Sex, Crime and Literature in Victorian England

Sex, Crime and Literature in Victorian England

Author: Ian Ward
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing, 2014. 154p.
Reviewers: Kim Stevenson and Judith Rowbotham | January 2015

We are in complete agreement with the concluding sentence of this book: that, when it comes to Victorian jurisprudence, “we can learn so much more by reading Dickens or Eliot or Barrett Browning.” Ian Ward (in common with these two reviewers) is a passionate inter-disciplinarian who works at the intersection of law, literature and history. His 1990s publication of Law and Literature was in many ways a pioneering text: innovative in approach and original in scope. The present book is, arguably, something of a curate’s egg of a book in that it is good – but only in parts. The focus on the complexities of Victorian attitudes towards sex and sexuality is set up immediately and appropriately through the triplicate referencing to Charles Dickens’ secret affair with Ellen Ternan, along with allusions to the sexually-inflected infatuations of other authors of the great standards of nineteenth century literature, such as Ruskin and Thackeray. This sets the scene for a broad-ranging analysis of the contemporary legal and cultural context of some of the great literary works (fiction and non-fiction) of the Victorian era, and their fictional portrayal of sex and its regulation “within and without marriage” (p.25). This is very welcome. While works such as Nicola Lacey’s Women, Crime and Character (2008) range, as the title suggests, over a broader landscape both chronologically and thematically, a focus on the nineteenth century, and particularly what is clearly being used here as the “long” Victorian period, has been absent.

Ward’s interpretation of the works of Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, and Trollope, amongst others, is set within a wider legal jurisprudential and philosophical framework. He is right to emphasize that there is much to commend such poethical literature as having the “practical capacity to humanise the practice of law” in a particular era (p.26). Extensive references draw in a range of responses and views published in leading Victorian periodicals of the day and from leading commentators including JS Mill and Fitzjames Stephen, as well as the feminist perspectives of Barbara Bodichon and Frances Power Cobbe. After a lengthy introduction, which manifests itself more as a substantive chapter in its own right than a methodological discussion, four key themes are explored focussing on criminal conversations (adultery), sensational crimes (primarily bigamy), unnatural mothers (infanticide) and prostitution. Ward justifies this selection with the premise that these typify the Victorian obsession with fallen women and, its oppositional contrast, the “angel of the house,” he highlights the way in which the reality of this trope is over-represented in Victorian literature, making the point that this in turn provides insights into the criminal justice processes of the day.

In the introduction, Ward chooses to focus on one of Dickens’ most complex and sexually inflected novels, Dombey and Son, andhighlights three incidents which he feels illustrates his points: Dombey’s physical assault on his daughter Florence; the uncovering of the adultery of Dombey’s second wife Edith Granger; and the sexual immorality also of Alice Brown, good Mrs Brown’s daughter. These he uses as being representative of the over-representation of the fallen woman and an echo of the everyday Victorian reality of dysfunctional families and familial violence. But he also identifies all three as criminal acts, and this is just one of the areas where we would take issue with the title of the book, Sex Crime and Literature, and with Ward’s approach and structure in terms of the criminal law.

There is also the issue of Literature. This is a work which is written by an eminent legal scholar, though it touches also on the fields of literature and history; but it means that appropriately, a critical first focus must be on the legal dimensions of the behaviour highlighted. One striking thing which stands out from the introduction is that only one of the three incidents derived from Dombey and Son was potentially criminal at the time, as an offence against the person. Adultery was undoubtedly perceived as immoral, being the breaking of a religious vow, but like tortuous actions for criminal conversations, it was neither a statutory crime nor common law offence. While Ward does briefly acknowledge this in his chapter actually on criminal conversations, it would have been less confusing had it been part of an introductory methodological framework, where he could also have discussed the issue of crime that is social but not criminal in the formal legal sense. This is addressed to an extent, but rather clumsily when he refers rather obliquely to the common use in such literature of a criminal rhetoric to describe such conduct. In defining it as “an offence against social propriety” which is punished – implicitly by society rather than the courts (p.33), he posits an interesting concept of “jurisprudential sin” as the core contemporary problematic, thereby raising an interesting question (again) about the interplay between social and legal guilt and punishment strategies. This inflects many of the discussions in subsequent chapters, and the reviewers – providing expertise in Victorian history and literature as well as the nineteenth century criminal justice process – could appreciate and extrapolate some interesting parallels with other literary and actual examples in ways that add depth and conviction to the concept. However, lacking such interdisciplinary expertise, the absence of a more substantive methodology could well make this appreciation more difficult for those not already well acquainted with the nineteenth century.

