Adultery became the subject of some of the greatest European novels of the nineteenth century, including Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. English novels of the period needed adultery for their plots, yet flinched from treating the subject openly.
Through the twentieth century to the present – from Ulysses and A Handful of Dust to recent fiction by Zadie Smith, Tessa Hadley and Sally Rooney – adultery has fascinated novelists. Why is this? And do male and female authors treat adultery differently?
A lecture by John Mullan
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/adultery-novel
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- I hope you'll accept. It's a very interesting topic inherently so, and I hope I do it justice and also show why it is indeed an interesting topic to novelists. Why novelists are interested, have been over the last, I guess, 300 years in adultery. And I'm going to cover 300 years worth of novels, how they've been interested in adultery, but also perhaps evasive about it, scared of it, worried about it. And I was thinking that, I mean, it's kind of an old fashioned word, actually, adultery. You don't often see it in or hear it in reports or discussions about what we've become used to calling infidelity. And I hope that perhaps you might get some idea of why, although it was a phenomenon in the novel, it's still extraordinarily present and common as a word. It has an antique ring to it. Novelists still need adultery, I think. So, even old Sally Rooney needs adultery as it were. Here is a passage from Sally Rooney's debut novel, "Conversation with Friends." First published in 2017. Quick resume, in case you haven't been watching it on BBC 3, Francis, who's our narrator, you might not get that from BBC 3, Francis, our narrator is a 21 year old university student in Dublin. She and her friend Bobby have come to know a sophisticated married couple in their thirties, Nick and Melissa. Nick is an actor, semi successful. Melissa is a rather more successful writer and photographer, and they welcome Francis and Bobby into their home and into their lives. One of the interests of the novel is I think it tempts you to imagine what the novel would be like narrated by Melissa, because Francis finds Nick increasingly attractive. And at Melissa's bibulous birthday party, to which of course she's been invited in the utility room by the fridge, she kisses him and it's a very enjoyable kiss, and it is described from her point of view, but they have to park quickly. They're in the utility room, after all the party's going on. They send each other a few flirtatious emails. This is like other Sally Rooney novels, quite an email dependent narrative. And subsequently, the following week, Francis knows that Melissa is away working in London, and she goes to Nick and Melissa's house knowing Melissa's not there and suspecting rightly that Nick will be, and she's going for only one reason. Okay, that's where we are. And this reason is quite apparent to Nick. "So I told him I didn't want to be a home wrecker or whatever. He laughed at that. That's funny, he said. What does that mean? I mean, you've never had an affair before. I don't want to wreck your marriage. Oh, well, the marriage has actually survived several affairs. I just haven't been involved in any of them. He said this amusingly, and it made me laugh, though it also had the effect, which I guess was intended of making me relax about the morality side of things. I hadn't really wanted to feel sympathetic to Melissa, and now I felt her moving outside my frame of sympathy entirely, as if she belonged to a different story with different characters." You know how the effects of all this depend on that technique of refusing to mark off speech from narration. So no quotation marks as if all the dialogue is absorbed into Francis's perceptions and her story, it's all her. Even what Nick says is somehow her. And you are also to notice the easy evasion that comes with that odd phrase of hers, the morality side of things. I remember when I first read this quite soon after it was published, and you could sort of tell that Sally Rooney was quite good, because you kept in this first person narrative reading things like that and thinking, "What am I supposed to think of that? I think that's kind of bad thing to say." And you are left to decide as a good and competent novelist will leave you to decide. Rooney stacked the cards a bit by having Nick tell Francis that his wife has already had unspecified affairs. You find out a bit more about that later. Of course, you never get the word adultery in this novel. And as I'm going to show you, you hardly ever get the word adultery in any novel of the 19th and 20th century, especially ones which are about adultery, but you get the echo, I think, here of an old prohibition. She belonged to a different story, Melissa did, but the different story is the one that gives this story its sort of voltage, the different story where adultery is wrong, where people whose partners are guilty of adultery feel righteously wounded and wronged by it. And Nick's married condition gives Francis's affair for her, for the reader too, it's electricity. It makes it compulsive, risky, ill-advised, adventurous. Why do we hardly use the word adultery or adulterer, let alone adulteress. I wonder when that word was last used except in inverted commerce in any English publication. Why don't we use it anymore? Well, one simple reason would be because adultery isn't as it used to be a word for a sin, an offense against God. Here is a novel in which it is used, where it is assumed that we do believe in God as the narrator, at least retrospectively does. This is Defoe, Moll Flanders, 1722. The narrator and antiheroine of this novel, at this stage, she is a young woman, I think we're to presume probably, she might not be out of her teens yet. And she's worked as a servant and she's very fanciable, and in a household in which she's worked, there are two brothers and one of them falls for her and seduces her