As a formerly practising English solicitor of several decades, when writing ‘Intrigue At Longbourn’, set in the late 1790s, I relied largely on my own experiences from when I started out in the law fifty (yes fifty!) or more years ago.
In the novel, which is a P&P prequel, Mr Bennet has to deal with the will and codicil (a document making amendments to a will) of his deceased farm manager, Mr Jenkins. Because of the difficulty finding out about past legal practice, especially over 200 years ago, I had to assume that little has changed. Certainly, copies of legal documents would have had to be made then as now.
In the early 1970s, photocopiers were still quite primitive and the copies produced were poor quality and liable to fade. I don’t think we even had fax machines and certainly not the internet and communications were therefore by post or telephone. Consequently, solicitors would often make copies of documents the old-fashioned way by means of ‘abstracts’. These were typed or formerly hand-written documents in which the words of the original documents were abbreviated and also expressed in the past tense. Usually, they would be on large sheets of paper, something like A3 or A2 in today’s terminology.
In the 1970s, not a great deal of land was registered at the Land Registry. Most property’s titles still consisted of a bundle of Deeds and documents which would get bigger every time a property changed hands. When selling land, for example, to provide a buyer’s solicitors with details of the title without sending them the original documents, the solicitors might be sent photocopies of the original documents. Equally though, it was still quite common to send them an ‘abstract of title’ using abbreviated wording as described above.
So when Mr Bennet’s attorney had to make copies of Mr Jenkins’s will and codicil, and also a renunciation by which Mr Bennet avoided acting as the executor of the will, in my novel it was done by ‘some clerk having to laboriously scratch out the abbreviated forms in some sort of legal shorthand’.
As paper was in short supply in the eighteenth century, still mostly hand-made and expensive, it is probable that vellum or parchment, made out of animal skin, was used instead of paper. It would have had the advantages that larger sheets of it could be more easily obtained, that it was stronger than paper and that it could be scraped and re-used.
I hope the above wasn’t too boring (as legal procedures can be) and must hope too that my interpretation of legal practice in the late 1790s was reasonably accurate. No doubt someone will tell me some day if it wasn’t! The attached image is actually of William Shakespeare’s will!