Publishing Private Vices: The Role of the Eighteenth-Century Press in Politicizing Morality

Heather King
University of Redlands

Donna Andrew’s Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Dueling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England (Yale, 2013) is a sweeping survey of the cultural discourse around these four vices stretching from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. She mines a wealth of print sources to suggest an intriguing narrative of developing class identity centered on morality. It has long been a commonplace of eighteenth-century studies that the “middling sort” prided itself on its superior morals; Andrew provides us the black-and-white record of this emerging class identity. As she reframes the question in her conclusion: “Did the multitude of reports of such vice in the newspapers, as well as its continuing denunciation in sermons and representations in plays and poetry, convince the ‘moral’ classes that they were not only different from, but perhaps even better than their betters?” (219). Considering four such multifaceted topics over such a broad span of time necessitates choices in what can be included in a history of reasonable length, and Andrew’s choices are guided by a clearly articulated rationale. Even though the reader might occasionally wish that other sources had been discussed, it is impossible to repine. Instead, it becomes abundantly clear that the topics, trends, and tropes she identifies over the long eighteenth century will provide an essential foundation for future scholars to delve more deeply into the intersection of class and morality.

From the beginning, Andrew is careful to define her terms. She positions her project as a cultural history that focuses on a broad understanding of “culture,” one that takes an anthropological approach to cultural artifacts as opposed to a focus on “high” culture. Her particular focus is “on conscious or semi-conscious arguments” about social codes, rather than unconscious institutions (6). She is writing a “history of opinion,” which “seeks to combine the methods of studying high culture with the objectives of anthropological history” (8). She spends useful time in the introduction teasing out the distinctions between “sin,” “vice,” and “crime,” activities that ran afoul of religious, social, and legal mores respectively. This is no easy task, since the three terms were often used interchangeably in the sources she consults, so the differences come down to shades of meaning. In Andrew’s usage, sin and crime were policed by church and state, but vice was tried and condemned in the court of opinion. Vice is therefore the category of transgression with which she is most concerned. She draws attention to the shift from the individual corruption of sin to the wider social and political consequences of vice and crime, which becomes an important theme later as she points to ways in which the private affairs of the socially and politically elite took on national significance when made public through the press. She is also explicit about her goal in pulling together this “constellation of corruption” (4). She acknowledges that each vice has been studied individually, but asserts that “when they are brought thus together, it will become evident that an examination of this knot of miscreancy reveals more than the consideration of its parts would suggest” (12). She is also careful to point out the ways in which these vices are intertwined—adultery was frequently the occasion of a duel, and gambling often led to adultery, dueling, and suicide. It is no small task to keep the four vices separate without losing sight of their interconnectedness, but Andrew rises to the challenge admirably, focusing on each vice in its own chapter but acknowledging overlaps as she goes.

The chapters dedicated to dueling, suicide, adultery and gambling each suggest their own narratives of how depictions of that vice evolved over the course of the long eighteenth century. Two of the chapters, those on suicide and adultery, are clearly written in response to other, earlier scholars. At times, especially in the suicide chapter, that conversation threatened to overwhelm her discussion, shifting the focus of the chapter to correcting the earlier study rather than advancing her own argument. In both cases, a more explicit declaration of her position in relation to the other authors might have helped alleviate that tension. But on the whole, the narratives Andrew constructs for each vice are detailed and persuasive.

