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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 8: Gender •


Book cover: Fashioning Adultery. Gender, Sex and Civility in England, 1660–1740

Book review


Fashioning Adultery. Gender, Sex and Civility in England, 1660–1740

David M. Turner
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002; ISBN 0521792444, pp. 236

Seth Denbo

University of Sheffield

In his Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753), David Hume applied enlightened logic to, among a range of topics, an explanation of the prohibition of sexual interaction between members of the same family. As would be expected from a major Enlightenment thinker devoted to rational thought, his arguments paid scant attention to notions of sin or to Biblical prohibitions. Hume argued that the need to preserve chastity within the household lay behind the proscription of incest. Without such legal protections 'those who live in the same family have such frequent opportunities of license of this kind, that nothing could preserve purity of manners, were marriage allowed among the nearest relations, or any intercourse of love between them ratified by law and custom'.

For Hume, the prohibition of marriage between family members was not focussed on the dangers of incest itself, but rather was about the prevention of fornication. Incest, which would come to have such powerful connotations in modern society, was for Hume merely a facet of a much larger cultural problem, the maintenance of chastity. The relative importance of these two forms of sexual transgression was entirely the inverse of modern meanings. That incest could be subsumed under the category of extra-marital sex highlights the importance of chastity and fidelity. These were central concepts in early modern society, the importance of which extended beyond the bedroom and played a role far wider than preserving harmony between a husband and wife.

Issues surrounding adultery were crucial for early modern notions of social and marital order. For this reason it is a topic which reveals a myriad of hidden cultural meanings about power, authority and gender relations. In pursuit of the detailed meanings and the transformations in the understanding of adultery, David Turner sets out to investigate sexual mores and attitudes towards transgression in the period from the Restoration to the middle of the eighteenth century. This is an impressively detailed study based upon wide-ranging reading of sources on matrimony and marital breakdown.

The author charts a shift in the way marital infidelity was portrayed in a range of cultural genres. These include advice literature, bawdy works (including, but not restricted to, the literature of cuckoldry), sensational pamphlets published for popular consumption when adultery led to murder, records of church court marital separations, and criminal conversation suits – the famous claim for damages brought by a husband against his wife's lover which have been examined in depth by Lawrence Stone in his work on divorce.

Where Stone used criminal conversation trials to uncover the origins of divorce in English society, the approach taken here aims to uncover shared meaning. The book's title immediately alerts readers to the cultural approach; this is further made clear in the introduction. '[R]ather than seeking to uncover an elusive social reality of extra-marital sex, the focus ... is on the meanings of adultery and the ways in which they were conveyed'. This process of 'fashioning' occurs as the language used to describe adultery changes over the course of the period, through 'multiple strategies ... of constructing the experience of marital breakdown and adultery'.

With the explosion of print in this period, the construction of meaning occurs through the dissemination of an ever-increasing range and volume of published material. The proliferation of print encouraged the development of diverse meanings by providing various milieux in which the implications of marital infidelity could be discussed. The author's methodology, which looks for shared cultural meanings in the textual leavings of a society, is strengthened by the wide-range of genres that are investigated and provide evidence for transformation. While many works of cultural history approach their topic from a single type of source, this work usefully thickens the description through attention to a number of different genres. This genre-based, broadly cultural approach to the topic creates a history of how society interpreted, digested, and incorporated this core problem. It also allows an examination of how the terminology of adultery shifted through a comparison of the usage of specific expressions and their meaning.

'Fashioning' also refers to the main argument of the book. During the 80 years under investigation adultery became 'fashionable'. Seventeenth-century commentators saw unchaste behaviour as universally immoral; adultery was condemned in strong terms regardless of the rank or station of the perpetrator. The use of euphemistic language was seen as an encouragement. As a deterrent from such immoral behaviour writers demanded the use of 'hard' language over 'soft' names for acts of infidelity (for example, 'whoredom' rather than 'loving a mistress'). The rise of civility and the discourse of politeness precipitated a shift in the portrayal of adultery. The increasing distinction of England's social elite created divisions in the way the transgression of marital boundaries were presented. A diversity of interpretation arose in which commentators, lawyers, and even some moralists modulated the descriptions and condemnations of adulterous transgressions by members of society's upper echelons. This growing diversity of interpretations was a discourse based upon class distinctions.

The social developments of the early eighteenth century led to a diversification of language which viewed immorality in terms of rank and status. For example, the language of gallantry and intrigue allowed a portrayal of adultery that valorized extra-marital sex among upper-class males. More and more the language used to describe adultery was determined by the class and gender of the perpetrator. In other words sexual transgression was no longer being judged in absolute terms, but rather based upon the mores of specific groups within society. 'Hard' and 'soft' language was no longer universal, but had applications and meanings dependent upon the social situation.

