The Private Rod: Marital Violence, Sensation, and the Law in Victorian Britain

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

“I was alone with him, Marian—his cruel hand was bruising my arm—what could I do?”
“Is the mark on your arm still? Let me see it.” “Why do you want to see it? “I want to see it, Laura, because our endurance must end, and our resistance must begin today. That mark is a weapon to strike him with. Let me see it now—I may have to swear to it at some future time.”

Every Collins scholar and fan has already read this passage from Marian Halcombe’s diary in The Woman in White, probably—given our age of highly publicized cases of domestic violence—without stopping for a thick analysis. For one thing, no details vivify the bruise on the page. But what did it mean to Victorian readers for Lady Laura Glyde, gentlewoman, to expose a bruise inflicted by her upper-class husband? In what other social, legal, and literary conversations did this scene participate? How did the fact of this scene’s occurrence in a “sensation” novel affect its cultural significance? Marlene Tromp’s The Private Rod builds a multi-layered and eloquent answer to these wide-ranging questions. The book explores the relationships between violence in the “real” domestic life of the Victorian middle classes and its representations in fiction and the law, asserting that “[s]ensation fiction … participated in, shaped, and was shaped by the political-legal debates of the era … over what was real, what was legislatable.” It shows that that this interplay among sensation novel, realist novel, and law gradually changed what could be imagined in fiction and articulated in law about physical violence within married life (71). As well as providing material for Victorian scholarship on gender, class, and genre, this study wants to make us think about how we continue to imagine and legislate against marital violence in the present century.

Tromp frames her discussion of two key sensation novels (The Woman in White and Braddon’s Aurora Floyd) with chapters on other works that prepare the way for sensation and (after the 1860s) mark its impact on literary and legal culture. Oliver Twist makes a bridge between the Newgate Calendar and sensation fiction, dramatizing and humanizing violence against working-class women and marking fiction as a space for the critique of laws that failed to protect them. Dickens’s narrative of Nancy’s redemption, however, is anchored to “her monetary worth to her social betters,” and part of the value of her visible, beaten body is its ability to locate and naturalize violence in a realm apart from the upper and middle classes (16). The bodies of gentlewomen are kept invisible and thus unimaginable as vulnerable to marital abuse.

All this changes in the novels of Collins and Braddon, which explore the real and the legislatable within middle- and upper-class marital violence. The Lady Caroline Norton case and other public events had drawn attention to the insufficiency of legal protection for abused married women; the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 evaded the problem by figuring the violent husband as a drunken, brutal, working-class man and this representational narrowness limited its protection of middle and upper-class women.

The Woman in White (1860) breaks open this law’s figuration of marital violence, primarily through the character of Sir Percival Glyde, a brutal but (supposedly) aristocratic husband. Tromp’s discussion anatomizes the novel’s psycho-social portrait of marital violence, exposing how complex and indirect are sensation fiction’s messages about marriage, violence, and class. When Glyde turns out to be illegitimate, for example, one has to ask with what class identity he bruises his wife, especially when his brutality locates him in the working classes, “the only kind of violent man Parliament defined” (73). Tromp deepens the issue of class instability, and its effect on Glyde himself, through her reading of the shifts in his ability to perform his assumed social role with each turn of the plot. Tromp eloquently contrasts the public bruise as figure for Glyde’s inability to manage his place in the circuits of domestic and financial power with Count Fosco’s chillingly expert use of the “private rod.”

But Tromp is also original in her reframing of the middle-class English hero Walter Hartright as a third variety of violent man. Neither a corrupt aristocrat (albeit a fake one), nor an “odious foreigner,” this gentle wielder of paintbrushes and pens and defender of women is himself a creature of violence. Walter’s violence, however, does not register as relevant because it is performed in condoned social contexts: while he is traversing the wilds of Central America, or protecting English gentlewomen. Most provocatively, Tromp offers a critical reading of Walter’s attempt to save Glyde from the fire in the chancel, arguing that his actions serve rather to make that death inevitable; he thus participates in Glyde’s execution. So, while The Woman in White returns the gentlewoman’s body to textual visibility, publicizes her vulnerability to marital violence, and posts an active critique of the Divorce Laws, Tromp shows how the novel works to “screen [Walter’s] violence and label the violence of others as illegitimate” (97). Amid its disruptions of the imagined “real” of the domestic lives of gentlewomen, the novel preserves “the sanctity of middle-class identity” by marking all the perpetrators of marital violence as belonging to a criminal caste that transcends nationality but not social class (17).

