Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction

Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction

by William A. Cohen
     
 

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Never has the Victorian novel appeared so perverse as it does in these pages-and never his its perversity seemed so fundamental to its accomplishment. Whether discussing George Eliot's lesbian readers, Anthony Trollope's whorish heroines, or Charles Dickens's masturbating characters, William A. Cohen's study explodes the decorum of mainstream nineteenth-century

Overview

Never has the Victorian novel appeared so perverse as it does in these pages-and never his its perversity seemed so fundamental to its accomplishment. Whether discussing George Eliot's lesbian readers, Anthony Trollope's whorish heroines, or Charles Dickens's masturbating characters, William A. Cohen's study explodes the decorum of mainstream nineteenth-century fiction. By viewing this fiction alongside the most alarming public scandals of the day, Cohen exposes both the scandalousness of this literature and its sexiness.

Scandal, then as now, makes public the secret indiscretions of prominent people, engrossing its audience in salacious details that violate the very code of propriety it aims to enforce. In narratives ranging from Great Expectations to the Boulton and Park sodomy scandal of 1870-71, from Eliot's and Trollope's novels about scandalous women to Oscar Wilde's writing and his trials for homosexuality, Cohen shows how, in each instance, sexuality appears couched in coded terms. He identifies an assortment of cunning narrative techniques used to insinuate sex into Victorian writing, demonstrating that even as such narratives air the scandalous subject, they emphasize its unspeakable nature.

Written with an eye toward the sex scandals that still whet the appetites of consumers of news and novels, this work is suggestive about our own modes of imagining sexuality today and how we arrived at them. Sex Scandal will appeal to scholars and general readers interested in Victorian literature, the history of sexuality, gender studies, nineteenth-century Britain, and gay, lesbian, and queer studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A provocative study, extremely well–written, engaging, and intelligent throughout. Through a series of detailed and nuanced readings, Cohen argues persuasively that novelistic discourse and the discourse of scandal were inextricably bound up with each other. Each of his extended literary analyses contains a series of observations that brilliantly clarifies the specific dynamics of literary semantics.”—Mary L. Poovey, Johns Hopkins University

“Far more refreshing and delicious than any of the ostensibly succulent fare routinely cooked up for enquiring minds by our contemporary scandal sheets, Cohen’s readings and writings induce the exhilarating shock of gay literary and cultural criticism at its most acute. With seductive intelligence and stylistic verve, Sex Scandal offers a sophisticated treatment of a rich, fascinating, and underinterpreted topic whose pertinence to contemporary culture becomes more obvious every day. A dazzling performance.”—Joseph Litvak, Bowdoin College

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780822318484
Publisher:
Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
08/28/1996
Series:
Series Q
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

Sex Scandal

The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction


By William A. Cohen

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9802-8



CHAPTER 1

SEX, SCANDAL, AND THE NOVEL


Victorian Britain is mainly remembered for two things: sexual prudishness and long novels. This book considers the relationship between these two achievements —the one, which inhibited the Victorians from speaking, and the other, which occasioned their extraordinary volubility. The period from 1860 to 1900 witnessed both the consolidation of modern sexual categories and the height of the long novel's cultural authority. In these years, prudishness drove fiction in contradictory directions, compelling it to generate and to prohibit discussion of sexuality. Sex scandals, both as they appear in novels and as they form a cultural context for literary production, supply the clearest means of making legible these conflicting tendencies. Newspaper scandal stories show the nineteenth-century imagination of sexuality at its most dramatic and public. In so doing, they elucidate the operations of the novel, which offers a formally structured and covert aspect of this imagination. Through the combined effects of newspapers and novels, sexuality in the nineteenth century became the subject routinely and paradoxically signaled by its ineffability—a subject that consequently produces volatile effects at the moments when it approaches explicit articulation. Like the novel, the scandal story, which publicly broadcasts information ordinarily kept secret, supplies a rich vein of cultural material through which to investigate language about sexuality.

