Melanie Williams’s book is in part what its sub-title declares: a series of case studies dating from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, linking literary and philosophical texts to legal issues. It is also in part what its title declares: a peroration on the jurisprudential idea of ‘empty justice’, using literary texts as accessible ways into difficult concepts. What neither title nor sub-title declares is that this is first and foremost a work of feminist theory. Williams’s goal has been to show (with doubters particularly in mind) ‘how pervasive feminist issues are for all persons and all belief systems’ (p. xxv).


Texts range from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles through Virgina Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, and John Fowles, to Ballard’s Super-Cannes and Coetzee’s Disgrace. The linked legal issues are sometimes obvious ones (rape, provocation, pornography), sometimes less so (treason, abortion, Viscountess Rhondda’s claim for peeresses to sit in the House of Lords). These are matters largely of concern to women, yet Williams demonstrates that the values that oppress women ‘affect and distort male experience as well’ (p. xxi).


For me, the book did two things particularly well. Williams wears her learning lightly, and the wealth of inter-woven illustrative examples, contextual details and outlines of theoretical debates really achieves its object of making feminist issues central, inevitable even. And she writes beautifully.


In her introduction, Williams notes the ‘excitement’ engendered when scholars find themselves ‘making connections’ (p. xix). That excitement pervades this dense, difficult but stimulating book.

Rosemary Auchmuty
Reader in Law, University of Westminster