Pushing the Bounds of Obscenity in The Times and Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman


Jennifer Wood recently finished her Masters degree and is hoping to begin a PhD in 2018 to continue her work. She is researching the history of divorce in Victorian literature and its role in pushing the boundaries of decency in Victorian culture and hopes to expand into transcontinental studies of divorce. When not working on her research, she teaches both American history as well as Western civilization to undergraduates at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City.

You can reach Jennifer at Jennifer.wood@mcckc.edu



Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman, first serialized in The Lady’s Pictorial between January and March of 1894, is known as a quintessential ‘New Woman’ novel. John Sutherland calls it “the greatest unread novel of female struggle of the century.”[i] Dixon used her book to address both a double standard in expectations for women’s behavior and in expectations for the publication of fiction. That is, she explored the subject of adultery in the life and fiction of the “modern woman” in her title. By examining Dixon’s novel alongside the divorce accounts in the London Times, I argue that Dixon fought against these double standards in life and fiction even while forcing her main character to succumb to them.


Jen Wood 1Divorce became a civil issue after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, and as soon as the courts opened for business, the London Times reporters were there, documenting each divorce case. With each new case heard, sales increased and publishers realized they had a fresh and constantly renewable form of scandal that would sell papers. Claiming ‘democracy of print’ or the important role of making political and judicial figures accountable to the public, the London Times and other newspapers would use divorce cases to titillate their readers.  Both the press and the public would attend regular open divorce hearings, crowding into the courtroom to bear witness to the spectacle. Petitioners for divorce were required to offer all of the proof they had concerning the affairs of the accused, and the accused would then have to defend themselves. Giving testimony, especially for a woman was a difficult undertaking, where being “put on the stand” often meant standing before a packed courtroom revealing the most intimate aspects of her life. Divorce proceedings became such a popular form of entertainment that people had a hard time getting a seat in the courtroom.[ii] It was alright if you couldn’t see it in person, however, because multiple London newspapers would report all of the scandalous testimony in detail.

For instance, in 1891 the case of Russell v Russell made headlines.   Lady Russell petitioned for a judicial separation due to her husband’s cruelty.  Countess Russell claimed that Earl Russell threatened to shoot her on multiple occasions, and on the night of June 10th he:

Insisted on his wife leaving his bed, and on leaving it she fell on the floor.  A nurse found her lying there naked, and the respondent’s explanation was that, she having fainted, he threw water over her and she became so wet that he had to take off her nightdress.  After that she felt she could live with him no longer.[iii]

The charge of cruelty, however, would be overshadowed by her claim of her husband’s homosexual relationship with Herbert Roberts, head mathematics master at Bath College.  The Times reported that Earl Russell:

insisted upon a man named Roberts sleeping in the house for three or four days and nights, and after the respondent had undressed, going up to Robert’s bedroom, remaining with him for several hours, and again in the morning.  Upon the petitioner expostulating with him upon his conduct the respondent told the petitioner to go to the devil and mind her own business.[iv]

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The scandal involved with the Russell case was intense.  Anyone reading the newspapers would know the activities going on within their home and the testimony would leave no question as to the character of all the parties involved. Despite the final ruling of the Russell case, Earl Russell would forever be associated with a homosexual relationship and cruel behavior leaving plenty of fodder for gossips in all level of society.   For those cases that were especially popular, newspapers such as the Illustrated Police News (Fig.2) would use illustrations allowing the scandal to be not only visualized for audience members, but for those who were illiterate, the pictures would allow them to join in on the gossip.


Some people found the newspaper reports to be vulgar and a danger to public morality.   Even Queen Victoria implored the courts to cease the flow of news reports.

None of the worst French novels from which careful parents try to protect their children can be as bad as what is daily brought and laid upon the breakfast-table of every educated family in England, and its effect must be most pernicious to the public morals of the country.[v]

While the Queen’s opinion was taken into account, court officials hoped that the printing of these court cases would act as a deterrent to those tempted to wander off the path of marital virtue.  They would argue that the newspaper accounts acted as an informal education on what not to do in a marriage.[vi]  Even those most opposed to the passage of the divorce act believed that the publications of the hearings were to the ultimate benefit to the public as a whole.[vii]

Many respectable people internalized the lessons intended by the courts, reassuring them about their own honorable lives –“I’d never do that”– and helped them set limits of expected behavior.[viii] This ability of the reader to distance themselves from those on trial was what kept newspapers safe from the obscenity laws and what allowed readers to feed on the scandal without feeling influenced by it. By placing those at the center of the controversy outside the regular sphere of everyday life, it distanced the reader from temptation of the immoral act of adultery.  It especially helped if those unlucky few on trial were of a higher social station.[ix] Despite their belief in scandal for the public good however, divorce numbers continued to increase in the last half of the nineteenth century.[x]


