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Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction.

Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction. By William A. Cohen. (Q Series) Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press. 1996. x + 256 pp. 16.95 [pounds sterling].

In The Critic As Artist Oscar Wilde speaks of the supreme prerogative of the interpreter. The critic, Wilde argues, is able to winkle insights from the oyster shell of art, even if such thoughts 'were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel, or graved the gem'. The versatility with which such hermeneutical legerdemain is achieved is a compliment to art, since 'the one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see'.

Does such critical noblesse provide a mandate for twentieth-century critics whose strategies for reading Victorian texts derive from a gender politics of which the Victorians themselves were innocent? William A. Cohen clearly believes that it does, deriving comfort and example from Sigmund Freud, whose diagnosis of his patient Dora relied on his regarding the reticule with which she primly played as a substitute for her vagina, and her fidgeting as signifying 'a desire to masturbate'. For Cohen all slips of the pen, all verbal manifestations, are potentially Freudian. Noticing 'Master Bates' in Oliver Twist, he proceeds with a reading of the opening chapters of Great Expectations according to which 'the wicked secret' beneath the bulge in young Pip's trousers betrays not stolen victuals but a lovingly nursed erection. The fact that Pip is aged seven at the time seems not to worry him. More Freudian trails ensue: Trollope's women are 'trollops'; the Eustace diamonds are, again, the cunt. Cohen designates his method as 'Erskian', after Erskine in Wilde's The Portrait of Mr W. H., whose name is 'kin to Erse' or Gaelic: itself, he insists, a homophone for 'arse'. I suggest that he washes out his ears.

Cohen is a witty and devious writer, who rejoices in such word-play. It would be facile to reduce his method to the butt of jokes (this homophone, I assure you, is innocent). He redeems himself, and proves his finesse as a critic, at the point he pulls himself up short. Henry James's narratives, he reassures us, are not available for sexual decipherment, because in James libidinous energy has transmuted itself into literary gamesmanship. The fact that Cohen is unable to claim an equivalent immunity for Dickens or George Eliot attests to obdurate overtones of perverse sexuality in their work. A hint of sexual awakening does indeed hang about the early chapters of Great Expectations. Marian Evans's assumption of a male narrative persona does indeed entail more than mere expediency, since while adopting this convenient disguise she is obliged to feel herself into a male condition of desiring. Such intimations transform the texts in which they occur. In some sense, sex is most intriguingly present on the mid-Victorian agenda precisely when it is not itemized.

The subtlety and resourcefulness of this book are seen to best advantage in Cohen's absorbing account of the Boulton and Park case of 1870. Arrested whilst leaving the theatre, two upper-class transvestites were medically probed, arraigned before the bench, and then acquitted by a jury reluctant to admit that sodomy could be attributed to middle-class Englishmen. The historical beneficiary of this proceeding was language. Cohen convincingly charts the means by which the public mind was forced to play with double meanings, reveal itself through evasion, ferret out what it felt should not be there, and then in self-defence cover the unspeakable up. The tactic smacks of those intrepid designers who robed chair and piano legs with a discreet skirt to shield them from the eyes of determined voyeurs, and in so doing rendered them erotic. Cohen's own eyes seem occasionally to be leering upon stalks. He is saved from linguistic self-abuse by an authenticity to period, and an ability to listen less to the principal melody in texts than to fugitive harmonics that lie almost beyond the power of hearing.

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Author:Fraser, Robert
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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