and they have an affair. But to her perplexity, he tries to persuade after the affairs, been going on for a while, that she should marry his brother. And the mother is very keen that she should marry his brother. And eventually the affair with one brother is broken off and she marries the other brother, whom she doesn't particularly fancy at all. "I never was in bed with my husband, but I wish'd myself in the arms of his brother; and tho his brother never offer'd me the least kindness that way after our marriage, but carried it just as a brother ought to do; yet it was impossible for me to do so to him: In short, I committed adultery and incest with him every day in my desires, which, without doubt, was as effectually criminal in the nature of the guilt, as if I had actually done it." Incest incidentally because intercourse between a man and his brother's wife is forbidden in Leviticus. You all know how Henry VIII used that to explain why he was going to dump Catherine of Aragon and who had once been married to his brother. And then it's actually in the book of common prayer as well. So adultery here, one of the rare times it's used in the English novel and it's used to describe something which we would say is not adultery. And do you remember Jimmy Carter when he was president of the United States. Some of the more senior members of our audience might remember an extraordinary thing he said, which riveted the British audience when he said, "I've always been faithful to my wife, but I have committed adultery in my thoughts." Do you remember that? Extraordinary. Fascinating. And he meant every time he looked at another woman and felt something that was a sort of adulterous inclination, which he had to tamp down. We probably all know about the seventh commandment, thou shall not commit adultery. Perhaps not necessarily so well known is the passage in Deuteronomy that specifies the proper punishment. "If a man we found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. Yet there's also a Christian tradition, where while adultery may indeed be a sin, it is a forgivable sin. And one of the most famous, I think, passages from any of the gospels is an illustration of this. Here is Jesus being tested by the Pharisees. "And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken an adultery; and when they'd set her in the midst, they say unto him, 'Master this woman was taken an adultery, in the very act.' Now, Moses in the law commanded us,that such should be stoned:
but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not." They persist of course. "So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.' And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest,even unto the last:
and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, 'Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemn thee?' She said, 'No man, Lord.' And Jesus said unto her,'Neither do I condemn thee:
go, and sin no more.'" Not it isn't a sin, but I do not condemn you. My mother's favorite passage from the whole of the Bible, and she was a devout Roman Catholic. Sadly she's she's long since dead, but I'm glad that I finally find an occasion to use her favorite passage. Here is it's a passage which has had a powerful effect on many people down the centuries on many believers. And here is Rembrandt's famous version of the moment when the woman is produced to test Jesus. The for forgivability of adultery is an important possibility. And that's not just because many novelists are Christians, have been Christians, but also because novelists are almost forced to think of adultery as forgivable or at least explicable. Because imagining to the road to adultery, what leads to it, becomes in the 19th century, and that's where I want to go now, one powerful way of writing about marriage. How do you write about marriage? Not a novel that ends with a marriage, but a novel that is about marriage, that it is in the midst of marriage, and one answer is write about adultery. The author of, and here I do another little homage to somebody who's sadly no longer with us, the author of the richest book on the subject of adultery in the novel, which is indeed called adultery in the novel and who was once upon a time my PhD supervisor, thinks that adultery is essential because marriage is the real subject of the novel as he calls it, the bourgeois novel. This is 1979. In 1979, literary critic said the bourgeois novel very readily. The bourgeois novel, I think Tony Tanner, who's the author, he was a very brilliant critic and a very brilliant teacher. And I think he probably meant, almost any novel you care to think of with the exception of a few sort of a validly icon, iconoclastic, radical avant-garde novels. The bourgeois novel includes every writer I think I'm going to talk about this evening, certainly including Sally Rooney, and this this is what he says. The bourgeois novelist and it's extraordinary adultery in the novel. I recommend it to you. I mean it's not always an easy read, but it's a rich and fascinating read. And you can skip the chapters about Jack Lackoi. I promise you, you can. I think if Tony was still with us, he might have left those out. Anyway, "The bourgeois novelist has no choice but to engage the subject of marriage in one way or another, at no matter what extreme of celebration or contestation. He may concentrate on what makes for marriage and leads up to it, or on what threatens marriage and pretends its, sorry, that should be its disintegration, but his subject will still be marriage." Well, we can think of exceptions. I shout Robinson Crusoe, the first novel. Pretty bourgeois, not a flicker of any interest in marriage, but still it's worth testing out. It's true enough to be interesting, I think, and is a good enough place, a launchpad for thinking about why adultery then is so interesting. It happens, of course, adultery perhaps in life, but certainly in fiction when you have married the wrong person. And let's, I thought we would in our little trip through the 19th century, we should start with a