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Pride and Prejudice and practice: Law students put Jane Austen's classic novel on trial

A look at the third annual Weldon Literary Moot

- March 7, 2013

It's gone from book to screen to zombie book, and now Dal law students will be putting Pride and Prejudice on trial.
It's gone from book to screen to zombie book, and now Dal law students will be putting Pride and Prejudice on trial.

For 200 years, Pride and Prejudice has stood the test of time. It’s been successfully adapted to television and film. It’s even survived the addition of zombies.

But can it survive the legal system?

Jane Austen’s classic will be put to that test on Thursday at the third annual Weldon Literary Moot. The event is a fundraiser for Halifax Humanities 101, which offers free humanities classes in the community.

You may be wondering what a “literary moot” is. A moot is essentially a mock trial, a fake courtroom procedure that law students usually do for credit or as competitions for scholarly prizes. The Literary Moot is a fake trial based on a specific legal issue present in literature. The Weldon Literary Moot Society, which has organized the event for the past three years, selects a text from the Halifax Humanities 101 curriculum and brings that book’s characters and plot to life in a courtroom setting complete with a judge, a jury, witnesses, and legal counsel.

“If you know anything about law school, when you hear the word 'moot,' usually you think they are pretty formal, and really serious and competitive,” says Jad Debs, a third-year law student at the Schulich School of Law and one of the six student organizers of the event. “[The Literary Moot] isn’t like that. It’s not an academic exercise; it’s more for fun [as well as being] a fundraiser.”

Along with the students who organize the event, the Literary Moot also depends on a wide range of volunteers from real life lawyers and judges to local comedians.

“Bill Wood, who is a comedian from Picnicface, he’s been in it for the last couple of years and he is always a big draw – he’s really, really funny,” says Debs.

Case in costume

Student attendees will also get to see their professors dress up in costumes and act out the roles of key witnesses during the trial. Professors Diana Ginn and Geoff Loomer from the Schulich School of Law will be playing the roles of Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Darcy respectively, while local prof Laura Penny will be playing the role of Elizabeth Bennet.

Once the piece of literature is decided, the Literary Moot’s organizers work to find a legal issue within the text which has the most potential to be funny and entertaining for an audience.

“Part of law school training is to look at just a normal set of facts and be able to pull a legal issue out of it... and [when we] read through [Pride and Prejudice], the slander case between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham popped out,” says Debs.

Even though the student organizers put together witness statements and hold meetings with the various characters to practice lines, so to speak, there is still a good amount of improvisation during the Literary Moot.

“We try to prepare in advance as much as possible, because it plays better to the audience that way, but there are definitely surprises that come up, especially with the judge — he tends to be kind of the wildcard,” says Debs.

A literary legacy

January of this year was the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice's first edition. According to Rohan Maitzen of Dal’s Department of English, this year’s Pride and Prejudice Literary Moot will be portraying the book’s slander storyline in a way that Jane Austen’s contemporaries would have never approved of.

“In the novel, it is essential that [the slander issue] will not go public in order to protect the reputations of everyone involved,” says Dr. Maitzen.

Furthermore, she doubts Mr. Darcy’s character would have ever chosen to step foot in a courtroom during the time.

“Mr. Darcy would have hated going to court, is my impression… it would have been ‘so undignified!’” she says, laughing at the thought.

As for why Austen’s enduring love story continues to be supported by a loyal fan base, “that is actually a little bit of a puzzle,” says Dr. Maitzen, who adds that the book wasn't immediately hailed as a masterpiece. "It didn’t actually become a huge, beloved novel until the first part of the 20th century.”

She concludes that Austen’s model of a smart and witty love story has provided an “exemplary version” to other novelists, which could be why, in part, the book has rightfully gained such acclaim.

Whatever the Halifax Humanities 101 students feel about the validity of Austen’s work, it will be their task as jury members this Thursday to decide whether or not Mr. Wickham can lawfully be held accountable for slander accusations.

The team of legal counsel that wins their case will receive no cash settlement, no promotions and most likely no headlines — just the knowledge that they entertained an audience for the benefit of a program that offers free courses on texts like Pride and Prejudice for those who may not be able to study them otherwise.

The Weldon Literary Moot takes place in the King’s Alumni Hall tonight (Thursday) at 7 p.m. Regular admission is $12, $8 for students.


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