- “Oh God, There is No Woman In This”:A Marriage Below Zero, the Somerset and Russell Scandals, and the Sodomitical Threat to Victorian Marriage
The happiness of a married man depends on the people he has not married.—Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (1893)
Surprisingly, a number of nineteenth-century sex scandals involving accusations of sodomy were inextricably entangled with pervasive ideas about female identity. A related undercurrent in the history of nineteenth-century sexual dissidence—and one that requires a consideration of actual and fictional scandalous cases—stemmed from the perceived peril to marriageable and married females when husbands acquired male lovers. Many marital triangles, particularly those involving relations between women, did not result in scandalous trials, of course; famously, both John Addington Symonds’ spouse, Janet, and Havelock Ellis’s wife, Edith, maintained same-sex erotic relationships. The very first work of fiction in English to dilate on the subject of male same-sex erotics, however, was a work of sensation fiction that focused on homosexuality as endangering women’s interests.
A Marriage Below Zero (1889) by Alan Dale, the pseudonym for Alfred J. Cohen, a British émigré and theatre critic living in New York, is a first-person narrative told by Elsie Bouverie of her courtship, marriage, and appalled reaction to the discovery that her well-mannered husband, Arthur, has a male lover, the loathsome Captain Jack Dillington, whom she deems “too indescribably repulsive to analyze” (126). The melodramatic mode employed throughout A Marriage Below Zero, in which stagey confrontations and a nefarious rival lover dominate the narrative, reflects the well-burnished techniques of sensation texts featuring innocent young females ensnared in tawdry circumstances and misbehaving husbands (we might think of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall  or Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady ). Framing its topical subject in flamboyantly populist and proto-feminist terms, Cohen’s novel draws on the shocking revelations and ambiguous judgments delivered by several court cases involving marriages undone by charges of sodomy. [End Page 28] While preparing a forthcoming edition of Cohen’s novel for Broadview Press, I came upon two historical cases of “homosexual betrayal” of women by their husbands, both involving prominent upper-class British families, the Somersets and the Russells, two courtroom controversies that divided observers, who chose to construe them as narratives either of female innocence confronted with homosexual perfidy or of husbands wrongly accused of unspeakable crimes.
However, such irreducible ambiguities do not emerge from A Marriage Below Zero, which offers an emphatically sympathetic appraisal of its aggrieved, too-naive heroine, who struggles to grasp the nature of her husband’s intense rapport with Captain Jack. “Exactly what was the understanding between them, I did not know,” she announces, “but that the older man was partly accountable for the delinquencies of the younger, I was perfectly persuaded” (173). One senses here an implied causality for same-sex eros in the influence of an older man over a male youth much as Lord Henry seduces Dorian Gray into a homoerotically tinged aestheticism. Yet while Dorian repels admirers of both sexes, remaining an exquisite, opaque object who refuses to become a subject, Arthur is utterly beholden to Jack; indeed, the pair are known as “the inseparables” and as “Damon and Pythias” (166–67). Ultimately, what becomes most prominent in Cohen’s novel—characteristic of melodrama’s traditional function as advocating populist causes in starkly Manichean terms on behalf of injured parties—is Elsie’s increasing role as detective and activist on her own behalf. Repeatedly left alone in her Kew Gardens house and prompted by unnerving gossip, she takes Arthur to America and its promise of Puritan denial. They attend a New York church service during which a minister rails against the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rattled by the preacher’s fulminations, Arthur abandons his wife and flees to Paris. When Elsie tracks him down there, she discovers that he has committed suicide and Jack has been arrested in a local scandal. Stoically triumphant in the face of her darkest speculations, Elsie rips into “the smallest pieces” (205) two photographs of Arthur and Jack, linked...