Andrew traces the shift from an understanding of dueling as a strictly aristocratic practice, based in the “code of honor” embraced by socially elite males, to a sense of dueling as being part of a military ethos, to finally being understood as a means of settling political altercations, establishing the politician as a man of honor. Through this narrative, Andrew is able to show how “honor” was appropriated by different members of the class structure to serve different purposes. Alongside this shift, she also charts the rise of legal solutions to disputes, citing the increase of cases brought to court that previously would have been settled with pistols. Through these interwoven developments, she is able to suggest answers to “why, in England alone of European nations, men of honor turned away from this fearsome custom” (43). Similarly, the chapter on suicide brings together the religious and medical discourses surrounding suicide at the time, and traces public sentiment about the traditional rigors of the suicide’s interment in unhallowed ground. The chapter on adultery records the tensions between sympathetic literary portrayals of star-crossed lovers in plays and novels with the much harsher judgment meted out to adulterers in real life, as well as the legal changes allowing for full divorce by Parliamentary Act. She notes that as more adultery trials came to court, the public appetite for gossipy accounts of crim.con. trials grew apace. Andrew suggests that the public contempt for adulterers could not stamp out the occurrence but did, perhaps, succeed in making it more clandestine, especially among the beau monde which had formerly flouted conventional mores. Gambling, which connects all of the other vices, is presented as unique because of its ubiquity—open to men and women, young and old, rich and poor—yet like the other vices in the press response to its excesses. Andrew suggests that criticisms of aristocratic gambling fell off over the course of the long eighteenth century not because the ton stopped gambling, but because calls for reform had taken on such a political connotation that reformers had to distance themselves from that line of argument and focus on lower class gambling at fairs and lotteries in the early nineteenth century. As Andrew stresses repeatedly, private vices have political dimensions.

As is apparent from these summaries, Andrew is tying together multiple discourses as represented in the popular print culture of the long eighteenth century, recreating the chaotic din of voices that would have shaped contemporary understandings of the vices under examination, and thereby teasing out gradual shifts in those understandings. This is a daunting task, and though there are times when a reader might wish that the implications of the commodification of adultery stories, the parallel increase in trials for adultery and challenges, or the migration of honor down the social ladder were drawn out more fully, the candid reader will readily admit that such connections would not have been apparent were it not for the careful documentation Andrew has provided. She has identified many previously unseen dots; connecting them all will be the work of future studies.

While Andrew is clear in her introduction about which sources she is drawing from and how she intends to use them, there are a few disappointments. She explains from the outset that she is not concerned with “great artistic achievements” but rather with more ephemeral publications, including “evanescent novels, plays, and poetry” (9). Because the distinction between evanescent and lasting is one that can only be drawn in hindsight, it feels somewhat arbitrary. The possible arbitrariness of her selection is made most apparent because of what she doesn’t consider. For example, her chapter on “Contesting Cultural Authority,” as well as those on dueling and suicide, invokes the eighteenth-century philosophical debate over whether the fundamental human drive is for esteem or self-preservation. In this debate, she cites Thomas Hobbes and Bernard de Mandeville, understandably, but does not consider the different account of human motivation offered by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), one of the most influential rebuttals of Mandeville. Smith’s account of the human tendency to sympathize with and emulate their social betters is also germane to her account of class relationships and would have added useful complexity to her discussion.

The use of literature, especially plays, is also uneven at times. Andrew uses The London Stage (1960–68) to good effect in comparing the stage histories of James Shirley’s The Gamester (1637, including as re-written by David Garrick in 1758), Susanna Centlivre’s 1705 The Gamester, and Edward Moore’s The Gamester in 1753, noting the length of runs and number of performances for each, drawing persuasive conclusions from the evidence. Similarly, in discussing The Stranger (1798), Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s translation of an August von Kotzebue play, she quotes responses in the press to the staging of the play as well as giving information about the receipts for the first ten performances (though she does not address the implications of translation for her re-construction of a British identity). This makes it all the more surprising that she does not take account of this context in discussing four other plays, including two by Garrick. Given her interest in the cultural discourse surrounding these vices, to pass up the opportunity to address the reception of these plays seems a lacuna.

