The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution
Scandal is a book that should appeal to all of those, whether as scholars or as mere readers, who would like to see more attempts to write about alternative History—the stories that make History. Anna Clark is a researcher who teaches at the University of Minnesota. Her topic here is scandal at the turn of the nineteenth century (the period under scrutiny spans about half a century, from 1763 to 1820). Her tack is to give an account of the role of scandals related to love affairs, morality and personal influence (“petticoat influence,” as it is called) and which had an impact on political life (hence the notion of “sexual politics”) and draw theoretical conclusions from the set of cases she undertakes to analyse.
The close of the eighteenth century is a time of crucial change for the monarchy, as well as for social representations in general. The thorough Introduction defines the notion of "scandal," gives a model presentation of the main issues and characteristics of the period and an account of her method of investigation. But it is interesting to see that Clark begins this Introduction with her first “story,” by far the best known and most portentous in eighteenth-century British social and political history: Queen Caroline’s banishment from court by Prince George. She comes back to that same case throughout the book, and uses it to close the investigation (chapter VIII), and draw conclusions at the end.
The other scandals under scrutiny include a series of anecdotes and facts about the role of women in elections (chapter III), the scandal of Edmund Burke and the Begums of Oudh (chapter IV), a reflection on the impact of the French revolution in the representation of scandals (chapter V), a comparison of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s genitrix) and Hannah More as two examples of women facing scandal (chapter VI), and a fascinating account of the Mary Ann Clark Affair (chapter VII).
The scandal of the Begums of Oudh, besides sounding like an Arabian Nights tale, has not much to do with sex, one could say. But it has to do with gender, and its inclusion in the corpus under scrutiny is also crucial because of the very belonging of this book to the field of cultural studies. The question of representation and image is indeed at the core of what Clark wants to deal with. Furthermore, the very complexity of the case, in which gender, cultural and colonial issues, as well as politics, come into play, is representative of the difficulty of Clark’s enterprise, and the chapter itself shows how successful the enterprise is.
The first thing I would venture to regret is that the very epistemological status of the cases Clark studies is not grasped with enough distance, that is, the “stories,” “scandals” or “affairs” are never pored into as what they actually were for the uneducated reader of the time, as well as for the historian: words, narratives, accounts of facts, often told by several persons simultaneously over the same period of time. Clark does try to differentiate the newspaper accounts of facts from other sources, such as private correspondences or trial minutes, but she fails to see one crucial aspect of the scandal: its textual, perhaps linguistic (locutary and perlocutary), and even literary nature—in a word, the importance of language in those affairs. For, as Clark herself brilliantly shows, a scandal is not to be equated with the deeds, but with the fuss around the deeds, with the publicity, the comments, the polemics deriving, sometimes remotely, from it. Moreover, a scandal is but a reflection of its time and never comes about unexpectedly. What is truly great and ambitious in this study is that the search for a precise, useful, functional anatomy of the “scandal,” for a definition of its mechanics and dynamics, and relevance, is never given up on. The author keeps interrogating notions, functions, causes and consequences.
I said Clark tended to neglect the verbal nature of the “scandal.” She does a much better job when it comes to images, the choice of which is clever, amusing, and illuminates the analysis itself. It seems that there remains a lot to be done in the field of word/image analysis applied to such historical documents: the explication of puns, the two-way relationship between texts and engravings, the use of text within the image, are all things that deserve more attention. Where the sources are manifold, the angles taken for the explanation are numerous and, fortunately, Clark manipulates a great many research tools with ease. From the introduction on, she focuses on the gender issues related to the scandals and the specific period she chose. She examines and even cross-examines the cases from a historical, sociological, cultural, even philosophical viewpoint—the notion of “sexual politics” is a great finding in that regard. Her topic spans several disciplines, but it also connects different objects, that are seldom really studied in relation to one another. Indeed, scandals, that is, the deeds, their expression and their impact, bring together or against one another, men and women, politicians and journalists, the upper classes and the populace, and the public and the private spheres—the last confrontation being, needless to say, highly, not to say scorchingly, topical. Throughout the book she manages to keep an eye on the “public,” as the recipient of the texts and images telling or alluding to the scandals. This is also why she manages to be entertaining—as she writes: “Critics often wish that politics was an idealized realm where rational people discuss important issues” . Her taking into account the lower fringes of the population, as well as her taking earnestly, as significant, the minutiae of a case or the most trivial anecdote, and her ability to take these to the level of political and historical demonstration, prove just the contrary. I personally was also delighted by the portraits of some characters of the period: Catherine Maccaulay, Mary Anne Clark, Sir Edmund Burke, among others, are brought to life with a socialite’s piquant liveliness but also situated within their times with exquisite scholarly accuracy.
The other, and last, reproach I have concerning Scandal is that sometimes Clark goes to great length to prove she can change gear and get back to the analytical and theoretical mode. We learn so much in the chapters and what the author drives at is always so clear that we certainly do not need such a heavily repetitive conclusion, as well as all the recap sub-chapters in which Clark almost always superfluously makes explicit what her point in the preceding pages was. Her obsession with the logic of it all is somewhat surprising, and one might think that at points she tries to overcompensate for the lightness of the topic with exaggerated efforts at the level of method and demonstration.
Such a lively and detailed (and always very well-informed) series of case studies is a wonderful opportunity to get examples for other research purposes or to get inspiration for new angles of analysis. The number of iconographical documents also gives the reader food for thought. This is the type of work that both constitutes the ultimate study in its field, but remains also of great interest for researchers in a great many other disciplines, as well as a pleasure for anyone willing to learn in an enjoyable way.