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The Heiress vs. the Establishment: Mrs. Campbell’s Campaign for Legal Justice

by Elizabeth Bethune Campbell, Constance and Nancy L. Backhouse

The study of Canadian history, often the butt of jokes about snooze buttons, does manage to come alive on occasion, especially when the Backhouse name is connected with it. Both Constance – author of numerous histories of women and the law in Canada – and Ontario Superior Court Judge Nancy serve the genre well with this new publication, a reprint of a remarkable historical document that charges some of the most powerful figures in Canadian legal history with unsavoury behaviour.

Ably bookended with an extensive prologue and explanatory follow-up, this generously illustrated work came together following the rediscovery of Where Angels Fear to Tread, a 1940 memoir by Elizabeth Bethune Campbell. A member of Ontario’s upper crust, she waged a 14-year battle against the legal establishment over the improper dispensation of her mother’s will.

Forced to go it alone when it appeared no lawyer would be associated with a scandalous case that implicated a senior law society bencher in financial malfeasance, Campbell spent years pursuing justice, becoming the first woman to represent herself before the U.K. Privy Council, the Commonwealth’s court of last resort. The memoir itself is an interesting piece of writing, reflecting as it does the quaint, flowery prose of a bygone era. Campbell speaks directly to the reader as if she were on stage, asking for support or confirmation that hers is a valid and shocking point.

While Campbell’s battle is certainly heroic, she fails to come across as the most likeable of characters; she is self-obsessed, and her anger at the system is as an individual wronged (a breach of the rules of class privilege) and not as someone who understands the larger realm of corruption that has ensnared her. The memoir is also marked by the insouciant racism of the day, with occasional unflattering references to Jews, Chinese, and East Indians.

The Backhouses have done much to fill in the many blanks that may have puzzled readers unfamiliar with the period or the respectable names within the Establishment, and their epilogue is filled with good analysis of the case, its implications, and Campbell’s place in history. It’s a crime that such a document has been inaccessible for years, though it’s been alluded to often enough in the manner polite society discusses a private indiscretion. That the Backhouses have done such an elegant job of recreating the context and reprinting the story is, in the strongest sense, a true act of justice.


Reviewer: Matthew Behrens

Publisher: UBC Press


Price: $45

Page Count: 356 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7748-1052-1

Released: May

Issue Date: 2004-7

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs