What is it about Naomi Wolf that inspires such venom? Perhaps that she’s American, brash, media-savvy and not averse to showing off her impressive embonpoint, which might go down badly in academe. But also — she makes mistakes. She made a pretty bad mistake in her very first book, The Beauty Myth, published in l990, by saying that 150,000 women died of anorexia in the US every year — whereas in fact she should have said 150,000 women suffered from anorexia. In this book, she seems to have dropped an even bigger clanger.
Matthew Sweet started the ball rolling on his BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking program, when he told her that she was quite wrong to say that the number of executions for sodomy increased in the latter half of the l9th century. She had misunderstood a term — ‘death recorded’ — in the Old Bailey records which did not mean that the defendant had actually been executed but that the judge had set aside the death sentence and shown leniency. And that she was therefore wrong to dispute the generally accepted fact that the last execution for sodomy was in 1835.
Wolf handled this body blow gracefully. She thanked Dr Sweet for pointing out her error and said that of course she would correct it in future editions. In subsequent interviews, she made it sound like an oversight that could be amended with an erratum slip on p. 71. But actually it’s far more serious than that, because it undermines the whole basis of her book.
She argues that ‘modern homophobia’ was born in 1857, when the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act made sodomy a threat to marriage. The Act legalized civil divorce for the first time and meant that a husband could readily divorce his wife if she committed adultery. But what about if he did? Ah. Obviously no one could expect husbands to stop committing adultery, but there must be some grounds on which wives could sue for divorce, and these were eventually defined as rape (outside marriage — marital rape was fine), bestiality and sodomy. Thus sodomy — which had been a fairly minor offense before — was suddenly taken more seriously and, according to Wolf, led to the whole Victorian clampdown on any form of sexual irregularity, culminating with Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol.
Wolf told the Times of London recently that her book was ‘not a social investigation. This is not a demographic investigation. It’s a cultural analysis of a mood — just like all my books.’ That’s not what she says in the book, though. On the contrary, she goes out of her way to assert her scholastic bona fides. She explains in her introduction that Outrages started life as her Oxford Ph.D thesis, completed in 2016, on the minor Victorian poet John Addington Symonds, and she talks about reading his letters in the Bodleian and New College libraries and visiting the Pierpoint Morgan Library to see his manuscripts. But it’s in the acknowledgements that she really goes to town — four pages of humblebrag listing all the professors, librarians, deans of this and wardens of that, who opened their libraries and gave her scholarships and visiting fellowships to help her on her way. She also thanks the many experts — including Baroness Kennedy, I noticed — who read the book in manuscript to check its accuracy. I wonder how they’re all feeling now.
So — what’s left? Given that the book is holed below the waterline, is it still worth reading? Well, Wolf certainly writes a sprightly sentence and knows how to leaven the statistical stodge with interesting vignettes. I enjoyed her account of the Boulton/Park case of 1871, about two men calling themselves Fanny and Stella who liked going out dressed as women. But they overdid it when they went to the theater and kept waving to people from their box till the police arrested them on suspicion of being tarts. Made to undress in the police station, they were soon revealed to be men, but they turned up for their trial again dressed as women, and the papers hailed them as ‘the funny He-She Ladies’. Eventually, they were acquitted because, after all, what crime had they committed? They said their cross-dressing was a ‘frolic’, and even the Victorian courts had not yet invented a way of making frolicking illegal.
Obviously it was canny of Wolf, with an eye to transatlantic sales, to build her book around two contrasting poets, John Addington Symonds in Britain and Walt Whitman in the States. Symonds was a tortured, self-loathing homosexual who wrapped his amorous propensities in endless guff about Ancient Greece. He married a sympathetic wife and eventually produced four daughters, but he would periodically bunk off to Venice to see the great love of his life, a gondolier. Walt Whitman was far more straightforward. A carpenter’s son, he left school at 11 and became a printer’s apprentice, then a teacher, journalist and poet. Unlike Symonds, he was never closeted, but was loved by almost everyone who met him. He published the first edition of his great work, Leaves of Grass, in 1855 and Allen Ginsberg commemorated him a century later in ‘Howl’ as ‘dear father: Graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher’. Naomi Wolf is going to need some courage-teaching when she goes back to academe.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.
Editor’s note: The release of Outrages in the US has been delayed by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt due to the inconsistencies highlighted by the BBC.