novelist. Who is one of the first novelists who actually rather clear idly, if there is such an adverb, with clear eyes, looks at the subject of adultery, one of the earliest ones to do so, who is the novelist to whom, of course, marriage is most famously crucial. Every Jane Austin novel, of course, like every Shakespeare comedy ends in marriage, but one of them, "Mansfield Park" actually tackles adultery. Austin does not, of course, take us inside an adulterous relationship, but in one way, her version of the sin is really, I think, characteristically audacious, her treatment. In "Mansfield Park" just, you know all this, but I'll tell you, in "Mansfield Park," Mariah Bertram marries Mr. Rushworth. Mariah Bertram, and hears what out Henry James', even Henry James about it, she marries Mr. Rushworth because she despises him. Yes. Think on that. Not despite the fact that she despises him, because she despises him. How can that be? Well, I'll tell you. She's been jilted by Henry Crawford to practice jilt, implicitly a rake or libertine and a high caliber high octane flirt. She has, during play rehearsals at "Mansfield Park," indeed conducted an intense flirtation with Henry Crawford, which much to his delight has taken place right in front of Mr. Rushworth, Mariah's fiance. Crawford likes to do that sort of thing. Now, Henry Crawford's got bored. He's dropped her. He's gone off to amuse himself in bath. She's still in North Hamptonshire. She will show him. On his return from Antigua, her father, so Thomas Bertram, perceives that Mr. Rushworth, whom he hasn't really met before, is a very poor specimen indeed. "An inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions in general unfixed, and without seeming much aware of it himself" Mr. Rushworth is a block of wood on legs. That's me. That wasn't Jane Austen. Neither can Sir Thomas deceive himself. He would like to, but he cannot deceive himself about his daughter's feelings towards Mr. Rushworth. "Little observation there was necessary to tell him that indifference was the most favorable state they could be in, her feelings. Her behavior to Mr. Rushworth was careless and cold. She could not, did not like him." It's all absolutely clear. Convention forbids a man who has proposed marriage from backing out, but a woman is allowed to change her mind. This is an important convention in more than one Jane Austen novel, but is a also a fact of life of the time, emerges a lot in 19th century novels so she can change her mind. Sir Thomas talks to her. "With solemn kindness Sir Thomas addressed her: told her his fears, inquired into her wishes, entreated her to be open and sincere, and assured her that every inconvenience should be braved, and the connection entirely given up, if she felt herself unhappy in the prospect of it. He would act for her and release her. Maria had a moment's struggle as she listened,and only a moment's:
when her father ceased, she was able to give her answer immediately, decidedly, and with no apparent agitation. She thanked him for his great attention, his paternal kindness, but he was quite mistaken in supposing she had the smallest desire of breaking through her engagement, or was sensible of any change of opinion or inclination since her forming it. She had the highest esteem for Mr. Rushworth's character and disposition, and could not have a doubt of her happiness with him." Sir Thomas is readily convinced Mr. Rushworth owns lots of property. He's very, very rich. It's an almost adjoining estate. It's an excellent match. He allows herself, he allows himself to be convinced. And of course what then happens, one thing that then happens is much later in the novel, Henry Crawford, who has actually declared to Fanny his love for her, who wants to marry Fanny, the heroine, Fanny Price, the heroine of the novel who's been offended off from the prospect of marital bliss by Fanny, but he's working away at her. And after meeting her in Portsmouth, he travels back to his estate in Norfolk, having told Fanny he's going to do lots of good things for poor people there, which is he hadn't known that they were there before, but he's discovered them and he's going to do lots of good things for them. But he goes through London, he can't resist going to Mrs. Frazier's party. He encounters at Mrs. Frazier's party. Maria, again, she's all cold and huffy. She is now Maria Rushworth, okay, a married woman, but of course she wouldn't dream of taking Mr. Rushworth to this party, and her coldness gets Henry going, He can't bear women to be cold to him. He must be able to make them, as he says, smile at my command, and he turns on all his charms again and they start an affair. And we know about this and Fanny knows about it, because it starts being reported in the newspaper, okay? That's what life is like in Regency England, let me tell you. And down in Portsmouth Fanny's drunken dad, an ex-marine says, "Oh, hi jinx going on. Fanny, look at this." And it's evident from all that exactly what has happened. In the end, it's a public disgrace. Henry Crawford, after a while, gets bored again, of course, goes off. Maria is disgraced because everybody knows about it 'cause it's an item in the newspapers apart from anything else. Her husband gets a private act of parliament and divorces her and she is punished. I think most readers would think really excessively by being sent off to a distant country property that Sir Thomas owns in the eternal company of Mrs. Norris, one of the great sadists of world literature. And the two will live together in a kind of solitary in hell for an indetermined period of time. And, but Henry Crawford is still, of course, on the loose, and as ever Austin is audacious pioneering in representing exactly the consequences of adultery, reckoning up the consequences of Maria's affair with Henry Crawford. She asks her reader simply to face up to the double standard. "That punishment, the public punishment," sorry. "That punishment, that public punishment of disgrace, should in a just measure attend his share of the offense is, we know, not one of the barriers which society gives to virtue. In this world, the penalty is less equal, i.e. between man and woman, than could be wished; but without presuming to look forward to a juster appointment hereafter, we may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himselfno small portion of vexation and regret:
vexation that must rise sometimes to self-reproach and regret to wretchedness in having so quieted hospitality, so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable, and endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman, Fanny, whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved." So the best that we can hope for is that although cruel Henry Crawford goes unpunished, he's punished by the fact that he chucked away Fanny Price in order to have this dalliance with Maria Rushworth. Henry Crawford, of course, is not an adulterer. No more are either of Emma Bover's lovers. We're going to look at them in a second. Rodolphe and Leon in perhaps the most famous of all novels of adultery, Flaubert's "Madame Bovary". Or Anna Karenina's lover, Vronsky. In fact, it's easy, isn't it, to think of novels about female adultery. Not so easy to think of novels like Sally Rooney's featuring male adulterers. And why is this? I'm going to, as I go along in the second half of the lecture, try and suggest some reasons. Those who commit adultery in 19th century fiction belong to a world where divorce was either not possible or very, very difficult. Mr. Rushworth can as it were purchase it. Liberal divorce laws may have been good for society, but when they eventually arrived, they were a disaster for the English novel, I think. How much more interesting for a novelist when a woman's decision to marry, the woman who accepts or rejects the proposal, could not be reversed or corrected? Think of Dorothea Brooke getting that appalling letter from Casaubon in Middlemarch, a letter we can all read and not thinking as everyone in the world would think, apart from her, God, red light, danger, danger, but thinking what a wonderful proposal. Yes, I'll say yes to that. One campaigner for liberalization of laws on divorce was that unhappy married novelist, Charles Dickens. In her times, he has the factory worker, Steven Blackpool, married to a bail full drunken wife who no longer lives with him, but still haunts him, turns up now and then to remind him that she's there. He's hopelessly in love with Rachel, virtuous, beautiful, his fellow worker, but he's married. He has this desperate conversation with the appalling Mr. Bounderby about the impossibility of divorce. He goes to Bound because he thinks he knows stuff. "'Mine's a grievous case, an' I want, if you will be so good t' know the law that helps me.' 'Now, I'll tell you what!' said Mr. Bounderby, putting his hands in his pockets. 'There is such a law.' Stephen, subsiding into his quiet manner, and never wandering in his attention, gave a nod. 'But it's not for you at all. It costs money. it costs our mint of money.' 'How much might that be?' Stephen calmly asked. 'Why, you'd have to go to Doctors' Commons with a suit, and you'd have to go to a court of Common Law with a suit, you'd have to go to the House of Lords with a suit, and you'd have to get an Act of Parliament to enable you to marry again, and it would cost you, if it was a case of very plain sailing, I suppose from 1,000 to 1500 pounds,' said in Mr. Bounderby. 'Perhaps twice the money.' 'There's no other law? 'Certainly not.'" He does not, of course, commit adultery, Stephen Dickens did by the way, instead he dies. That's the only way out for him. The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which Dickens vociferously supported, brought in the year before Dickens himself separated from his own wife, Catherine, introduced divorce through the court without this extraordinary and expensive business. Men were able to petition the court for a divorce on the basis of their wife's adultery, which would have to be proved as would the absence of any collusion or condoning of that adultery by the husband. One of the reasons George Elliot's partner, George Henry Lewis, could not divorce his wife who had had children by another man, is that he had legally taken charge of the children and then therefore implicitly condoned his wife's adultery. Women who wanted to divorce their husbands needed also to prove an aggravating factor of the adultery. It had to prove adultery, but also an aggravating factor such as rape or incest. The bar we might think is pretty high, but a lot lower than it had been. And you could go to the high court. The high court in London was the only place to get your divorce. Proceedings were held in open court, enabling society still to be entertainingly entertained and scandalized by the personal details, but it was some kind of liberalization and the number of divorces multiplied very rapidly, immediately. And people, some people were worried about this, and the worry about the what was suddenly seen the relative ease of divorce, however it might seem to us, was probably behind a triptych paintings by the painter, Augustus Leopold Egg, and this is the first one of a sequence that the latter two shows what happens to an a wife who commits adultery. I haven't done them, but they're a bit of a, I mean they're interesting, but I just want to look at the first one. And you can sort of see what's happened. And this is the husband, the appalled, wronged husband. He's holding a piece of paper, which is the note, the letter that somebody's written to him revealing what his wife's been up to. And this is the wife who has been confronted and has confessed all and thrown herself in despair on the ground. And this is their children. And actually the painting's full of sort of emblematic things, just one, because you can't possibly see it, which I might point out. You'll see, you know, it's half eaten apples. There's all sorts of things. There's a house of cards which the children have been building, which is collapsing at that very moment. This is sort