Sex scandal is a Victorian phenomenon, but anyone within range of the mass media today needs hardly be told that it is not only Victorian. Nineteenth-century scandals establish the terms for, and supply the history of, the manifest absorption of contemporary Anglo-American culture in sensational stories of sexual exposure. Our own press tends to ignore the fact that scandal even has a history, treating each new case as if it sprang up sui generis. The moment of scandal is a long one, and if its origins reach back in Europe and America at least to the eighteenth century, scandal stories continue today to propel mass aesthetic forms and popular-press reporting. While the discursive status of sexuality has indisputably changed in this period, sexual transgressions still provoke the most sensational media spectacles. Even if, as we often imagine, we have become inured to hearing news about sex, we are still shocked—or, at least, we are told that others are shocked—by sexual disclosures. Media reports insist that the public is outraged by the revelation of sexual secrets not necessarily because people are outraged, but because a consensus that sex ought not to be talked about in public continues powerfully to hold sway.

Foucault's analysis of power and pleasure in volume 1 of The History of Sexuality remains the most compelling demonstration we have that sexuality is constructed in language. Even without Foucault, we might have suspected from the Victorians that silence about sexuality composes a strategic form, not an absence, of representation. Anyone concerned with the language of sexuality must therefore pay attention to the manifold processes through which sex is made silent and its silence laden with meaning. The unspeakable status of sexuality is not added to sex, as a result of censorship or repression, but is the very condition for its modern discursive formulation. Consequently, rather than entertain the question of ultimate causality—why is sex scandalous?—which presumes that sex can be explained (usually by naturalized categories of psychology or economy), this study pursues the question of how sex was made scandalous—or, better, how scandal helped to make sex, and how this process paradoxically produced it as unutterable.

Foucault leaves largely untouched the most professionalized institution for imaginative writing in the nineteenth century, and the principal beneficiary of this discursive situation: literature. The readings I undertake in this book show that sexual unspeakability does not function simply as a collection of prohibitions for Victorian writers. Rather, it affords them abundant opportunities to develop an elaborate discourse — richly ambiguous, subtly coded, prolix and polyvalent—that we now recognize and designate by the very term literary. Like other restrictions upon expression, the conventions of sexual unspeakability serve writers as a productive constraint, contributing to a certain historical formation of the literary. Literature in turn supplies a culturally privileged repository for the production, and recognition, of sexuality as unspeakable. I emphasize the term unspeakable throughout this book, for it usefully condenses two meanings: something incapable of being articulated as well as something prohibited from articulation. The term is especially apt for a literary project insofar as it indicates that, despite their exclusion from spoken language, sexual subjects might nonetheless find their way into written matter. This inscription is not always intentional, but its meanings are secreted in particular forms of writing where they could not be made in overt enunciations.

If the requirements for discretion about sexuality supply a resource for literary writers, the same might also be said of scandal mongering journalists, who must convey the sexual content of their stories without offending their readership. Given all the fanfare of revelation and indignation associated with scandal, it may seem odd to argue that it makes anything less, rather than more, speakable. One might propose that the Victorians were in some full sense capable of talking about sex—and nowhere would this garrulousness be more evident than in a sex scandal. But in bringing forth sexual activities for public consideration, scandal announces them in such a way as to establish their status as private, rather than—as scandal discourse itself encourages us to believe—radically to violate that status. However pious and disciplinary the public narrative scandal produces about private sexual transgression, though, its effects cannot be predicted according to formulas for ideological containment. While it inculcates an understanding of normative behavior in its audience, scandal also provides the opportunity to formulate questions, discuss previously unimagined possibilities, and forge new alliances. A social drama that enhances the power of one group may at the same time disempower others; while it gratifies some, it terrorizes others. And while scandal teaches punitive lessons, often deliberately intended to induce conformity in its audience, its thrilling terrors always pose the danger of inciting disobedience to the norms they advertise.

