[Access article in PDF]
Culture and Adultery: The Novel, the Newspaper, and the Law, 1857-1914
Theory and Cultural Studies
Barbara Leckie. Culture and Adultery: The Novel, the Newspaper, and the Law, 1857-1914. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999. 300 pp.
Contesting Tony Tanner's assertion that adultery was "unspeakable" in nineteenth-century society, Barbara Leckie argues that between 1857 and 1914 adultery was in fact a central preoccupation in English culture. She documents the "visibility" of this transgressive practice in parliamentary and cultural debates, in newspaper reports of divorce trials, and in novels. In her discussion of fictional representations of adultery, Leckie analyzes two sensation novels--Caroline Norton's Lost and Saved (1863) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Doctor's Wife (1864)--and three canonical novels--Henry James's The Golden Bowl (1904), and Ford Madox Ford's A Call (1910) and The Good Soldier (1915). The representation of adultery in these novels, she suggests, is shaped by two "categories of perception": the construct of the "young female reader," a category that emerged in contemporary censorship debates, and the journalistic reports of divorce court proceedings. Leckie asserts that the widely proclaimed vulnerability of the young female reader compelled English novelists to address marital infidelity from the point of view of the betrayed (innocent) party, thus formulating adultery as a question of truth rather than as a question of passion. Moreover, she contends, the construct also served as a constraint that paradoxically "enabled" novelists to develop many of the formal innovations associated with modernism--unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, non-linear narratives, and lack of closure. Such features, incompatible with "somatic" rather than reflective reading practices, would serve to exclude the readers in question. Leckie also suggests that in these features and in an epistemological "translation" of adultery the novels resemble contemporary divorce court journalism, implying that novelists like James and Ford adopted the discourse of this "legitimate" representation of adultery as another means of circumventing censorship. The ideological effects of these strategies were mixed: on the one hand, the writers were able to address controversial subject matter and challenge censorship (literally, in the act of writing itself and figuratively, in their texts); on the other, their practices perpetuated the oppressive category of the young female reader and compelled a detached, "eviscerated" reading practice that disciplined the reader (the reading body). [End Page 563]
Leckie's study is provocative and well researched; the connection she draws between the young female reader and modernist form is convincing. Each chapter in her book, moreover, usefully illuminates the individual cultural form and cultural moment examined. Yet Leckie's project exhibits a lack of rigor, an imprecision, that weakens it as a unified argument. For instance, the connection she draws between the divorce court journalism and the novels is tenuous. She certainly demonstrates that the novels and the journalism exhibit similar formal characteristics and a similar focus on epistemology and domestic surveillance, but often she does not establish the causal link with which she flirts throughout the text. She does not address other possible explanations for formal shifts or acknowledge the appearance of many of the modernist formal characteristics in earlier novels (Wuthering Heights, for instance) or in contemporary novels addressing different subjects (such as Lord Jim). The strain of the connection is especially apparent in Leckie's structuring of the book. The order of the major chapters is chronological, with a single exception: the chapter on divorce court journalism, focused largely on the 1880s, appears early in the text, before the discussion of the sensation novel and the sensation novel debates, centered chiefly on the 1860s.
Indeed the chief problem with the book is the paradoxical absence of historical groundedness. Leckie's stated aim is to address sociological and historical concerns: she claims that her attention to these concerns distinguishes her study from Tanner's Adultery in the Novel, and in establishing her theoretical framework she critiques first Sigmund Freud through Michel Foucault, then Foucault through Pierre Bourdieu. She is...