From Literature into Law
How do narratives of coercive control empower readers and amplify the voices of survivors?
Led by Dr Hannah Roche (University of York) and Professor Katherine Mullin (University of Leeds), Coercive Control: From Literature into Law is the first interdisciplinary project to investigate the complex relationship between literary fiction and the law of coercive control.
In 2015, domestic violence legislation in England and Wales was extended to include ‘threats, humiliation and intimidation’ and ‘a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent’. While the crime of coercive control may involve sustained exploitation, deprivation, regulation, isolation, and degradation, a troubling misconception persists: that domestic abuse is limited to physical, rather than psychological, violence. The Women's Aid Federation of England, which campaigned to make coercive control a criminal offence, ‘now wants to make sure that everyone understands what it is’.
Creative storytelling has played a crucial role in raising awareness. The Rob and Helen Titchener storyline on BBC Radio Four's The Archers, which won the Outstanding Contribution Award at the 2017 BBC Audio Drama Awards, drew public attention to the chilling effects and momentous legal implications of sustained coercive control. Polly Neate, CEO of Women's Aid, reported that the ‘Archers effect’ saw a 20% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline. For many survivors of coercive control, whose voices were heard in the mainstream media in the weeks surrounding Helen's trial, The Archers provided the first account of an experience that aligned with their own. More recently, the ten-part miniseries Maid (2021) has shown viewers the devastating and terrifying power of psychological and verbal abuse, leading to the claim that Netflix has produced ‘the most important series in history’. But long before coercive control was identified and criminalised, writers explored, analysed, challenged, and imagined ways of escaping from coercive and controlling relationships.
Examining the intersection between literature and law, our interdisciplinary network will draw out the many ways in which coercive control has been imagined, enabled, and interrogated by writers from the 1840s to the present day. The project will bring together literary critics, legal historians, women's rights activists, and creative practitioners to provide the first in-depth analysis of literary representations of coercive control. Focusing on a range of writers from the Brontës to Bernardine Evaristo, our network will investigate how narratives of surveillance, regulation, and sustained psychological abuse have anticipated and underscored legal change.
The network will ask important questions about literature and its psychological, social, and educational impact. How have textual strategies of surveillance and regulation driven different fictions, from Victorian marriage plots and neo-Gothic mid-century melodramas to contemporary narratives of unequal unions? How might realist authorial omniscience and postmodern textual trickery be read as metafictional meditations on coercive control? Most importantly, how do narratives of coercive control empower readers and amplify the voices of survivors?
Coercive Control: From Literature into Law is funded by an AHRC Research Networking Award (April 2023-April 2025).