It was also somewhat surprising to read sentences suggesting prostitution was criminal, without appropriate qualification that it was so socially, though not legally. This weakens the final chapter in particular since there is a widespread and mistaken impression even amongst those who are otherwise well-informed about the illegality of prostitution. Closer reading reveals that it is a continuation of the reflections on social criminality as the background to how Victorians regarded and framed the actual legal process. Again, the problem is that there is no methodological clarification of the grey area between what constitutes a crime in strict legal definition, and that which is ‘merely’ morally offensive. This is important in aiding the reader to navigate the nineteenth century distinctions between the legal and the social, and the ways in which literature enables insights into public perceptions of sexual conduct that Victorians considered immoral and whether they required legal as well as social punishment. This is crucial in relation to sex as an aspect of marriage, not least because of the most infamous Victorian cases regarding real marital harm. While literary unhappy and abusive marriages such as that in Dombey and Son are discussed, their echoes – involving real harm and pointing up the blurred line between criminal and “criminally” immoral conduct – in the shape of Jackson 1891 and Clarence 1888, are not even mentioned, nor any judicial comment included to point up the jurisprudential sin concept (Fitzjames Stephen, for one legal practitioner, had very strong and often irreconcilable views on female sexual autonomy). Cases which echo other literary crimes with sexual overtones are also not addressed, and one is left wondering why, given the inclusion of sensationalist authors like M.E. Braddon and Mrs Henry Wood, the Robinson or Yelverton scandals were not preferred (for example, Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne was a reworking of the scandalous Lady Augusta Fane episode, where Lady Augusta, daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland and married to Lord Morley, eloped with Sir Arthur Paget. After Westmorland had obtained £10,000 in damages, and a divorce, Lady Augusta married Paget, but later returned to nurse her dying son from her first marriage).

This in turn raises questions about the selection of some of the works analysed. This study sadly takes for granted what constitutes “literature” in Victorian (or perhaps better, nineteenth century) England, instead of explaining the perspective taken on this complex topic. It is based on wide and impressive reading of Victorian works. But their apparently uncritical presentation here, in terms of the choices made of what to include and what to leave out, means that it comes across rather as if such choices are based on what the author himself considers as qualifying texts under each heading without any further methodological explanation of his choices. Thus it ranges from Coventry Patmore’s seminal poem The Angel in the House, via Thackeray’s works, along with other well-known works of literary non-fiction, such as Ruskin’s essay ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’ from Sesame and Lilies (though interestingly, not the counterpart addressing masculinity). Comment is made on a selection – by no means exhaustive – of conduct books, including works such as those by Sarah Stickney Ellis (which first appeared in 1838) but nothing much later than 1860. Charlotte Yonge’s Womankind, appearing in 1877, is a notable omission here. Dickens is regularly cited, along with a number of sensation novel authors – but the reasons for their inclusion seems presumed beyond an assumption that all focus around sex and its ‘criminal’ aspects. But so did many, many other works of the day – including other famous works by the authors cited (it would have been interesting to have seen texts like Wood’s Lord Oakburn’s Daughters or Elster’s Folly used for the bigamy chapter and Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend for the more sinister aspects relating to prostitution and its imagery). But the fact that one is left wondering takes one back to the lack of a thoroughly methodological introduction which would have explained why the author made these choices, and so satisfied a reader’s questions. Such an introduction would also have explained the reality that there were different (if at times overlapping) audiences for many of these works – which in turn has an impact on the broader Victorian understanding of the law and the jurisprudence governing it, culturally and legally. We are particularly sad that the lack of a methodology makes it seem that what constituted Victorian jurisprudence (and indeed, jurisprudence in general) has been assumed — when plainly the author is well aware of such issues.

An introduction could also have contextualised the legal (and cultural) history rather better – this is a notable absentee from the text. Over Victoria’s lengthy reign, many things – including the law as it related to sexuality’s criminal aspects – changed substantially. Given his previous work and knowledge of the contemporary literature, the author is clearly aware of this but does not use it to frame his reflections. It could have been done without turning it into a history text, as other authors such as Michael Diamond (Victorian Sensation; or the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth Century Britain, 2003) have done.

Overall, one is left thinking how much better the book could have been than it is. It will be used, but it is unlikely to become a standard of interdisciplinary scholarship because it is just not interdisciplinary enough. It fails to do full justice to the law, the literature and the history relating to sex crime in the nineteenth century, and it is that regret which dominates this review. Finally a minor niggle, stylistically, the third person plural (acclaimed by another reviewer as “creating complicity between author and reader”) is in our opinion somewhat unnecessarily overused.

Kim Stevenson (Professor of Sociolegal History at Plymouth University) and Dr Judith Rowbotham
Both are Co-directors: SOLON: Promoting Interdisciplinary Studies in Law, Crime and History and General Editors Law, Crime and History

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