This attention to class discourse highlights the way in which the primary historical intervention in this volume is neither within the fields of the history of the family nor the history of sexuality (although the examination of sexual mores will provide a welcome addition to this field). The book principally addresses the expansion of the arguments around the rise of civility during the early years of the eighteenth century. The historiography of civility looks to Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process (trans. Edmund Jephcott: Oxford; Blackwell, 1994), which provides one of the few attempts to link changes in ideas of politeness to sexual mores. In the period with which Turner is concerned an argument has developed around the rise of polite society that saw the defining of greater social distinction. Much of this work has however dealt with how these changes occurred in public society, and the ways in which they were displayed to the outside world. The study of adultery in this book aims to redress this emphasis in order to show the relationship between politeness and gender in the intimate areas of the lives of early modern subjects.

Adultery is a private act with public implications. It happened behind closed doors but was widely debated, discussed and disputed. The shift being traced in this book is thus both linguistic and representational. Multiple close readings of the changes that the terminology underwent follow shifting notions of adultery among the elite. The analysis of words, phrases and literary imagery shows how the meanings of adultery were constructed to reflect contemporary social concerns. In all of the various genres with which Turner engages, the language of adultery replicated new ideas about distinction and social differentiation. This exposition of the language of adultery and its multiple and variant meanings is the strength of Turner's book.

This technique is used in the edifying explication of the language used by Elizabeth Pepys to express her sense of betrayal at discovering her husband's infidelity with Deb Willet. Pepys himself, although sometimes seemingly remorseful at his indiscretions, rarely used 'hard' language in describing either his adulterous behaviour or his sexual partners. Elizabeth Pepys however articulates her anger in the most emotional and evocative language available to her. When she insists that her husband write to Willet calling her a whore, Turner analyses Elizabeth Pepys' motivation and the reasons behind her use of this language. By demanding that her husband use such an insulting and emotive word, Elizabeth Pepys was attempting to create an irrevocable breach between her husband and his lover. The selection of language gave an enraged wife agency, and demonstrates the ways in which the seemingly gender laden term 'whore' could implicate both men and women.

Detailed analysis of the word 'adultery' reveals a complexity that has been lost in modern usage. Although meanings of 'adultery' could be the same as those of today, the concept could also become highly elaborated. For example, when Restoration women embraced a fashion for revealing dresses one author used 'adultery' to describe the actions of women who flaunted their naked breasts in public. Even practices within marriage could be so labelled, as when Jeremy Taylor described the 'immoderate use of permitted beds' as a form of adultery. One correspondent to the late seventeenth-century publication the Athenian Mercury explained how he had accidentally and unknowingly had intercourse with his wife in a dark room when he thought he was having an assignation with a housemaid. His questions – had he committed adultery with his own wife? and was the child begot of this liaison a bastard? (the first answered in the affirmative, the second negatively by the volume's editors) – reveal the complexity of the meanings of adultery and the importance of chaste intentions rather than merely actions.

Turner's approach focuses upon development of the internal dynamics of the discourse on adultery. The transformation of the language of adultery meshes with other ideas about the rise of civility, and the notions of social distinction that this engendered. However, such a culturally loaded category could conceivably provide a window into a wider range of key contemporary issues. For example, infidelity, especially by a woman, led to the uneasy prospect of unknown paternity. This concern invaded the very heart of the political order. A 1718 Jacobite libel damned the Prince of Wales with the accusation that 'thy Mother is now in Prison ... for Liberties, some say she, took with one Cunnings-mark, whose Son the World believes thee to be.' Since the Prince of Wales, according to this calumny, was not the son of George I, his claim to the throne was also illegitimate. The queen's indiscretions could be used to call into question the succession, a central process of government.

This example shows the power of the categories of chastity, fidelity and adultery. Ideas about fidelity shaped a range of central cultural concerns including: understandings of the political and social order, the ordered transfer of aristocratic authority, and the transmission of property through inheritance. The range of cultural issues, combined with what Turner has shown to be multiplied meanings of the terminology, should allow a cultural approach to adultery to provide a window into early modern sensibilities. In other words, because infidelity was a broad issue that tapped into so many contemporary anxieties, it has the potential to illuminate the hidden depths of a culture whose basic assumptions can at times seem utterly alien.

The division of the book into chapters addressing specific genres allows the main argument regarding civility to be carried through the entire book and provides a convincing argument for the association between meanings of adultery and social distinction. However, the genre-driven approach makes it difficult for this analysis of adultery to achieve a wider potential. Cultural history attains its explanatory authority when texts and interrelated cultural discourses are allowed to interact with each other. While close historical analysis of the language of adultery provides useful insights, the argument that 'Representations of adultery provided contemporaries with a means ... of comprehending broader cultural and political changes' could be much more far-reaching than is achieved here.

Beginning with Foucault – and subsequently pursued by historians with a wide range of temporal, geographical and historiographical interests – the history of attitudes toward sexuality has been shown to be highly fertile ground. The meanings of sexual transgression have provided insights that no other historical spotlight has illuminated. These insights have gone beyond a history of sex and sexuality itself to shed light the very concepts that underpin western culture. Through the combination of close textual work and the analysis of a wide range of genres this study of infidelity fills a significant gap in the study of sexual morality in the early modern period.

May 2003

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