The scandalousness of an act hinges upon the degree of secrecy requisite to its commission. The Victorian scandals most revealing about the imagination of sexual privacy are therefore those that concern the sexual activity construed as most insistently covert, sex between men. Male-male sex is literally unspeakable: sodomy—which, by the mid-nineteenth century, is identified principally as sex between men—is defined (in Latin) by English law as the crime not to be named. The period under consideration here saw categories of sexual identity emerging in medical, legal, and social-scientific thinking; the male homosexual occupied a cardinal place in this classification, and hence in the larger process of folding sexual into personal identity. While misdirected and uncontrolled male sexuality generated public displays of disgust and horror, the Victorian ideology that desexualizes women also provoked numerous scandals. Feminist scholars have demonstrated the scandalousness of women who were seen in public to be overly or inappropriately sexual, and this project builds upon that work in analyzing the concurrent mechanisms of exposure that surround deviant male bodies, and in considering the differences that gender makes there. While the willful effort to deny female sexuality resulted in celebrated Adultery, divorce, and illegitimacy cases, ironically it largely precluded lesbian scandals, which were less unspeakable than unthinkable; indeed, the refusal of lawmakers to believe in the possibility of sex between women is supposed to have exempted it from statutory prohibition. Male homosexual scandals, by contrast, serve as an especially incisive point in Victorian culture for the production of sexual discourse, and the actual scandals I consider at length are consequently trials for sex between men.

In the Victorian period, scandals of all sorts proliferated in the popular press. In part as a result of the repeal of the stamp tax in 1855 and the paper duty in 1860, the number of newspapers in Great Britain multiplied, and they became cheaper, more widely available, and more national in scope. This burgeoning medium generated stories for popular consumption on a scale that had not been possible before, and the character of both newspapers and news itself changed significantly. The papers' greater availability, coupled with increasing literacy, made scandals publicly accessible in new ways. As much as scandalous news may have exploded in the second half of the nineteenth century, however, this is not to argue that mere were no scandals before 1855, nor that, characteristic as it is of this era, scandal is uniquely Victorian. Events from earlier periods, such as the South Sea Bubble, the Queen Caroline affair, and numerous notorious divorce cases, certainly fall under the rubric of scandal. Such antecedents notwithstanding, I suggest that scandal assumes its modern form only once several conditions are met: that news media are national and accessible; that they distance the subjects of their stories from their audience enough to effect a divide between the exposed private life and the anonymous public reading about it; and that the audience itself is conceived in terms sufficiently capacious to encompass a wide range of class, gender, and geographical positions.

The term scandal is often used, in vaguely metaphorical ways, with regard to any public outrage. My concern here, however, is with a social phenomenon that has determinable characteristics and a consistent structure. In terms of form, scandal is a densely plotted narrative, with relatively fixed constituent parts: an accuser exposes an indiscretion or iniquity in the life of an accused and broadcasts that secret for public consumption, and the accused responds with denials. Even if it does not come to an actual trial, scandal still relies on the tripartite juridical model of plaintiff, defendant, and jury. The public interest evinced in a case is itself the product of several factors: the quality of the charges (how titillating they are felt to be), the symbolic status of the actors (how prominent a class or celebrity position they occupy), and the destructiveness of the proceedings (how much damage they have potential for). Dissemination and consumption of the scandal depends upon a popular press that finds it profitable to make news out of stories about private life, and more generally upon conditions that Alexander Welsh has described as forming a knowledge industry.

In temporal terms, scandal is composed of two discrete moments: the first comprises the alleged event that transgresses community moral standards and is therefore hidden; the second publicly recapitulates that earlier moment, lending the scandal its narrative form. The following letter from the Cleveland Street affair of 1889-90, which implicated prominent aristocrats in a homosexual prostitution ring, highlights this twofold process, displaying the distribution of the term scandal. In the letter, the director of public prosecutions expresses to the attorney general his dismay over the decision not to prosecute a nobleman for involvement in a male brothel:

The moral effect of [the evidence] leaves no reasonable doubt that Lord Arthur Somerset was a frequent visitor at 19 Cleveland Street for immoral purposes. The public scandal involved in a criminal charge against a man in his position in society is undoubted—but in my opinion the public scandal in declining to prefer such a charge—and in permitting such a man to hold Her Majesty's Commission and to remain in English Society is much greater.

