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NONFICTION

LOVE IN THE TIME OF VICTORIA: Sexuality, Class and Gender in Nineteenth-Century London by Francoise Barret-Ducrocq, translated by John Howe (Verso: $29.95, 225 pp.). Many French critics of the last two decades have made a specialty of erecting elaborate straw men specifically designed (or so it seems) for stylish, witty demolition. Barret-Ducrocq, a lecturer at the University of Paris VII, follows firmly in that tradition, intending here to show that the working class of Victorian London wasn’t the depraved, shameless, sexual sinkhole that many contemporaneous novelists and commentators would have us believe. The main trouble with Barret-Ducrocq’s argument is that only the most gullible of readers take Victorian writing, with all its imperious moralizing and class prejudice, at face value; to read it literally, as Barret-Ducrocq does (under the influence of Derrida and Foucault), is to declare a kitten a man-eating tiger. The author’s oft-quoted primary source material--the first-person applications made by expectant, usually abandoned mothers to the Thomas Coram Foundling Hospital--is clearly wonderful, and it’s a shame those archives have been harnessed to counterproductive theory.


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