of like Hogarth, things falling as you see them. And they have built the house of cards. You can only see this if you see the painting itself on a book, and the book is a novel by Balzac, because French novels, and we're going to turn to this now, French novels are thought to be particularly sort of scandalous in their treatment to open treatment of adultery, and Balzac the worst of all about this. And it's sort of unclear and it's left deliberately unclear is that Balzac there, because Balzac illustrates the dangers of adultery or because reading Balzac makes you commit adultery. I'm not quite sure. Matching the sort of sentiment arousing intent of this painting was the sensational best seller from just three years later, Mrs. Henry Wood's "East Lynne" and the so-called Victorian sensation novel, Wilkie Collins, the most famous Mrs. Henry Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is of perhaps the most notorious of all. And very often these novels deal more openly with adultery and bigamy than actually, as it were, the classic, the more literary novels. You know, bigamy is almost there, isn't it, in "Jane Eyre," but in sensation novels it almost always actually is there and occasionally adultery. And the plot of is "East Lynne" is that the impecunious, but beautiful Lady Isabel Vane marries the kindly lawyer, Archibald Carlyle, who buys partly out of kindness, her former home East Lynne. She's made miserable in her marriage by the interference of her husband's sister Cornelia, who's a sort of sour spinster, who resents the marriage. And even more by her growing, Isabel's growing completely unfounded conviction that her husband is himself romantically involved with a local lady, Barbara Hare, who was once thought to be a, you know, a possible future wife. This misconception is encouraged by the rakish captain Francis Levison, with whom Isabel elopes. When she's disappeared, one of the servants, Joyce, knows immediately what has happened, but the husband is mystified until he sees the letter. "Though a calm man, one who had his emotions under his own control, he was no stoic, and his fingers shook as he broke the seal." And this is what the letter says. "'When years go on, and my children ask where their mother is, and why she left them, tell them that you, their father, goeded her to it. If they inquire what she is, tell them, also, if you so will; but tell them, at the same time, that you outraged and betrayed her, driving her to the very depth of desperation ere she quitted them in her despair.' The handwriting, his wife's, swam before the eyes of Mr. Carlyle. All, save the disgraceful fact that she had flown, and a horrible suspicion began to dawn upon him, with whom, was totally incomprehensible. How had he outraged her? In what manner had he goaded her to it. The discomforts alluded to by Joyce, and the work of his sister, had evidently no part in this; yet what had he done? He read the letter again, more slowly. No he could not comprehend it; he had not a clue." Not the clue, sorry. He has got a sterner code when once she's gone off, she has a child with her lover, he has granted a divorce, and he's asked about the possibility of a second marriage to a local girl, Louisa Dobede. And he replies to Barbara, "No. She ,who was my wife, lives." And he says in sort of default like style, "Whoever putteth away," he quotes, "Whoever put it away his wife, and merrieth another, committeth adultery." Interestingly, the only time that the word adultery appears in the whole novel is again to describe something that you and I wouldn't call adultery anymore, even if we still use the word. Lady Isabel is thoroughly punished, of course. Her lover deserts her, notched. Her child is killed in a train accident in which she is maimed. She returns, she's rendered unrecognizable enough to return as governess to her abandoned children, one of whom dies in her arms. The children don't recognize her. Her husband doesn't recognize her. It's helped by the fact she wears blue spectacles, but she herself dies, and as she's dying reveals herself to her husband who forgives her on her deathbed. In a notorious narrator intervention, the author assures her female readers of the book, "Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, however bad it gets," she says to them, "you must pray for strength to resist the demon that would tempt you to escape." If a Francis Levison guy comes along. "This escape," she says, "If you do rush onto it will be found worse than death." She actually says, uses that extraordinary resonant Victorian cliche. Oddly enough, in its tragic plot, that novel, I've already referred to that most, a moral novels of adultery. Madame Bovary seems rather to demonstrate the truth of Mrs. Henry Woods, Ellen Woods' hypothesis, Emma Bovary marries in a state of overwhelming illusion. Marriage is a crushing disappointment. Maria Rushworth, remember, has no such excuse. And what's most memorable to me about Madame Bovary, and one of the things that surely go did public prosecutors to try to ban it, to prosecute it unsuccessfully when it was first published in serialized form, is the extraordinary rendering of the wife's contempt for her husband. How brilliantly it captures this. The tedium of their sex life in the first months after marriage. The noises that he makes when he's eating. Worst of all maybe the idiocy to her mind of his complete faith in her. That's one of the things that disgust her most. So psychologically true, believable. What a fool he is. Emma Bovary has been punished once for her folly and her romantic dreams fed by too many novels, by becoming Madame Bovary. Of course, she's thoroughly punished at the terrible end of her story by suffering and agonizing death from self-administered arsenic poisoning. I should have said, spoiler alert, should I know. The novel hardly endorses its protagonist betrayal of her marriage vow. Yet it outraged critics and readers in France and eventually became notorious in Britain. Partly I think because it followed and sort of almost even