In my opinion the attempt to avoid such publicity—even if such attempt was justifiable—which in my judgement it is not—must absolutely fail—and the public scandal will then be infinitely aggravated.

Whatever may be said, and much may be said—as to the public policy of allowing private persons—being full-grown men to indulge their unnatural tastes—in private—or in such a way as not necessarily to come to public knowledge—in my judgement, the circumstances of this case demand the intervention of those whose duty it is to enforce the law... and no consideration of public scandal—owing to the position in society or sympathy with the family of the offender should militate against this paramount duty.


The first potential scandal, over Lord Arthur's "immoral" behavior, works in the usual way, by transforming hidden information into public knowledge, but the case is made difficult by the Crown's reluctance to prosecute a man who holds "Her Majesty's Commission." Yet his secret, once revealed, cannot be ignored, and so another scandal—over a failure to act—hangs before the government. Not to expose the nobleman's actions would precipitate a "public scandal" about government protection of him; whether or not the case comes to trial, then, an exposé is certain. In giving past private indiscretions the form of a popular narrative, scandal enables so-called public morals to exercise social control, even as it threatens to run out of the control of those who wield it.

As scandal recasts secret activities into a public story of exposure, it makes questions about truth almost impossible to answer, however deliberately it mobilizes truth-determining institutions (police interrogation, trial procedures, legislative inquiries). For while the motor that keeps the scandal machine running is the detective and legal work of verifying accusations, conclusive demonstration of the truth is inimical to a scandal's sustenance. Unlike criminal charges in general, exoneration is rarely possible from charges of scandalous behavior. A scandal's success is measured not by its accuracy but by its popularity and the damage it does to the accused's reputation. A scandal has public effects regardless of a final determination of its truth or falsity, and it captures public attention only to the extent that such a determination is deferred.

While scandal does not by definition concern sex, in its quintessential and paradigmatic form it focuses on sexual transgression. Financial and political scandals abound in the nineteenth century, and they are related to sex scandals insofar as they too rely on the public exposure of private information that damages its subject's reputation. At a moment when distinctions between private and public life are increasingly scrutinized, however, and in which private subjectivity is consolidating around a core of sexual identity, scandals about sex come to be the characteristic type of the genre. The intensification of social purity movements, which drew on evolving medical and scientific ideas about sexuality, partly explains the preponderance of sex scandals in the second half of the nineteenth century. In large measure through the agency of scandal, these movements extended a reign of moral conservatism and effected reform of the laws that govern sexual conduct. A variety of social dramas that involve the crossing of public and private boundaries are subsumed by sex scandals in this era, and scandals that explicitly concern sexual misconduct frequently turn out to simplify or to serve as a cover for the violation of other social boundaries. Even the most licentious scandal rarely arises solely in the wake of a sexual transgression; most cases involve the crossing of rigid class, national, or racial lines, as well as the highly ossified gender divide, which organize Victorian society.

The forbidden status of sexual subjects, and the public enchantment by them, allows sex to dramatize other kinds of social conflict, and to make otherwise boring subjects seem interesting. Every journalist knows that the surest way to ruin politicians and celebrities is to raise a scandal over their private sexual indiscretions, however irrelevant such behavior is to the performance of their public roles. The adultery trial that destroyed Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1890 is the outstanding example of a politically consequential scandal in the Victorian era, and it was performed on a stage of sexual misconduct. If the period's most important political scandal was sexual, the one most famous for being sexual may itself have been politically motivated— for Oscar Wilde's 1895 trials were, by some accounts, the direct result of a partisan conspiracy. Political ends are not the only ones to which sexual means can effectively be used. The most prominent Victorian scandalmonger, journalist W. T. Stead, was undeniably sanctimonious, but his primary motivation for generating causes célèbres was to bolster sales of the paper he edited, the Pall Mall Gazette. On the grounds of sexual immorality, Stead demolished the promising career of Liberal M.P. and cabinet minister Sir Charles Dilke in the wake of a series of divorce trials in 1886, and it remains uncertain whether he was motivated by politics, profit, or prurience.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Sex Scandal by William A. Cohen. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William A. Cohen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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