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Culture and Adultery: The Novel, The Newspaper, and The Law 1857-1914.

Culture and Adultery: The Novel, The Newspaper, and The Law 1857-1914. By Barbara Leckie. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. 300 pages.

Let me say up front that this is a smart book; it is theoretically informed, detailed, and enlightening in its analytical readings of literary texts both canonical and forgotten, and it makes a real contribution both to Victorian studies and to studies in the novel. It takes as its subject the English novel of adultery, which was most visible after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 amended the divorce laws in England. Leckie argues that the formal properties of the English novel of adultery, different from the French and self-consciously contrasted with it, grew out of an imbrication of censorship and press reports from the Divorce Court established in London (it was originally attached to the Admiralty Court) in 1857 to replace the ecclesiastical courts' control over judicial separation and divorce.

Leckie's critical insight is that the English limitations on the novel, namely that it should be "moral" and a story that would not corrupt the young reader--usually the young woman reader--surprisingly did not keep adultery out of the novel. One of her startling claims--convincing in my view--is that such censorship was both repressive and productive. In the effort to work around the limitations in subject matter, English novelists, wanting to represent the full range of adult experiences including adultery, introduced into the novel formal innovations that we identify with modernism. A corollary of this move involved "the separation of the body and politics from the aesthetic sphere" (14); thus the innovations involved a move away from desire and passion and its assaults on social conventions toward questions of knowledge in service of the law.

The characteristics of the English novel of adultery identified in Leckie's study include, most importantly, a focus on the perspective of the betrayed party. This characteristic turns the English novel of adultery into a narrative about epistemology (what did she know and when did she know it?) rather than one about passion. In this way, the English adultery novel got around censorship by taking as its subject the very innocent young person who was constructed as the most vulnerable novel reader. And because the issue in the English novel of adultery becomes a question of knowledge, its form follows the contours of learning with its piecemeal evidence, gaps and reversals of time, and uncertain conclusions.

Leckie argues that these elements of the English novel of adultery--"multiple points of view, unreliable narrations, nonlinear plots, and an absence of closure" (14)--"resemble" the formal properties of Divorce Court journalism. Since the only ground for divorce in England until well into the twentieth century was adultery, the newspaper press, committed to including transcripts from all the courts since the eighteenth century, suddenly found itself after 1857 detailing weekly, sometimes daily, the sordid details of adultery and brutality that emerged from the testimony in the Divorce Court. Ironically, while most commentators argued that adultery was not representable in the English novel, the press reports from the Divorce Court almost daily spewed forth into respectable houses a plethora of graphic information about adultery. These reports were in the form of transcripts of court proceedings taken in shorthand, edited mainly for length but sometimes including the reporter's descriptions of the participants. Because they follow the format of a courtroom trial, these Divorce Court reports inevitably involved conflicting testimony, long hiatuses, and frequently unresolved narratives.

Intermittently Leckie seems to imply that Divorce Court journalism actually is the source of the novelistic innovations in the English novel of adultery, though at other times she simply notes an "uncanny resemblance." I think she rides this resemblance too hard and sometimes slips into an assertion of direct influence (i.e., "novels of adultery developed strategies from this journalism to authorize and legitimate their own approaches to prohibited subject matter" [252]). My own sense is that the relationship is much more tenuous, circular, and dynamic. Certainly the prevalence of trial "transcripts" of all sorts in the press filtered into literary structures, but equally true is that the formal properties of drama and the conventions of popular fiction had an impact on the stories that were told in court and the way in which they were told (something Jane Harris in Edwardian Stories of Divorce, [New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1996], is good at demonstrating). Furthermore, many women fiction writers in the 1880s and 1890s wrote multiperspectival, fragmented, disjunctive works resistant to closure; critics have argued that these types of formal innovations grew out of efforts to find formal means to represent woman's experience more directly than in the traditional plot-driven narratives. Divorce Court journalism is only a part of the story of modernism and the late Victorian novel.

But Leckie's analysis is useful. For example, in her discussion of the way in which Victorian culture linked reading with social practice, assuming that words "have the capacity to transform social and political relations" (13)--a belief still current and still the source of efforts at censorship of visual media--she cogently points out the contradictions. Not all readers (or viewers) are "poisoned" or "infected" by reading about adultery. The very people arguing for censorship based on the belief that reading "poisonous" materials will lead to immoral behavior are themselves (presumably) untouched by the poison. Finally, she astutely shows how the writers under review, by making the betrayed person, and hence the very vulnerable reader herself, the focus of the novel, manage the apparently impossible task of writing a "chaste" story about adultery. Her discussion of Henry James's The Golden Bowl is particularly supple in demonstrating how this narrative tactic is used to perfection.

Leckie's book is organized in five chapters plus an introduction and a conclusion. The first chapter is about the mid-Victorian censorship debates. By "isolating a default female reader ... the discourse of censorship effectively rewrote and reinscribed cultural hierarchies and classifications perceived to be threatened by the new democracy of print.... The categories of youth and class were similarly deployed to create a group of vulnerable and potentially dangerous readers who required regulation" (29). The hierarchies are also reaffirmed by the focus on the efforts of the betrayed party to determine "what happened" because this legitimates a disciplinary surveillance in the home. As Leckie says, in the English novel "adultery was translated as epistemology and represented in the service of the law" (196).

