Westminster Hall by Oliver Goldsmith.

Westminster Hall ceiling by UK Parliament.

Westminster Hall is an essay by Oliver Goldsmith that first appeared in the Public Ledger, one of many letters under the title of Citizen of the World (1760). As with all the essays of this series, Goldsmith adopts the persona of a Chinese tourist recording his observations on English life and in this he writes on Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster (the hall was built in 1097 during the reign of William II; the Palace of Westminster is where the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet) that housed the Court of King's Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery before they were relocated in the 19th Century to the Royal Courts of Justice). It was here the trial of King Charles I took place.

The essay begins,
I had some intentions lately of going to visit Bedlam, the place where those who go mad are confined. I went to wait upon the man in black to be my conductor; but I found him preparing to go to Westminster Hall, where the English hold their courts of justice. It gave me some surprise to find my friend engaged in a law-suit, but more so, when he informed me that it had been depending for several years. "How is it possible," cried I, "for a man who knows the world to go to law? I am well acquainted with the courts of justice in China; they resemble rat-traps every one of them; nothing more easy than to get in, but to get out again is attended with some difficulty, and more cunning than rats are generally found to possess."
His friend explains that he was assured that a legal career was profitable, however has in fact found it frustrating, noting "Thus have I been upon the eve of an imaginary triumph every term these ten years". This time, however, he is sure it will be different, which he goes on to explain, referring to the case of the presumably fictional Salkeld and Ventris, lawyers with a similar case to his own. Our narrator the Chinese tourist points out that in other fields, scholars and scientists and the like seek to progress, whereas in the case of law they seem not to, preferring to hang on to, in this case, an example from one hundred years ago as an authority and thus dragging out the process. A "speedy administration of justice" is, in our lawyer's view, unwelcome - the way we do it, he says, is the best way "to secure our property". The debate continues a little longer but then ends abruptly: the case in which the two were headed has been postponed for another term. They might as well, they decide, go to Bedlam after all.

I'm not going to lie, this essay was no fun (it can be read in full here, by the way). The thing is, though, it's based on observations of the British way of life from an outsider, that is its purpose and that is it's point; that is what it did. When I first read it in isolation of the other essays of the series, I was at a loss, not quite sure where it was going, but looking at the ideas of the series, it makes sense. Even so, it was tricky and I'm not sure my life is particularly enriched for having read it!

And that was my 19th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. I would like to get ahead as next week is a busy week, so my next title will hopefully be reviewed by Monday morning: it will be Fasting by Émile Zola.

Comments

  1. Jarndyce vs ? i've been meaning to read the Persian Letters by Montesquieu but it remains in limbo (the shelf at the end of the room)... i like G's poems and other things; but i guess i'll give this on a miss...

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    Replies
    1. It's short enough to glance over, at least :)

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