imitated Emma's increasing willfulness. When she first has sex with Rudolph, who's a rake, practice rake, she is in the hands of a sophisticated seducer who's done it before. He takes her out riding, leaves the horses to munch the grass, walks her to a small clearing in the woods, makes his move by saying to her, (speaking French). You are in my heart as a Madonna on a pedestal. Well, what a good line. (audience laughs) And of course, she succumbs. "'Oh, Rodolphe!' the young woman slowly sighed, and she leaned her head on his shoulder. The stuff of her habit clung to the velvet of his coat. She tilted back her white neck, her throat swelled with a sigh, and, swooning, weeping, with a long shudder, hiding her face, she surrendered." I won't read the French except to say surrender is okay, but sometimes reflexive verbs are really useful, aren't they? (speaks in foreign langauge) She abandoned herself. By the time she's conducting her second affair with the lawyer's clerk, Leon, her carelessness about secrecy or subterfuge is mimicked by the narrative, which very rarely for a 19th century novel. So I chose this partly as a contrast with all the English novels we're looking at takes us right into the lover's bedroom. "She snatched," so this is one of her meetings with Leon in Rouen, a hotel room in Rouen, which they regularly use. "She snatched at her dress and tore at the thin laces of her corsets, which whistled down over her hits like a slithering adder." I think, by the way, you'll be able to tell me, (speaks in French) I think that's not an adder. I don't think that's an adder. I think maybe a grass snake or something, but I think it's not an adder. An adder is a bit distracting, isn't it, a poisonous snake here. But anyway, so "She tiptoed to the door on bare feet to make quite sure it was locked; Then made a single movement and all her clothes fell to the floor. Pale, silent, serious, she sank into her arms with a long shudder. (speaking in French) Strikes me, there's quite a few words in French, all of which have to be translated as shudder in English. We don't have enough words for free sunning and so on, do we? There's certainly nothing like this in the literary British novel of the 19th century. Indeed, serious novels in English of the 19th century summon up very frequently the dread possibility of a adultery in order to deny it. And this is an example. I'm not going to read it all actually, because I want to get to some other things before my time is up, but this is an example from Dickens' Dombey and Son, where the second Mrs. Dombey, Edith Dombey, who Mr. Dombey has in a sense purchased. She has married him cause she's got no money and her mother hasn't got any money. Mr. Dombey needs a handsome second wife as a status thing, but also to try and produce a son, 'cause his son of his from his first marriage, his first wife is dead and the son has now died. And it's a hateful, horrible merce and repoisoned marriage. And after Edith has discovered that her husband refuses to countenance any kind of unofficial separation, she leaves him eloping with his manager, Mr Carker. They flee together to France, and we find them in a hotel room in Dijon, that city of sin, Dijon, and we know the background to this because it's clear that she was going to be in an adulterous relationship with Carker and was going to die as a consequence. But while he was writing "Dobey and Son," Dickens got a letter from his friend, Lord Jeffrey. And the letter said, and one of Dickens' letters to his friend John Forster said, "Note from Jeffrey this morning, who won't believe positively refuses that Edith is Carker's mistress." So Dickens did one of these things, which he did very rarely actually, which has changed his mind in the course of composing this serialized novel. And Carker comes, as it were, comes towards Edith and says," Here we are alone." And she grabs a knife and says, "Any near and I'll kill you." And he's completely mystified, and well he might be because it feels not just that Dickens has changed his mind, but that Edith has, and this novel of adultery avoided you get over and over again in Victorian England. You can think of it in Dickens. "David Copperfield," the elderly Dr. Strong has this young wife, Annie, almost fatally tempted by the dashing young Jack Maldon and witness by David and the leering you right, but it doesn't quite happen. "Hard times," Louisa Gradgrind, having been married off to the much older and utterly revolting Bounderby, almost falls into the arms, the bed of the loose young gentleman, James Harthouse, but doesn't. And I think you can even think of novels like Middlemarch in this way, Elliot considerably kills off, doesn't she, Mystic Casaubon, so that Dorothea can be duly and legally, and morally it's all fine, rewarded with Will Ladislaw. Henry James, and I wanted to talk, I wanted, as I said, penultimate author to look at Henry James. Henry James I think has this kind of plot in mind in the "Portrait of a Lady," where he introduces his heroin in Isabel Archer to a world, a very corrupt world in Italy, where infidelity and adultery just completely normal for sophisticated characters, and where Isabelle has given every good reason to renounce her own marriage vow. She's discovered that her husband, Gilbert Osmond, is a deceitful, sadistic. He keeps company with a former mistress by whom he has had an unacknowledged child. She leaves Gilbert Osmond, returns to England, and Caspar Goodwood, whom she loves and who loves her, asked her to leave with him. It would be an insult to you to assume that you care for the look of the thing for what people will say for the bottomless idiocy of the world. I, you know, for people going, "Oh, that's adultery. They're not married." It helped by the fact they're also rich that they can do this. We've nothing to do with all that. We're quite out of it. We look at things as they are, okay? And so he goes on, but she, and she says at the end, Isabel gave a long murmur like a creature in pain. It was if he were pressing something that