18th Century Reading Group: Criminal Conversations 17th May 2016

Criminal Conversations

The third session of the London 18th-century postgraduate reading group on the theme ‘Resentment and Regard’ will be at 12.30 on Tuesday 17 May in Room 112, School of Arts, Birkbeck, 43 Gordon Square, WC1H OPD.

‘Conjugal infidelity is become so general that is hardly considered as criminal; especially in the fashionable world […] this publication may perhaps effect what the law cannot: the transactions of the adulterer and the adulteress will, by being thus publickally circulated, preserve others from the like crimes, from the fear of shame, when the fear of punishment may have but little force’

Trials for Adultery, or, the History of Divorces (1779)

‘Definite rules can never apply to indefinite circumstances’

The Wrongs of Woman (1798)

‘Criminal conversation’ – a writ of trespass enabling a husband to sue his former wife’s lover for compensation – generated a body of literature which explored and exploited a conflicted relationship between sex and discourse, fact and fiction, right and freedom. This week’s reading, selected by Marianne Brooker (English & Humanities, Birkbeck),  presents two divergent responses to this aspect of tort law in the 1790s.

We will be discussing:

  • ‘Crim. Con. A Narrative of a Late Trial […] To which is Subjoined a Poetical Descant on Modern Incontinency; or, The Mysteries of Coaching Developed’ (1796), available from ECCO here https://goo.gl/hINh98 (pdf available on request).
  • Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman: or, Maria, A Fragment (1798), available from the LSE Digital Library http://goo.gl/xkfnhb (vol. I) and http://goo.gl/Qr9fj6 (vol. II). We’ll focus the editor’s and author’s prefaces in volume one, and then on volume two, particularly passages at pp. 1, 28-69, 76-79, 81, 91, 112-128, 143-167.
  • Tilottama Rajan’s ‘Whose Text? Godwin’s Editing of Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman’, in her Romantic Narrative: Shelley, Hays, Godwin, Wollstonecraft (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2010), pp. 174-214. Please get in touch with the organisers for a pdf of this chapter.

Participants are also welcome (but not required) to browse contemporary trial reports and bring along extracts to read and consider.

Topics for discussion might include: the civil and criminal, public and private; crime and punishment; speculation, observation and voyeurism; representation, advocacy, ventriloquism; uses and abuses of silence and eloquence; omission and excess; suffering and reparation; alienation and affection; participation and exclusion; textuality, typography and embodiment; sexuality, seduction and repulsion; epistolarity and the vehicular; influence and authority; curiosity and gratification.

For a pdf of Rajan’s chapter  – and of ‘Crim. Con.’, if you cannot access the pamphlet online through an institution – please contact the organisers, Robert Stearn (rstear01@mail.bbk.ac.uk) and James Morland (james.morland@kcl.ac.uk).

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