident association with either Lord Mansfield or slavery.
This post will focus on novels in which the narrators or the characters made passing references to the real Lord Mansfield. Some quote him, some refer to him in general, some refer to his judicial wig, some to his rulings on libel. You'll see that I could not turn up a novel which referenced Mansfield's Somerset ruling.
- An 1813 novel included a long effusion in Volume III about fame. Lord Mansfield is given as an example of someone who deserves deathless fame. “Lord Mansfield is not yet forgotten by those who have understanding to discern, and taste to admire, a great Genius, exercised in unfolding the intricacies of an obscure science, in the most elegant and comprehensive simplicity of language. I hope he will be remembered not only by lawyers, but by every man of principle and talents, when his Doctrine of Libels is forgot." The author, David Paynter, also mentions one of Mansfield’s most famous cases, the Wilkes case, but not Somerset v. Stewart. (The History and Adventures of Godfrey Ranger by David William Paynter. R.&W. Dean, 1813)
- In “The Fashionable Wife and Unfashionable Husband,” in Amelia Opie’s Simple Tales (1815), a young man is distracted from his law studies by love, “for he was conscious that his thoughts had been employed on another decision, and one of more importance in his eyes than any one even of lord Mansfield’s; he had been examining the pleadings of his own heart, and the decision of his conscience had been—that he was in love.”
- “Dr. Johnson has said, 'that in a company of generals and admirals every other man falls in his own opinion; and that even the great Lord Mansfield would have crept under the table in such society, if they had talked of the engagements they had been in.'” Country Houses by Charlotte Trimmer, 1832 (More on that Johnson quote below)
- “Having prepared himself a woman’s war of words, for skirmishing and sharpshooting on the part of Henrietta, he assumed a most heroic posture, and came down to breakfast looking as dignified as Lord Mansfield in his marble wig, among the tombs of Westminster Abbey. The Fair of Mayfair, 1832
- A description of a room includes this: "Still higher up was an engraving of the great Lord Mansfield, corresponding with a similar plate of Lord Chancellor Thurlow, at the opposite end of the room. Large iron boxes filled with deeds, and inscribed with the names of the owners, reposed in niches on all sides." Our island: comprising forgery, a tale and the lunatic, a tale, by Humphry William Woolrych, 1832
- Lord Mansfield was famous on both sides of the Atlantic, long after his death in 1793. An 1837 American novel, The Dutchman’s Fireside, contains a passing reference to the wig with a Biblical pun thrown in for good measure: ”inasmuch as that when the head is so full of law that it can hold no more, a vast superfluity of knowledge may be accommodated in the curls of the wig. Hence it has been gravely doubted whether those profound decisions of my Lord Mansfield and Sir William Scott, which constitute the law and the profits in our courts, did actually emanate from the brains or the wigs of the aforesaid oracles.” The Dutchman's Fireside: A Tale, by James Kirke Paulding. United States, Harper & Brothers, 1837.
- Swallow Barn, Or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion,1853, has a passing reference: “Old Nick enjoyed that solid popularity which, as lord Mansfield expressed it, follows a man’s actions rather than is sought after by them.” Swallow Barn, Or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion, by John Pendleton Kennedy.G.P. Putnam,1853.
- In the 1800 novel Douglas, or, the Highlander, by Robert Bisset, Mr. Rhodomontade, who is a boaster and a name-dropper, recounts a street brawl he engaged in as youth with his old friend the Earl of Sandwich. “Many a hard bout we two have had… He and I, cleared a dozen of bullies… My good friend Henry Fielding, I remember, he, you know, that wrote Don Quixote, was justice at Bow Street, and read us a severe lecture. Billy Murray, I remember, bailed us, he that is now Lord Mansfield.”
- “They had the insolence to say Dr. Scribble was a dunce… could flesh and blood bear it? Was it not a libel? -- I believe Lord Mansfield would declare it so," a character complains in Modern literature, by Robert Bisset, 1804
- In Strategems Defeated (1811), the hero, Lord Devereux, learns of the demise of a miserly relative. His friend writes tell him that he is the sole heir of two hundred and sixty thousand pounds. “Like the late Lord Mansfield, he seems to have preferred lending his money upon mortgages, to placing it in the funds… I only wish I knew eight misers like himself.” This suggests that Lord Mansfield, like a good Scot, had a reputation for being canny with his money. Strategems Defeated is reviewed by me here.
- One of the correspondents in an 1816 epistolary novel says "I am quite of Lord Mansfield’s opinion. He once observed, that if a single syllable from his pen could confute an anonymous defamer, he would not gratify him with the word.” (Self-deception; in a Series of Letters., by Emma Parker, T. Egerton. 1816)
- In the novel Florence Macarthy, a young lawyer complains when a judge cuts him off from making a lengthy speech in court. “'My lord, I must observe,' continued young Crawley, petulantly, 'that among the virtues of a judge, patience is the most necessary; and Lord Mansfield, my lord, obtained more credit for that virtue, than for all his other judicial merits combined.' 'Then, Sir, my Lord Mansfield never was obliged to listen to you,' replied the judge, coldly. A universal smile followed this observation." Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale, by Lady Morgan, W.B. Gilley, 1819.
- History of George Godfrey (1828) by Thomas Gaspey. In this picaresque adventure tale, which appears to be a precursor to Dickens, this bit of dialogue occurs: “Do you think a jury would give any verdict against a journal which had only stated the honest truth, to warn the public against fraud?” “No doubt of it. The cry is, ‘the greater the truth, the greater the libel,’ as they tell you Lord Mansfield once said; but I do not believe a word of it. However, that goes down now, and, of course, the worse a man’s character really is, the better claim has he to bring damages against those who speak against him.” “Is this the law?” “Certainly—or, at any rate, the practice.”
I think the theory that "Mansfield Park" refers to Mansfield, and specifically to Somerset v Stewart would be strengthened if we could find some examples of other writers connecting Mansfield with slavery during this period.
Moving beyond novels, there are also books of anecdotes and even joke books which reference the famous jurist. More on those next.
For a detailed explanation of Somerset v. Stewart, there's this informative video by Professor Dominique Bouchard
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