hurt her. She resists the temptation. When Caspar returns two days later for her answer, he finds that she's gone to Italy. Her husband is, in some weird way, her destiny. And James wasn't scared of adultery. He gave us one of the great novels of male adultery, "The Golden Bowl," and this is my penultimate passage. Gosh, it's complicated. I think I first read "The Golden Bowl" when I was 18 out of idealism, and I didn't actually, when I got to the end of it, realized that adultery had taken place. I didn't realize that any sex had happened at all, but actually lots of it had, it turns out. Anyway, I got reeducated, I got the hang of it. This is the moment when the faithful wife, Maggie, who's married Prince Amerigo, are penniless but charming Italian aristocrat. And he has been in an adulterous relationship with her best friend, Charlotte, with the extra sort of piquancy that Charlotte is married to Maggie's dad, okay? Complicated. And so the deceit has been double trouble quadruple. And he's just entered the room where the distraught Mrs. Assingham, who has been a sort of a accomplice in the adultery, who at least has known about it, has seen it happen, she has just smashed the golden bowl of the title, which was a wedding present to Maggie, but was denied symbolically flawed. And she's left and the two are left on their own. And I'll just read this and I won't, I think, analyze it. I just, you know, what do you think about this as a not very explicit confrontation between a wife and a husband with the wife having just discovered that the husband has been conducting a secret affair behind her back with her best friend? "'But what would you have done,' he was by this time asking, 'if I hadn't come in?' 'I don't know.' She had hesitated. 'What would you?' 'Oh, I, oh, that isn't the question. I depend upon you. I go on. You would've spoken to-morrow?' 'I think I would've waited.' 'And for what?' he asked. 'To see what difference it would make for myself. My possession at last, I mean, of real knowledge.' 'Oh,' said the prince. 'My only point now, at any rate,' she went on, 'is the difference, as I say, that it may make for you. Your knowing was, from the moment you did come in, all I had in view.' And she sounded it again, he should have it once more. 'You're knowing that I've ceased, that you've ceased,' with her pause, in fact, she had fairly made him press her for it. 'Why, to be as I was. Not to know.'" Fantastic. What are they talking about? It's no wonder I think my 18 year old self was so defeated or bamboozled. Wonderful use of the word know as an intransitive verb, right? You know, but you don't know something, you just know. And it's an extraordinarily interesting novel, because, of course, adultery is never mentioned once in the novel, by her indirection, Maggie wins her husband back. She does it also very cleverly by sending her father in Charlotte safely back to America. She wins him back and she's happy to do so. Adultery defeated, a very rare phenomenon in the novel. Now, just to end with, I had promised Evelyn Waugh and Zadie Smith, but I have not time for them sadly. But this is where we end with, I think, 'cause I want to come back close to the present day and I think a terrific recent novel this year. So up to it, am I? A novel that turns on adultery? Tessa Hadley's "Free Love" and a novel with a very sardonic title set in the 1960s, sets out to test the notion that a sexual revolution beginning in the sixties might have forever changed the meaning of adultery. Might even have made it that antique word, that antique idea. Phyllis Fischer civil servant's wife, age 40, has two children lives in the suburbs. One day, she and her husband, Roger, had a friend's son, Nicky, in his early 20s, to supper. Late in the evening, in the back garden, in a brilliantly rendered scene, Phyllis kisses him. Remember the utility room at the beginning? Soon she is travelling in to London, to a memorably seedy 1960s Notting hill, to consummate her unhinged, that's her own word for it, unhinged passion. The affair begins, and she starts making calculations that are brilliantly observed, and that it perhaps takes a female novelist to realize. Just, this is for this last passage, her husband has proposed sending her young son to a boarding school, Abingdon, real school, radio head. the pop group all went there. She has resisted, but one day, now that the affair has begun, at Sunday lunch in Guildford, where else, with Roger's rather hostile sister, Phyllis wonders about conceding over the boarding school. "Some vision of compensation flashed in her thoughts, as brilliantly illogical as those floating objects made of light that swam in front of her eyes before a migraine; though she hadn't meant to think about Nicky Knight while she was in Guildford, couldn't think about him. He couldn't exist, not here, in this company today, not with his long hair, scruffy flared trousers, unbuttoned unironed shirt, drawling mockery, thin smiles, offensive opinions, deliciously offensive everything. It wasn't exactly, though, that she thought of him. It was more like sensation, a finger drawn down her body, melting and undoing her, assuaging the impending loss of her little son, which hurt so absurdly much. To block out the hurt she imagined herself bargaining, accepting Abingdon in exchange for that room in Ladbroke Grove, as if the two places existed in some significant and consoling relation, although she knew they didn't. She will trade motherhood for loverhood as it were. I think it's a peculiar woman novelist understanding of it. I don't think a male novelist would dare write that, actually. Psychologically risky and and precise. Later in a letter to an old friend telling her that Phyllis has left him, Roger, her cuckleded husband says to, in this letter, "From my perspective, it's been rather more like something out of a comic opera than Anna Karenina.' This is, after all, the modern world. I suppose the burden of my lecture is that actually for poor old Roger, but to their delight for novelist still, it