In general, the argument could have been strengthened by more attention to the fact that plays and novels were produced in the same climate of public opinion she traces so carefully, and reviews and excerpts of novels were routinely covered in the press, though I acknowledge a risk of disciplinary bias on this point. Andrew certainly provides an inviting context in which future scholars can place novels, plays, diaries, and other texts. To offer an example: Andrew is aware of Eliza Haywood as a novelist, mentioning her in passing as portraying her heroes as participants in duels, but she doesn’t mention Haywood’s prolific periodical essay output. Haywood’s The Invisible Spy (1754), for example, contains an account of a woman risking her virtue because of a loss at cards, which seems grist for Andrew’s mill. One further example: Andrew makes no mention of Frances Burney, though Burney’s novel Cecilia (1782) deals extensively with gambling and suicide. The heroine’s guardian commits suicide in part because of gambling debts he cannot pay. The rich context Andrew provides could illuminate Burney’s portrayal of an increasingly febrile Mr. Harrel before his suicide, placing his death in the contemporary context of legal distinctions between felo de se and death due to temporary insanity that Andrew establishes. Andrew asserts that “In the twenty-two periodical pieces I have found on the topic which discuss the reasons for suicide from 1772 to 1797, the two most common causes cited were the over-gratification of the passions and desires, and the fear of shame or contempt” (97). Harrel’s suicide letter encapsulates both perfectly, and the subsequent debate in the novel over whether the widow will be left anything echoes other themes in the contemporary discussion about suicide. The detailed picture of the public discourse surrounding these vices will provide a tremendously useful context for understanding the literary representations offered by Haywood, Burney, and others.

There also remains significant work to do on the visual component of public discourse, work which Andrew seems poised to undertake, but which she ultimately bypasses. She provides interesting commentary on the physical layout of the newspapers she has consulted, giving her reader a sense of how crowded a page might have looked or the typographical games played (reading the first line of each article across a page to uncover a satiric message, for example). Furthermore, she has selected apt illustrations for the facing pages of each of her chapters devoted to a particular vice. However, she does not address these images in particular, nor more generally the work of any of the legendary visual satirists as part of the public debate about aristocratic vices. William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode (1745) contains well-known representations of gambling, adultery, dueling, and suicide, with an investigation of class similar to that Andrew traces in the prose record. Likewise, the frequent representation of the ton misbehaving in late eighteenth century prints by satirists such as George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson, and the immense popularity such prints enjoyed, seem well-suited for Andrew’s purpose; those prints also stressed the shading from private to political vices that concerns Andrew. Of course, no one book can attend to every possible line of inquiry, but Andrew’s inclusion of the visual record in her chapter frontispieces invites the reader to think of the many images in the eighteenth century that are part of this discourse, and to wonder what conclusions she might draw.

There are a few instances in which Andrew’s immense erudition becomes a challenge for the reader. Her deep familiarity with the material occasionally results in name-dropping that the reader is hard pressed to follow, as when she makes off-handed reference to a “celebrated” court case that she has not yet introduced to the reader. Her intimate knowledge of the newspapers and journals of the long eighteenth century, likewise, will not be shared by all of her potential readers; more information about the key papers, their circulation numbers, their political affiliation, their better-known writers, the advertisers, whether certain topics caused a spike in demand, and other such contextual information would be beneficial. There is a footnote listing the initial dates of some weekly and monthly papers; a further elaboration of that information would have been very useful in the text itself. In the chapter on dueling, she observes that “in the years between 1780 and the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, newspaper stories of men taking challengers to court or going to magistrates increased dramatically; in fact in these thirty years there were at least 164 such reports” (71). Without a clear sense of how many stories had run during the preceding three decades, the drama of the increase is lost on the reader. There is a table comparing dueling coverage by decade in three papers from 1790–1819, but this useful chart is again tucked away in the footnotes. More of this kind of framing information throughout the text would enable the reader to keep pace with Andrew more easily. More detail about the debate societies Andrew discusses would also be useful, as, unless one has read her earlier book on these societies, it is unclear who participated in those societies and how public the debates were.

Ultimately, these infelicities pale in comparison to the substantive strengths of this book. There is a wealth of information to digest, and the various discourses that Andrew has pulled together in this study will bear fruit in subsequent, more narrowly focused scholarship. Across the board, Andrew is one of the most gracious scholars I’ve had the pleasure of reading; she mentions generously even work with which she disagrees,, and is as respectful of the dissertation she cites as the established authority. Aristocratic Vice is an informative, innovative look at the paradigm shifts in class identity and conceptions of vice as recorded in the public discourse of the long eighteenth century, and will be an important foundation for continuing research in this area.