It is not long since it seemed that all historical accounts of changing discourses around sexuality in the fin de siecle were looking at medicine and science as the sites where new pathologised sexual identities were being constructed. This doubtless owed much to the influence of Michel Foucault, who elevated to universalism the particularly French situation whereby (in theory) private sexual behaviour was exempt from legal investigation, but nonetheless 'deviant' behaviours were strongly stigmatised. While drawing attention to the powerful influence of extra-legal factors in society's regulation of what is and is not acceptable in the realm of the sexual, this rather downplays the continuing significance of law, and the courtroom as the theatre where the hidden became revealed and public shaming occurred. It also de-emphasised the impact of the knowledge of the existence of punitive legislation and the possibility of this public pillorying on perceptions of sexual identity, and the development (in England and Germany for example) of discourses on 'deviancy' specifically in order to mitigate the severity of laws such as the infamous Article 175 of the Prussian Criminal Code Article and the Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.
Accounts of scandalous trials have often been the purlieu of a certain kind of popular history, but the insight they can provide into normally hidden areas suddenly exposed by courtroom interrogation and the glare of public attention provides a valuable resource for the historian. Disorder in the Court presents a selection of ‘thick' studies of legal regulation and the role of court cases, attentive to the complex matrix of societal attitudes within which these occurred and to the role of the developing popular media in publicising and exploiting high profile cases for circulation purposes. It also reveals the extreme contingency of the outcome of particular cases, and the significant role of individual judges and magistrates, juries, and public opinion, sometimes focused into pressure groups.
Issues of sex and gender, powerfully inflected by class and ethnicity, played a direct and important role in the cases discussed. The chapters richly play off competing narratives and contested scripts, and undercut many popular myths. Morris Kaplan, for example, persuasively argues that even if Lord Arthur 'Podge' Somerset never appeared in a courtroom during the prosecution of the Cleveland Street (homosexual brothel) case, he was condemned to a life of ostracism and exile. Fear of prosecution and the evasive actions necessary could be insidiously punitive even without public martyrdom. Julie Early, in her provocative chapter on the Crippen case, recounts the popular remaking of the sleazy quack 'Dr' Crippen into an almost Wellsian 'little man' provoked beyond endurance by a bad wife (though perhaps more could have been made of the fact that Belle Elmore Crippen was a public performer, with all the connotations that had).
Chapters on England, France, and Canada provide cultural comparisons and resonances. Antoinette Burton's chapter on the complex uses made of the Rukhmabai case in debates over Indian child marriage brings in explicit concerns over ethnicity and empire. However, there is an imbalance in favour of Britain (7 out of 11 chapters). Also, it would have been nice to have had more equivalency between the issues discussed in the various national contexts. If marriage, divorce, conjugal rights and separation were particularly sites for the flare-up of anxieties over sex, gender, and social stability in the UK (and Canada), perhaps this needed drawing out more explicitly. The chapters on France focus instead on sexual deviancy and the ways in which this was, in spite of the alleged impunity conferred by the Code Napoleon, policed under rubrics of public indecency and the corruption of minors, and, in the case of lesbianism, by an intensive censorship invoked against literary texts representing sapphism. The extent to which questions of class featured in moral panics around homosexuality is clear from William Peniston's chapter on the trial of the Count de Germiny and Nancy Erber's account of the case of Baron d'Adelsward Fersen and Count de Warren, where, as in the Cleveland Street case across the Channel, sexual deviation and 'aristocratic vice' were perceived to go hand in hand.
All the chapters are excellent, and Nancy Erber and George Robb provide a strong introduction. Disorder in the Court can be strongly recommended as illuminating a range of issues around sex, gender, class, the legal process and the media during the period concerned.
Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine