Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 28 (1997) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
I feel I should begin with a warning: 'this review contains material which some readers may find offensive'. I apologize, but it is not my fault.
The book centres on the relation between sex scandals and literature. Cohen believes that Victorian England was a 'culture of scandal' - a culture in which we still live - in which people were preoccupied with sexual behaviour but at the same time unable to admit it. Sex was simultaneously fascinating and unspeakable. The result was the evolution of a sort of doublethink or linguistic code, through which sexual matters could be at once discussed and disclaimed. He examines two farnous Victorian scandals - the Boulton and Park trial, in which two young homosexuals were prosecuted for transvestism and sodomy, and the Oscar Wilde case. He is able to show that in both the combination of prurient interest and puritanical prudery led to a coded language which enabled the public to read between the lines and understand what was going on while pretending not to. He relates this ambivalent (and hypocritical) attitude to two sex scandals in fiction, those of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (she is innocent but public opinion condemns her without anything being clearly expressed) and of Lizzie Eustace in Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds (where the heroine is not innocent). But what really interests Cohen is the light this sheds on Victorian fiction in general. Is it possible to find coded references to sexual practices (especially aberrant sexual practices) in works which have so far been taken to be about quite other matters?
Indeed, it is. And here Mr. Cohen, the bit between his teeth, leaps over the top and is soon deep in a quagmire fighting for his life. Sex, it turns out, is absolutely everywhere. 'One of the nineteenth- century novel's principal accomplishments is to formulate a literary language that expresses eroticism even as it designates sexuality the supremely unmentionable subject' (italics mine).