Fiction, though, was held to different standards. While novelists often used stories and headlines from the newspapers as a means of inspiration and proof of relevancy, they also sought to use their medium as a way to push back against this double standard that existed between fiction and journalism.[xi] The obscenity laws were keenly felt among Dixon and her peers, and more successful authors chose pamphlets and essays to argue their case.  George Moore spent his own money to publish Literature at Nurse, or Circulating Morals, as a way of criticizing circulating libraries, specifically Mudies, for their censorious natures, noting that “the character of strength, virility, and purpose, which our literature has always held, the old literary tradition coming down to us through a long line of glorious ancestors, is being gradually obliterated to suit the commercial views of a narrow-minded tradesman.”[xii] Moore displays disgust at Mr. Mudie’s decision to discontinue carrying his novels based on the letters of a couple of disapproving “ladies in the country”.[xiii]  Moore’s newest novel A Mummer’s Wife was censored because it was told from the point of view of the wife who cheats on her husband and subsequently divorces him for another man.


Eliza Lynn Lynton also had words about the double standard but contemplated a different solution, namely that “a great nation should be candid and truthful in art as well as in life, and mature men and women should not sacrifice truth and common sense in literature for the sake of the Young Person.”  She advocated for age specific genres and “locked bookcase(s).”[xiv]

Jen Wood 3Ella Hepworth Dixon would use her novel as a similar vehicle for protest against “circulating library” standards. Mary Erle, the protagonist of The Story of a Modern Woman, is an orphaned young woman responsible for the care of her younger brother. Though she aspires to be an artist, she takes up journalism and fiction writing as a faster means of supporting her small family. Educated and raised in polite society, Mary remains free to mingle among those with whom she was raised despite her misfortune. Her friends exist in both the upper classes of London as well as the working class and because of her situation; she is able to afford her readers the perspective of both worlds. Dixons first exploration of divorce comes in the form of Lady Blaythewaite, a secondary character, who hovers in the background of Dixon’s tale. In the story, Lady Blaythewaite is known for her beauty and her jewels but she is introduced as a soon to be divorcee. “She brings the case, of course, but she won’t get it.  They’re betting on it at the clubs.”[xv]  Dixon shows how Lady Blaythewaite had become the object of scandal in polite society by the whispered talk about her at the theater, and later by the way Dixon portrays the actual divorce through the medium of newspapers.

When Mary goes to discuss her novel with the editor of Illustrations magazine, she has to pass the Strand, an area near the center of London where newspaper boys shouted headlines to passersby.  Mary would stop to read the headlines. “The Great Divorce Case. Cross-Examination of the Plaintiff. Unabridged Report. Ladies Ordered Out of Court. Sketches of the Co-Respondents.”[xvi] Dixon would compare the Blaythewaite divorce case to a disease that would infect all of London, influencing conversation wherever people met.  “Spesh–shul! Extra spesh–shul! The great divorce case! Extraordinary evidence! Cross-examination of Sir Horace Blaythewaite!”[xvii] Not unlike real life and the Russell divorce case, the Blaythewaite divorce became highly publicized and incredibly detailed fodder for newspapers.  Dixon’s very next scene brings home the jarring contradiction in the publishing industry at the time.

When Mary sits down to discuss the manuscript of her novel, the editor rejects her ending as too scandalous. As George Moore’s case suggests, in an effort to avoid violating the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, editors often censored their writers prior to publication. Mary’s editor attempts to curb her discussion of potential adultery:

You’ve put the most extraordinary things in this last chapter. Why, there’s a young man making love to his friend’s wife.  I can’t put that sort of thing in my paper.  The public won’t stand it, my dear girl.  They want thoroughly healthy reading.” “Do they?” said Mary, who could not help remembering the columns of unedifying matter which had lain on the breakfast table that morning, nor the newsboys vending the latests details of the great scandal, served red hot, at the street corners. “I thought,” she continued quietly, “that the public would take anything – in a newspaper.” [xviii]

Dixon uses the voice of the editor to stand in for the censorship and morality laws that regulated the print industry for fiction. Dixon goes on to push this double standard home when the editor, during their meeting, takes a phone call about the Blaythewaite case and urges his photographer to get as many photos as possible of Lady Blaythewaite and asks for a “couple of pages of drawings” in an attempt to boost revenue through scandal[xix].  Oblivious to his own contradiction, the editor continues with Mary telling her that “the fact is…novels are-er-well-novels.  The British public doesn’t expect them to be like life.”[xx]  Mary goes on to defend the literary world when she argues, “But even the people in the country parsonage must occasionally see life as it is — or do they go about with their eyes shut?”[xxi]  It is in this line that Dixon spells out her frustration with English morality and the double standard in publishing.


