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Common PrecedentsThe Presentness of the Past in Victorian Law and Fiction$
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Ayelet Ben-Yishai

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199937646

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199937646.001.0001

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Past Perfect Past Perfect Legitimacy and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White

Past Perfect Past Perfect Legitimacy and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White

(p.145) Chapter 4 Past Perfect Legitimacy and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White
Common Precedents

Ayelet Ben-Yishai

Oxford University Press

The nineteenth-century legal culture of precedent was not only communal but also deeply indebted to the longue durée, to incremental change over an extended period of time, and to a profound connection to the past. The final chapter interrogates the role of the past in conferring legal, social, cultural, and narrative legitimacy. Wilkie Collins connected questions of legitimacy, trust and deception within the family to the wider social and economic sphere. Legitimacy is a function of the transfer of legal standing over time; it ensures “proper” lineage and continuity of status. It is thus not surprising that legitimacy is strongly connected with realist fiction, and its negation – illegitimacy – is a paradigmatic element of the sensation novel, by definition a genre of disruption and discontinuity. Examining narrative time in The Woman in White affords an exceptional view of the temporality of precedent, and of its narrative structure. The structure of time in the novel shows us how change can be cast as repetition, how disruption can claim its place in a continuous line, how the new always finds itself in the past. If not quite a triumph of the longue durée, the novel is a testament to its rhetorical power. This delicately maintained temporal tension is fundamental to the functioning of precedent and to the construction of Victorian commonality throughout the nineteenth century

Keywords:   Wilke Collins, The Woman in White, longue dureé, legitimacy, illegitimacy, status, sensation novel, narrative time, time in the novel, temporality

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