This shoring up of the middle-class home, of course, is never complete in a sensation novel. A final section, “(Wo)manly Anger,” addresses the fantasies of violent justice on the part of women characters, notably Marian Halcombe. Marian’s anger falls within her consistent coding as a “masculine” woman (who even carries a “manly umbrella,” significant amid the recurrent canes and whips in the novels discussed). It nonetheless represents “the potential for violence in other women characters as a response to the violence enacted on them” (101). Emblematic of the suggestive (because just real enough to take seriously) excess of the sensation novel, characters like Marian make “the threat of women’s access to power” visible, proposing “alternative ways of enacting and responding to violence in the home” and new ways of imagining gentlewomen (101-2).

The outright “dangerous” woman is the focus of the next chapter’s discussion of Aurora Floyd (1863), which (like other early Braddon novels) features middle-class women characters explicitly associated with retributive violence against husbands and fiancés. Tromp reads Aurora Floyd with and against the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1857-70, whose rhetoric the novel replicates “imperfectly,” enough to complicate the questions of where danger originates and what are the gender and social identities of its victims. (It would be fascinating to bring this chapter’s insights to bear on Armadale and other fictions of dangerous women by Wilkie Collins.)

Realist fiction’s representations of marital violence, Tromp argues, were indelibly marked by sensation fiction. Oliphant’s Salem Chapel and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, for example, are written against sensation but clearly invoke its techniques. While the relationship between the sensational and the real is not a new theme, Tromp’s contributions make significant inroads into discussions of exactly what that generic relationship is. Rather than reading Salem Chapel’s sensation subplot as interfering with the realist one, Tromp argues that “Oliphant’s use of language, madness, and the woman’s body offers us the means to see both realism and the undefiled middle class contaminated by sensation,” indicating that the generic boundaries (on which many critics still base their analyses of Collins) are considerably blurred by the time of this novel (18). Tromp’s impressive reading of Daniel Deronda culminates the analysis of how sensation transformed realism. Eliot’s portrayal of Grandcourt’s gentlemanly violence solidifies the imagining of marital violence in fashionable homes as a reality. Eliot portrays his violence as a perceptual and expressive problem for Gwendolen (and the courts) that Gwendolen can only articulate in the linguistic and performative space of madness; this is not an example of moments of failed realism but rather testimony that “the real itself must be read and understood through the sensational” (19).

The conclusion looks at the late-century Clitheroe Decision, a marital rights case that, Tromp argues, not only reveals the continuing cultural tensions about how to imagine and interpret evidence of marital violence, but also marks the changes from the mid-century:

Sensation participated in the evolution of the discourses regarding the domestic space, sexuality, and violence, and, by contaminating realism, by revealing the fissures in its logic … redefined what was identified as realism, along with Victorian “truths” about marital violence. (242)

Tromp’s discussions of law and literature are fullest and most historically particular in the chapters on Collins and Braddon. A more sustained focus on these “mutually constitutive discourses,” which would exceed the space of this already ambitious volume, might include the multiple and productive interconnections between the two professions and their discourses (often in the same body, as in the case of Collins and Stevenson). The discussions of empire (a natural, considering the date of 1857, shared by the Matrimonial Causes Act and the Sepoy Rebellion) and the performance of gender (fleshed out with reference to Judith Butler) are other examples of provocative threads that emerge and recede, inviting the reader to take them up elsewhere (or wait for Tromp to write more).

The book’s strongest feature is Tromp’s inspired and nuanced readings of scenes of subtle and explicit violence in Victorian sensation fiction: Laura’s bruises, Aurora Leigh’s beating of the stablehand Softy, Gwendolen Harleth’s whipping of the rhododendron as she talks to the physically restrained and terrifying Grandcourt—and her sharp and provocative connections between these scenes and the larger cultural patterns in which they participate. The book articulates how violence within a “gentle” marriage was a linguistic and representational problem for individuals, novelists, and the law, but also how the production of words had and has the potential to change the problem of marital violence. Sensation novels, Tromp argues, exposed and disturbed the invisible scripts of violence in the “gentle” home. As well as creating a space, language, and narrative framework in which women readers might place and articulate their own experiences, the sensation novel contributed to a process of re- imagining that changed not only the novel but also the law.

The book exhorts contemporary critics to participate in the continued re-imagining of this and other social issues. “There are no innocent words,” Tromp reminds us, nor texts that live in an ideology-free zone (1). When we position the sensation novel as a site where no serious traffic in ideology takes place, we contribute to the continuing “invisibility of some cultural, intellectual, and fictional patterns,” among them the naturalization of marital violence (2). Tromp’s productive denaturalization of the fictions of marital violence, the relationships between sensation and realism, and the conversations between fiction, the law, and the critics will interest a wide range of readers, including those interested in exploring another rich layer in Collins’s fiction.