A second chapter discusses the debates around the Divorce Court journalism. Then she turns to literary texts, which, as she states in her introduction, are the subject of her book. She begins with the sensation novel and the anxiety about "addictive reading," concentrating on Caroline Norton's Lost and Saved and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Doctor's Wife (the latter is based on Flaubert's Madame Bovary, although in the Braddon's story the heroine does not commit adultery, she just reads and dreams about it). The last two chapters are devoted to analyses of two great novels, perhaps two of the greatest English novels of adultery, The Golden Bowl and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Both of these novelists have a strategy "to highlight a novel's formal concerns and in the process to deflect attention away from socially contentious and politically inflammatory questions of problematic content" (203).

I hope I have said enough to convey my admiration for this book, for I want to spend the remainder of this review talking about some of the issues it raises for me in terms of its use of the nineteenth-century periodical press. Though this might seem a digression, Leckie's insistent use of Divorce Court journalism as a parallel and perhaps a source of the English novel of adultery, as well as her quotations from journals such as The Saturday Review in her discussions of the debates about censorship, invite these general remarks.

Scholars have been using the Victorian periodical press as a source of information about cultural attitudes for many years. We know that the period was the great age of the press. Not only were there hundreds if not thousands of newspapers and journals of all sorts initiated during the nineteenth century, but more people read the periodical press than any other kind of print. Novels and other works (like those of Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater) were frequently first published in periodicals.

There seem to be two broad types of use of the Victorian periodical press, though some scholars do both kinds of work. Scholars like Leckie mine it for examples of cultural attitudes and opinions. Then there are the scholars who study the Victorian press itself. Nineteenth-century periodicals were embedded in specific political and cultural agendas to a much larger degree than today. These could change in a flicker of an eyelash if the journal or newspaper were sold or if it got a new editor; The Saturday Review is an example. Notoriously conservative and ill-tempered in the early days of its run, when Frank Harris became editor in the late 1880s, it changed almost overnight into a journal that supported advanced causes. So some scholars work to recover forgotten periodicals, to uncover the histories of individual editors and journals, to try to determine readership, to study the history of the modes of production, and to theorize about the relationship of the press and culture.

These two approaches should be complementary projects: what scholars of the press discover about the political agendas of different periodicals or the changes in editorial practice and opinion over time should inform scholarly use of the press. But alas, it often does not. In Leckie's case, in the chapter in which she discusses Divorce Court journalism in detail, she makes no distinction between the coverage in the 1860s, when all but the most notorious cases were relegated to the back of the newspaper in reduced type and were, in fact, reduced versions of shorthand accounts from the court room, and that of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century weekly mass-market tabloid press, where competition for readers and certain cultural factors (the New Journalism for one) led to a much more sensationalized press in general and shoved Divorce Court reports to the front page, with sketches of the participants (sketching in court was banned in 1907) and considerable editorial commentary.

For example, the entry in Leckie's bibliography for "Divorce Court" reads "The Times, Pall Mall Gazette, Divorce News and Police Reporter, Illustrated Police News, Daily Telegraph, Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, Sunday Echo, Sunday Express, Reynolds Newspaper, Evening News [London] 1858-1914." This gives me pause. These nineteenth-century newspapers differ widely in the form of their court reports (weeklies like Reynolds's and Lloyd's treated the material more summarily and more politically than The Times), their editorial practices, their reliability, and their readership, particularly in terms of class. (Today we would not lump reports from The New York Times and The New York Post together without indicating the differences in editorial practice.) Nor was the reporting from the Divorce Court necessarily used by an individual newspaper in a similar way at the beginning and end of this period. As suggested above, the mass-market tabloid press in the last years of the nineteenth century were much more sensationalized than were newspapers earlier in the period. I think the tabloid front-page reports at the end of the century bear less resemblance to the formal properties of the English novel of adultery as Leckie describes them than do the earlier back-of-the paper Divorce Court reports.

Leckie's undifferentiated reference to these journals is also reflected in the text. In the discussion of Divorce Court reports in chapter two, she concentrates on the most notorious cases, the Yelverton, Dilke, and Campbell cases. (High profile law court cases of all kinds, when they involved aristocratic or powerful families, traditionally escaped the back-of-the-paper "Law Courts" format to appear on the front pages). The illustrations in the book necessarily all come from the end-of-the century mass-media tabloid press, including The Illustrated Police News and The Sporting Times of 1886, two popular tabloids similar to the current American supermarket The National Inquirer. If Henry James and Ford Madox Ford read the Divorce Court reports, it is unlikely that they read them in these journals. Similarly, there is a reliance on citations about cultural attitudes (censorship, novel readers, divorce court journalism, and other items, thirteen in all), from The Saturday Review, at this time a conservative journal recognized as aggressively hostile to all kinds of literary and social innovations.

But having said this, I must also say that what seems at times cavalier use of the Victorian press does not really undermine the central thesis about the characteristics of the English novel of adultery nor the linking of it to modernism. Her subtitle notwithstanding, the press is not crucial to this argument. Leckie's articulation of the existence and characteristics of an English novel of adultery in the second half of the nineteenth century and its relationship to limitations on "the democracy of print" in the nineteenth century and the modernist novel's formal experimentations in the twentieth is solid even without a nuanced use of the nineteenth-century periodical press. Her book is a significant contribution; I learned from it, and I recommend it.
Anne Humpherys
Lehman College and the Graduate Center, City University
New York, New York


Anne Humpherys is Professor of English at Lehman College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Travels into the Poor Man's Country: The Work of Henry Mayhew and articles on the Victorian press, popular culture, Dickens, Tennyson, and divorce in the nineteenth-century novel.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Humpherys, Anne
Publication:CLIO
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Words:2264
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