Sex Scandal

The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: Published: August 1996

Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Never has the Victorian novel appeared so perverse as it does in these pages—and never his its perversity seemed so fundamental to its accomplishment. Whether discussing George Eliot’s lesbian readers, Anthony Trollope’s whorish heroines, or Charles Dickens’s masturbating characters, William A. Cohen’s study explodes the decorum of mainstream nineteenth-century fiction. By viewing this fiction alongside the most alarming public scandals of the day, Cohen exposes both the scandalousness of this literature and its sexiness.
Scandal, then as now, makes public the secret indiscretions of prominent people, engrossing its audience in salacious details that violate the very code of propriety it aims to enforce. In narratives ranging from Great Expectations to the Boulton and Park sodomy scandal of 1870–71, from Eliot’s and Trollope’s novels about scandalous women to Oscar Wilde’s writing and his trials for homosexuality, Cohen shows how, in each instance, sexuality appears couched in coded terms. He identifies an assortment of cunning narrative techniques used to insinuate sex into Victorian writing, demonstrating that even as such narratives air the scandalous subject, they emphasize its unspeakable nature.
Written with an eye toward the sex scandals that still whet the appetites of consumers of news and novels, this work is suggestive about our own modes of imagining sexuality today and how we arrived at them. Sex Scandal will appeal to scholars and general readers interested in Victorian literature, the history of sexuality, gender studies, nineteenth-century Britain, and gay, lesbian, and queer studies.


“Cohen has new things––often outrageously new things––to say. . . .As the first book-length study of the subject, Sex Scandal is very welcome, not the least for the stimulus it will give to further probings of Victorian fiction’s sexual discourses.” — John Sutherland , TLS

“Remarkably well written, thoroughly researched, titillating, tantalizing, and sober. Cohen’s study takes the reader on a joyride through a handful of turn-of-the-century sex scandals, including the Cleveland Street affair, the Morduant divorce, and the Oscar Wilde trials. The book opens with a useful and intelligent definition of scandal . . . which distinguishes it from the less sexual connotations of sensation and gossip, and ends with a brilliant chapter on Wilde and James and the conflation of literary and sexual discourse.” — Virginia Quarterly Review

"While predominantly a work of literary criticism, William Cohen’s Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction has much to offer those engaged in thinking about the history of the body and sexuality in nineteenth-century Britain. . . . Cohen offers interesting new queer readings of standards of Victorian fiction such as Dickens’s Great Expectations, Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, and of course, Oscar Wilde’s entire corpus. . . . The texts make interesting use of Victorian medical literature on sexuality and is recommended to anyone working in this field." — , Metascience

“A provocative study, extremely well–written, engaging, and intelligent throughout. Through a series of detailed and nuanced readings, Cohen argues persuasively that novelistic discourse and the discourse of scandal were inextricably bound up with each other. Each of his extended literary analyses contains a series of observations that brilliantly clarifies the specific dynamics of literary semantics.” — Mary L. Poovey, Johns Hopkins University

“Far more refreshing and delicious than any of the ostensibly succulent fare routinely cooked up for enquiring minds by our contemporary scandal sheets, Cohen’s readings and writings induce the exhilarating shock of gay literary and cultural criticism at its most acute. With seductive intelligence and stylistic verve, Sex Scandal offers a sophisticated treatment of a rich, fascinating, and underinterpreted topic whose pertinence to contemporary culture becomes more obvious every day. A dazzling performance.” — Joseph Litvak, Bowdoin College


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Price: $26.95

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