is actually still a bit like Anna Karenina. The old adultery plot is, as they say, irresistible. Thank you. (audience applauding) - What do you think about French female French writers such as Rashied or Sand who write about adultery in the 19th century? - What do I? Such as who and Sand? - Oh, Rashield or George Sand? - Yeah. I guess I hesitated about including Madame Bovary because I thought that will open me to just this sort of question. And my defense would be Madame Bovary became a sort of notoriously circulated text in Britain. All I could say, I mean, I think that each, it is rather a national thing that, bless you, that countries have their own rather different adultery traditions, despite my invocation of "Madame Bovary" and "Anna Karenina." And you'll notice, for instance, I didn't really mention any American novelists and I was go, I mean, Henry James sort of is a bit American, but both the novels of his I mention are about how if you come from America to Europe in their plots "Golden Bowl' and "The Heroines" of both those novels come to Europe and oh my goodness, what people are up to? You know, I'm a simple American and I was going to have some real American fiction between of the 20th century, and it just seemed utterly different that their exploration of adultery. So I mean the pat answer, which is a true answer is that French fiction was far more daring, and as it were, open and explicit and delighted in being so, and that's what makes the French novel in England in the 19th century itself a really fascinating topic because you read all these, the novels I'm talking about. But then if you are able to get hold of it, even in French or in translation, you want to get the French stuff to really find out what goes on in the bedroom, as it were. - Were American novels not as daring then? - Oh, no. Oh dear. Well, I think the American adultery novel, at least of the 20th century is a really different thing. I mean, I know, to give one example of a novelist that whom I love about, I mean he's rather sort of, he's been canceled, but he's rather out of fashion at the moment. I think he'll come back, John Updike, adulteries in one way, his absolute obsession. It's what he writes, not just his novels about, but very many of his short stories, wonderful short stories. And he did the remarkable trick of a novel, which some people here might have read, which I think is a brilliant novel, but was also a scandalous, a massive bestseller in the 1960s of writing a novel which was very literary and star, but also, you know, was on the front page of newspapers. "Couples," I dunno if any of you writing, and "Couples" is entirely about adultery, but it's a sort of unimaginably American novel in which in a small town tar box is somewhere in New England. Each couple sort of exchanges with the other and dizzyingly actually, and are all conscious of doing so as well as being secretive about it. And I had originally wanted to have some of that in this lecture, but it seemed from an alien world, actually, particularly in the, 'cause you're not just set in the sixties, it was actually written in the sixties. So, you know, I don't have a a kind of two sentence answer on how American novels of adultery are different, but I think they're different. - [Attendee 1] What would you have said about the "Scarlet Letter" if you had... - Okay, the "Scarlet Letter." Yes, that's in it, you know, some people, I think some American critics sort of behavior though, that's where the American novel starts, even though, you know, quite late by our standards 1850. And the "Scarlet Letter" is of course the letter A, has to print has this letter on her, and she's had a child with somebody who isn't her husband. And it is a peculiar thing because in some ways, I think, and 'cause it's set in the 17th century, complicated a bit further. It's written, published in the mid 19th century, but it's set in the mid 17th century. So 200 years earlier. And the funny, I always thought at the time when I first read it, I thought the funny thing about it is you start, she's had the child, she is disgraced, and then this, do you remember this, as I remember it, this old bloke turns up and he's been away at sea for years and years. And it's her husband and he's been away for a long, long time. So it's absolutely impossible that he could be the father. But in a way for the plot of the novel, Hawthorne didn't need to do that. And indeed he doesn't play any great part in the novel, but he wanted her sin, which is by the novelist powers of sympathy, I would say, manifestly forgiven. And the people who persecute and are condemn her are the villains and hypocrites of the peace. So it's a highly sympathetic version of her sin. And the sin has to be adultery. He could have easily done the same novel without her having a husband, but she has to have one to have the A on it, you know, as if our, you know, as if, you know, sort of sexual abandon is not enough. She has to have disobeyed the absolutely, what Tony Tanner would say, is the most basic sort of rule which keeps a society together, as it were. And that's also, you know, maybe half an answer to a question I posed earlier on about why is it over and over again so often, even often in 20th century novels, it's the woman who commits adultery. Not always, but very, very frequently as as if the novelist is following what he or she perceives to be what a society thinks of as the sort of the, you know, the ultimate threat. You know, men can go off and do all sorts of things, but they rely on their wives being faithful, but rely on knowing who the who's but their children are their children. You know, that's the basic thing. Dr. Johnson said the basic rules of society are they're based on the fact that a child always knows who their mother is, but never knows who their father is. Johnson put it in a satirical way. So it seems that, you know, maybe Hawthorne has that in mind. - Thank you Professor Mullan for letting us put you on the spot like that, and thank you all for coming. (audience applauding)