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Book Review 264: Uncommon Law

January 27, 2013 - Harry Eagar
UNCOMMON LAW, by A.P. Herbert. 494 pages. Dorset

Although these 66 humorous essays were written 80 years ago in another land, some of A.P. Herbert's themes maintain their relevance today. Particularly his bitter campaign against England's (but not, as he was always careful to note, Scotland's) divorce laws.

Divorce is a thriving legal business in America today, but only because of the ingenuity of aggrieved spouses; there are not, I conceive, any legal philosophical issues of note. However, many of Herbert's points can easily be recast into the same-sex marriage debate.

Herbert, trained in law, wrote for Punch as the Victorian (and earlier) legal ideas were giving way, reluctantly, to modernism in England. Not a questioner of class values, he did not touch the kind of political-legal issues that, say, Claud Cockburn was ventilating in The Week. A novelist by profession, Herbert was more interested in social norms.

In one of the first of his “Misleading Cases,” he asks whether an Englishman has the right to jump off a (low) bridge just because he feels like it. Constable Boot (one of a cast of recurring characters) thinks not though he cannot quite say why.

Albert Haddock, who ought to be as well known as Colonel Blimp or Mr. Polly, thinks so.

Haddock spends much of his time duelling with tax collectors, but the more interesting essays are about regulations of personal conduct: drinking hours, marriage, publishing.

It is not easy to state briefly why these essays are funny. They are so in the low-key Punchian way; in an early essay, Herbert has a judge refer to a reasonable man as “this excellent but odious character.” (The judges have humorous names like Wool and Sheep, but in an introduction Herbert writes that such obvious tipoffs failed to prevent a few provincial journalists from falling for these legal “reports” as the real thing.)

After writing these japes for about a decade, Herbert was elected to Parliament, where he was successful in reforming England's licensing, divorce and obscenity laws, something that I think no American humorist can match.

His overall strategy – employed both humorously and seriously – was the reductio ad absurdam: “The way to remove a fantastic measure from the statute book is not to evade or ignore it but to enforce it.”

Of all the absurdities, Herbert felt the divorce restrictions most keenly: “Legal actions concerning the personal relationships of men and women must always be odious to a civilized community.”

(It has little to do with Herbert, but it is interesting to note that at precisely this time, England's imperial administrators made a point of not interfering in sharia law where it concerned issues of personal status, like marriage, in the colonies, although some of these rules would have been odious to Herbert – and some not. Divorce was easy for Muslim men, and while Herbert was for easy divorce, he was careful to demand fair treatment for the parties, something not found in sharia law.)

It is a measure of Herbert's passionate feelings about divorce that while most of these feuilletons (as they would be called in Europe) run about 20 or 30 paragraphs, he has a piece (Called “ 'Not a crime' “) about divorce that runs 20 pages, and he expanded it into a whole book, “Holy Deadlock,” which he claimed led to the reform of the divorce laws.


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