restricted access The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law and the Roman à Clef (review)
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Reviewed by
Sean Latham. The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law and the Roman à Clef. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. xiii + 202 pp.

Modernism and celebrity culture: here are two areas we might not expect to see side by side in a monograph, unless one were being argued against the other. But, in this fascinating study, Sean Latham proves that modernism did not entirely distance itself from the lower end of the marketplace and that it often infiltrated the commercial arena by way of that slippery and louche genre known as the roman à clef. Modernism, continually elastic in its definitions and the periods of time it occupies, is now seen to be infected by a new area: gossip and scandal.

The roman à clef, as Latham defines it, is “a creative and stubbornly persistent counter-form to the novel” (25). Finding its first [End Page 366] example in France in the seventeenth century, Latham associates it with the upper classes, and argues that it is characterized by Genette’s idea of “conditional fictionality” and an ever-growing anarchic skepticism (16). It blurs and challenges the boundaries between fact and fiction and requires a key to understand it: the recognition of the people behind the characters. What Latham seeks to demonstrate—and he succeeds totally—is that the roman à clef does not shadow the development of the novel like some disreputable sibling, but feeds it in its most experimental period. Neglected and ignored by academics still laboring under the anxieties about art that modernism promoted, this genre should clearly be seen as an important part of literary history.

Latham makes his case by telling what is in effect the history of the roman à clef at its key points, beginning with the rise of the novel in England, and then moving on to the end of the nineteenth century and the contrasting—but here complementary—cases of Oscar Wilde and Sigmund Freud. He then inserts a chapter on libel and its background, before examining how James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis fared under charges of libel. Latham then turns to a discussion of the work of modernists, both canonical and minor, via some highly entertaining documentation of the many writers queuing up to write roman à clefs about Lady Ottoline Morrell. There is close reference to texts from Robinson Crusoe and The Picture of Dorian Gray through to Huxley’s Crome Yellow and Those Barren Leaves, Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses, Lawrence’s Women in Love and the work of Jean Rhys and Osbert Sitwell.

This is an ambitious book that covers a great deal of ground; it is interdisciplinary, owing to the legal knowledge it shows, and it spans large periods of time. This ambition should be applauded. Latham writes with sophistication and intelligence, but is always readable and clear; the evidence is extremely detailed, and his knowledge of texts and their critics—including those outside the modernist era—highly assured. But what really marks this work is that (springing from the successfully large claims he makes for the roman à clef) it can be partly read as a new history of the novel, for Latham’s study tells a new story about the novel’s beginnings. “By writing deliberately defamatory works lightly cloaked in the roman à clef’s ‘conditional fictionality,’“ the author suggests, modernist writers “exploited the genre’s potential to disrupt the legal, moral and aesthetic compromises that underwrote the novel’s rise in the eighteenth century” (86).

Within the chapters, and his close readings of the texts, Latham makes some fascinating claims. Why, for example, do we still use the French term for the genre, he wonders? It is as if we want to distance ourselves from it even in its naming. The Puritanism associated with [End Page 367] the rise of the novel is still subtly alive and well, perhaps. He also makes the obvious but easy to forget point that the publicity attached to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses, in terms of censorship, has obscured the legal stories of other works. Demonstrating this, he shows how many roman à clefs play a Chinese box game, where they themselves are books about scandal; they are also—in line with...