July 21, 2019
To Whom It May Concern:
Naomi Wolf has asked me to read and comment on Chapter 6 of Outrages: Sex, Censorship, & The Criminalisation of Love. I address this letter not only to Wolf but more generally because she has my permission to share it with her American publishers and editors if she chooses to do so.
I do not know Naomi Wolf personally and, although I am aware of her books, I have not read them. I had also heard something about the controversy that has stalked Outrages, but I have read no reviews of this book and I have not followed the controversy online or in print I think it is fair to say that my reading of this chapter and the book in its entirety has not been colored by preconceptions or by any
investment in a particular position.
I should also say at the outset that my own publications are academic in nature. Written for a scholarly interdisciplinary audience, my books and articles rely on extensive research in primary and secondary documents. I am aware that the conventions that govern scholarly writing differ from those relevant to writing produced for a general audience and, like many scholars, I am grateful to authors
who write for a less specialized audience because their work can make the ideas and arguments essential to academic writing more accessible by clarifying or downplaying the complexities central to academic debate. While I do not write for a general audience, in other words, I can recognize the virtues in good writing of this kind.
Originally, I intended to read only the introduction of Outrages and chapter 6, but, once I had read those sections, I felt I could write a more informed report if I read the entire book. And once I arrived at section IV, I couldn’t put Outrages down. The
last five sections of the book in particular are not only well-written but tell a multifaceted story of a brave group of nineteenth-century writers who struggled for self expression in a period of increasing state oppression. In addition, section VIII (along
with other parts of the book) chronicle Wolf’s own quest to find and decode the manuscripts that preserve this struggle. The narrative gains momentum as it unfolds, and the courage that drove John Addington Symonds blazes from Wolf’s account. With skill and sympathy, she chronicles Symonds’ attempt to engage Walt Whitman, the period’s most successful writer of what we would call gender non-conforming poetry; she deftly weaves the story of the Rossetti family into her narrative; and she shows how other British writers, including Swinburne, gradually withdrew their support for Symonds. The story of Symonds’ struggle with his own desire in the face of complicated relationships with his father, his teachers, and a few of his students is very moving, and Wolf’s account of the accommodations Symonds’ wife and daughters made to preserve their relationship with him is nuanced and sympathetic. The entire story is in equal parts gripping and enraging.
At the same time, Wolf’s careful description of the manuscripts, locked boxes, and interdictions that kept Symonds’ account of his life hidden makes for its own kind of drama. I can imagine that this book will inspire outrage on the part of readers who sympathize with Symonds, Whitman, and the other gender non-conformists she writes about. But it will also inspire readers interested in the past to visit the libraries that hold these treasures, in hopes of becoming the literary detectives we need to make this history visible.
The bottom line is that I really enjoyed Outrages and I imagine many others will too. Overall, the scholarship seems sound and, based on my own research and what I have read in the scholarly literature, I don’t find errors of fact. This brings me to chapter 6, the part of the book Wolf asked me to focus on. Here, too, the research is sound. Wolf is certainly correct in saying that a small but organized group of
nineteenth-century women, led by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes, organized campaigns to increase educational and employment opportunities for women, to change the existing divorce laws, and to allow married women greater control over property. She is also correct in arguing that the Married Women’s Property Committee created “a model for future Western feminist
activism” (50). I do worry that it is overstating matters to say that “millions of women intensely followed this feminist agitation” (51) because I don’t think data exists that allows us to quantify readers in the period, but there is no doubt that debates over divorce, women’s rights, and property arrangements figured prominently in the British press in the mid-1850s. But this leads to the one area where my interpretation of this period differs most clearly from Wolf’s.
Let me emphasize that this is a matter of interpretation, not an objection to factual inaccuracy. Writing history always involves both fact-gathering and interpretation, and respected historians differ about whether it is more important to ground interpretations as much as possible in the norms of the period about which we are writing or to shape our presentation of the past so as to make past actions relevant
to contemporary readers. Historians also differ in the degree to which we are willing to impute motives to past actors, when the available evidence does not make these motives explicit. As a historian of this period, I tend to stick as close as possible to past norms and to impute motives only when I think I have clear evidence to support my conjectures. For the most part, Wolf also adheres to this standard, but in her discussion of the debates about the 1857 divorce bill, I think she imputes motives to British lawmakers that are difficult to prove. The issue is why the lawmakers who were trying to amend existing divorce laws added “sodomy” and “bestiality” to the offences that would enable a woman to sue her husband for divorce. This point matters because, in Wolf’s account, it was the addition of these offenses to the already complicated terms that sanctioned a woman’s attempt to free herself from marriage that gave heterosexual men an investment in other men’s same-sex relationships. Here is her account of the effects of—and, by implication, the motive behind—this provision.
So sodomy between two men now mattered in a new way, because it mattered legally to heterosexual men. That is to say: since the prosecution of male-male sodomy could now be used to distract attention from heterosexual men’s adultery, the sodomy of men with other consenting men now mattered to heterosexual men who themselves had no personal involvement with the sodomites’ in question. And recasting that consensual sodomy between adults as the “worst thing” imaginable that a man might do sexually, along
with the crimes of rape and bestiality—as a terrible social threat, an outrageous spectacle of degradation—now had proven value to those whose own private lives benefited from this distraction. (54)
I have no doubt that social outrage against male same-sex consenting relationships was exacerbated by the language of the 1857 Divorce Act, but I don’t see evidence that the motive behind adding this language was to “distract attention from
heterosexual men’s adultery.” (Wolf presents the same argument in her discussion of the Labouchere Amendment, p. 244.) It would be equally plausible to argue, as Eve Sedgwick has done, that British lawmakers vilified male same-sex relationships because they suspected or feared that they might be attracted to other men. By the same token, one might argue, as I did in Uneven Developments, that all the debates about divorce, married women’s property, and gender relations were defenses of what contemporaries viewed as the bedrock organization of society: a “natural” opposition between two genders. According to this position, which was ultimately indefensible, same-sex relations between consenting adults, male or female, were violations of and attacks upon the foundation of culture, commerce, and property.
According to my interpretation, the vilification of male homosexuality was one strand of an attempt to protect the status quo, not, more narrowly, part of a campaign to protect “straight men’s privilege to commit adultery.” The ensuing criminalization of male homosexuality and the outrages that undeniably followedwere unintended consequences of this defense of a status quo as it began to crumble.
As I have already stated, my disagreement with this tiny section of an otherwise extraordinary book is a matter of interpretation, or even emphasis. Whereas Wolf presents the outrages committed against same-sex consenting male adults in the decades following the 1857 Divorce Act as elaborations and extensions of an original reorientation of public opinion away from gender inequality to sodomy in order to protect heterosexual men’s privilege to commit adultery, I would look for additional complicating factors (including Sedgwick’s account of the homosocial continuum). Because Uneven Developments focused on gender relations more generally, and not subsequent same-sex prosecutions, I did not highlight the provision of the Divorce Bill that added sodomy.
Wolf, who is narrating the debates of the 1850s in the context of subsequent outrages, sees this addition as critical to later events. I don’t think one can say that the increasing pressure the British state exerted on same-sex male relationships followed inevitably or directly from the 1857 Divorce Act, but, read from the perspective of those outrages, Wolf comes close to saying this. In this we differ. But such differences are fair game in the writing of history. They explain why history remains alive, why past events can be brought to life again in accounts that will engage thousands of new readers. Wolf has written a moving, impassioned account of a history that still matters. I admire and appreciate what she has accomplished, even if my own treatment of a small part of this narrative differs from
Professor Emeritus, New York University