Private Scandal in the Public Sphere: Sexual Scandal as Early Eighteenth-Century Polemics

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Roby, Joanne W.
Rosenthal, Laura J
Changes in literary strategies and polemical contest in the early eighteenth century legitimized the use of sexual scandal as a means of attack in the mainstream commercial press. Authors embraced scandal to obscure and temper partisan conflicts that motivated animosities, and in doing so they sanctioned inquiry into the private lives of public figures. This strategic use of scandal emerged as a reaction against the political–religious polemics of the English civil war of the mid 1600s. The discourse of scandal developed as an alternative to the discourse of politeness, which similarly evaded explicitly partisan exchanges. Instead of using politeness to cultivate decorous public debate, some authors turned to scandalous (often calumnious) exposés because it allowed them to veil troubling conflicts while still venting animosities. Chapter One examines how early modern sexual libels were transformed after the civil war. I show how in The Rehearsal Transpros’d Andrew Marvell adapted these precedents into his religious polemics; he redirected them against a quasi–public target, the Anglican cleric Samuel Parker, in order to ridicule Parker as an individual. Chapter Two demonstrates how Delarivier Manley perfected this strategy of obfuscation in The New Atalantis. At moments of political crisis throughout the text, Manley’s political narrative pivots towards amatory encounters to distract readers from the crisis at hand. By casting her political tract as a sexual allegory, she legitimized the personalization, privatization and sexualization of political discourse. As Chapter Three illustrates, in the Tatler and Spectator Joseph Addison and Richard Steele repudiated the public’s appetite for scandal, but their very censures reflect that scandalous discourse permeated public debate. Although known for shaping the public sphere, in denouncing scandal, they revealed skepticism of the public’s ability to engage in rational dialogue. Chapter Four shows that Alexander Pope and his literary rivals adapted scandal as a means of satiric attack against each other—that is, against private figures in the public eye—to undermine one another’s cultural standing. I reveal the buried political–religious conflicts that motivated these hostilities, and I demonstrate that Pope refined his use of scandal as a literary tool throughout his career.