Not enough spice

Scandal: the sexual politics of the British Constitution

Anna Clark <em>Princeton University Press

Scandal! Oh, lovely: here's another book delving into the unlaced corsets of British history, with lashings of - well, maybe just lashings; a bit of titillation here, a heaving bosom there.

If a juicy scandal book is worth reading, it should at least be fun. I wish I could say that about this work by Anna Clark, a Minnesota history professor. Sadly, I found it the most tedious tome I've read in a long time.

The subject is promising enough. Our history from the 1770s to 1815 was highly dramatic, with the loss of America, the revolution in France and war against a background of republican sentiment and agitation, the like of which has never surfaced since. Sexual scandal, writes the professor, was used for political ends. Nothing new about that. But while we tend to discount the importance of sexual misbehaviour, she believes it was central to the issues of the day. "Scandals force us to question the division between the public and the private," she writes. "Sex scandals could become symbols of larger political concerns."

This to me seems to have the tail wag the naughty old dog. The "larger political concerns" of the day were hardly obscure. They were argued at length and in public by the likes of John Wilkes, Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke. Their ringing speeches are modern currency. The issues they debated are central to our concerns today: what liberty means, the conflict between democracy and order, the extent to which dissenters should be silenced in times of war, who should be able to vote.

So we find ourselves in some curious byways. The seven-year impeachment trial of Warren Hastings is covered in minute and irritating detail. The classic example of a civil servant being misused as a pawn in a public row, Hastings was perhaps the David Kelly of his day. After he was arraigned over his conduct as governor-general of India, the opposition argued that subject nations should have exactly the same rights as men at home. Hastings and the government insisted that Britain's interests were paramount. At some point, Hastings had allowed troops into the harem of a recalcitrant nawab; this provoked Richard Brinsley Sheridan's most impassioned speech, at which fine ladies swooned. Cartoonists had a field day. But the protagonists lost interest once war with France loomed and Hastings was acquitted. The trial did not change the conduct of British policy in India one bit. Nor was it to the remotest degree a sexual scandal.

Professor Clark seems to have read every pamphlet printed in the decades surveyed, every book, every learned article. Seventy-four pages of notes attest to her industry. Half that, and a few extended quotes from the greatest orators in the English language, and her thesis would have leapt into life. But the prose is written in the most plodding style imaginable.

It doesn't help that she sees history entirely from a feminist viewpoint. In itself that shouldn't be a problem. As far as women were concerned, the 18th century was not the age of enlightenment. By the 1790s liberated women were being blamed for the French revolution and its excesses; "female infidelity" and the "monstrous lust" of French women were seen as some of its causes. But it is perverse to pretend that feminism, or the role of women, were central issues that agitated the minds of men, or women, of the day. Perhaps they should have been, but they weren't.

To be fair, I learnt a lot. I'd never heard of Catherine Macaulay, the author of The History of England, published in the 1760s. (That's not Thomas Babington Macaulay, who lived a century later, and whose History of England was published from 1848.) For Professor Clark only the former is significant. Granted, Catherine must once have been a celebrity, as nine of her portraits are archived by the National Portrait Gallery. But doesn't the better-known historian deserve even a mention?

No doubt somebody will like this book. And we should applaud American academics who take an interest in anything beyond their own shores. But forget the notion that "sexual scandal illustrates constitutional issues concerning the crown, parliament and public opinion". Sexual scandal never illustrated anything much, other than our enduring taste for it.

Edwina Currie's novel Chasing Men is shortly to be reissued by Little, Brown