So, why was it acceptable to read about scandalous divorce cases in the papers but not in literature?  The assumed audience of novels was impressionable young women. It would be incorrect to presume that young women didn’t also read newspapers, but novels took a different, more important role with their readers.  Fictional literature, worked to close that distance between the reader and the story. Where newspapers allowed the reader to place the subject of adultery at a distance so as to ridicule and objectify, novels did the opposite.  Authors asked their readers to empathize, to identify, and to imagine themselves as aligned with their characters, thus eliminating any gap between the two. Where newspaper stories were merely scandalous, literature was dangerous.  If an impressionable reader could empathize with a character, they could then imagine themselves doing the actions of the characters. Because of this, stories that dealt with scandal and adultery attempted to place the main character as the victim of the crime instead of the perpetrator.

Despite Mary’s failure to conclude her serial with an adulterous scene, Dixon does so in her novel.  The Story of a Modern Woman begins with Mary’s courtship with an ambitious family friend, Vincent Hemming.  Hemming makes clear he intends to marry her.  However, when he impulsively chooses to marry another woman for her money, Mary is left heartbroken.  At the end of the novel, Vincent confesses his mistake and pleads with Mary to run away with him. “You are above the prejudices of our false civilisation, you are capable of being a true woman, of giving up something for the man you love.”[xxii] What Vincent pleads with Mary to give up is her pride and place of respectability in English society. He suggests they move somewhere far away so that she would not have to deal with the opinion of others or the scandal that his divorce case might incur. Mary refuses Vincent, yet despite her resistance, she is still “conscious of the fascination, the odious fascination which belongs to sin.”[xxiii] Dixon plays here with that fine line of protagonist as victim.  She allows Mary to imagine for a moment that she could exist outside of social prejudices.  In the end however, Dixon rallies for the plight of women and their helplessness at the hands of men and society.  “…the impotence, the helplessness of woman, struck her with irresistible force.  She was the plaything, the sport of Destiny, and Destiny always won the game.”[xxiv] Mary’s choice allowed Dixon to remain on the right side of the censors while still candidly exploring the subject of adultery.


The obscenity laws and editors fearful of conviction dictated the rules of publishing in nineteenth century England, and those in control of the systems held tight reigns on what was and was not accepted as publishable material.  Newspapers like the London Times flaunted their ability to freely publish erotic stories thus ensuring daily readers, while authors such as Dixon pushed against their restraints in ways that represented the reality of publishing while simultaneously upholding the straw man of adultery. Dixon understood the difference between the two audiences and their ability or inability to distance themselves from the subject at hand, and she wrote with those audiences in mind. She didn’t hesitate to reveal, however, the double standard at play in the publishing world with her realistic story of frustration in the face of contrasting principles. The loophole in the obscenity laws regarding newspapers would hold fast in England until 1926 when, instead of the courts loosening their grip on censorship, they deemed it no longer proper nor educational to report on divorce cases.[xxv]


End Notes:

[i] The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989):2.

[ii] Horstman, Allen. Victorian Divorce. Croom Helm Ltd, 1985. 89.

[iii] London Times, December 2, 1891, pg3; issue 33497

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Victoria, Queen of Great Britain.  The Letters of Queen Victoria: a selection from Her Majesty’s correspondence between the years 1837-1861, published by the authority of His Majesty the king ed. Arthur Christopher Benson and Viscount Esher.

[vi] Ibid. 94.

[vii] Savage, Gail. “Erotic Stories and Public Decency: Newspaper Reporting of Divorce Proceedings in England.” The Historical Journal Vol.41, no. 2 (1998) 512.

[viii] Horstman, Victorian Divorce. 97.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Savage, Gail. “The Operation of the 1857 Divorce Act, 1860-1910 a Research Note”. Journal of Social History, Vol. 16 no. 4 (1983) 104.

[xi] Rubery, Matthew.  The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction After the Invention of the News. Oxford University Press, 2009. 163.

[xii] Moore, George. Literature at Nurse, or Circulating Morals. 1885.

[xiii] Ibid. 3.

[xiv] Lynton, Eliza Lynn. “Candor in Fiction”. 1890.

[xv] Dixon, Ella Hepworth. The Story of a Modern Woman. Broadview Press, 2004. 138.

[xvi] Ibid. 145.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid. 146.

[xix] Ibid. 147.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid. 146.

[xxii] Ibid. 183.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid. 184.

[xxv] Savage, Gail. “Erotic Stories”. 528.

List of Images:
[1] “The Divorce Court” Image. “The Mordaunt Divorce Case,” London Journal, 26 March 1870. 196-197.  This illustration depicts The Mordaunt Divorce Case.  This was an incredibly sensational divorce case as Lady Harriet Mordaunt confessed to having had affairs with several men, including the Prince of Wales. She had a daughter that was suspected to be from one of the men she named.  She was later examined and found to have puerperal mania or postpartum psychosis and her husbands divorce was dismissed on these grounds. Lady Mordaunt lived the rest of her life in an asylum.
[2] “Scenes and Incidents in the Crawford Dilke Case.” Illustrated Police News, 7 August 1886. This illustration shows how cases could be visualized in detail almost fictionalizing the story through illustration.
[3] “Ella Hepworth Dixon” Image. Circa 1888 (from her autobiography, As I Knew Them, 1930).

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