The craving for forbidden fruit and the craving for legality

by John Holbo on October 24, 2005

It hardly seems sporting to take another poke at Maggie Gallagher, the best-refuted woman in the blogosphere. So I won’t. Still, her Volokh posts reminded of something I read recently …

Roads To Ruin, The Shocking History of Social Reform, by E.S. Turner. (Published in 1950. You could google up a used copy for yourself somewhere. Amazon hasn’t so much as heard of it, although other curious titles tempt. Past the age of 90, the man’s most recent publication was … four days ago.)

The book’s theme:

It is a salutary thing to look back at some of the reforms which have long been an accepted part of our life, and to examine the opposition, usually bitter and often bizarre, sometimes dishonest but all too often honest, which had to be countered by the restless advocates of ‘grandmotherly’ legislation.

There is some good observation on, and advice for, reformers. "It has been said that a wise reformer will first ask himself: ‘Am I the sort of person the country will listen to? Am I a bigot? Am I a crank?"

At any early age reformers become immune against cliches. They are constantly reminded that ‘to innovate is not to reform’. They are told by prelates and Press that it is idle to try to enforce morality by an Act of Parliament. They are assured that the conscience and innate decency of the British people form a better shield against abuses than legislation. They are prepared (as Dickens was) for the argument that the number of victims of some enormity is small in comparison with the number of victims of some greater enormity. (A Northern millowner could not understand why a Government which had destroyed an army by neglect in the Crimea should worry about a few careless workers being whirled round the shafting by their hair in the factories at home.)

Many of the chapters are quite good (some less so.) Child chimney sweeps. Spring guns. Daylight savings. Let’s skip skip to chapter 5, "Two Wives, One Mother-In-Law".

The drama begins in 1835 – before which year marriages with deceased wive’s sisters were not void, but voidable by legal action. Henceforth they were illegal in Great Britain. From 1841 to 1909 there were 35 failed attempts to fire through Parliament successive shafts from a whole quiver of deceased wife’s sister marriage bills. You can read about it here. (Lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe: "He shall prick that annual blister/ Marriage with deceased wife’s sister".)

From the Saturday Review, in 1876: an example of the "diseased craving for abnormal enlargements of personal liberty which is the seamy side of Liberalism."

From the Tory Quarterly Review, from 1849: “Even popular discussion of the subject … is an almost incalculable mischief. Thoughts which never would have occurred to the pure have been forced on the purest.”

Writes Turner:

It would take a man more than a year, reading the equivalent of a book a day, to toil through the vast morass of literature inspired by the theme of marrying a deceased wife’s sister. Among the more engaging titles are those of the earlier treatises; for instance, Charles Blount’s To HisFriend Torismond, to Justifie the Marrying of Two Sisters the One After the Other (1695), or John Quick’s A Serious Inquiry into the Weighty Case of Conscience Whether a Man May Lawfully Marry His Deceased Wife’s Sister (1703) …

But it was not until the nineteenth century that the books and pamphlets, the tracts and articles and ‘expostulatory letters’ really began to stream from the vicarages. In 1887, when Alfred Huth decided to compile his Bibliography of Books and Papers upon the Impediments to Marriage, he was able to list 300 publications on the deceased wife’s sister controversy and dozens of others on the personal problems of Henry VIII. In the succeeding twenty years pamphlets on the deceased wife’s sister continued to multiply. Many of them were by theologians and Hebrew scholars ; a number came from anonymous, apprehensive wives; and one or two came (allegedly) from deceased wife’s sister herself. Most of the titles were long and cumbrous, but now and again there was a ‘popular’ tract like: Her Sister – Shall I Marry Her? Swelling the output were facetious poems, ‘marriage law dialogues’ and occasional works of fiction.

The controversy swirls around Leviticus –  with eddies of yet more strained readings of Ephesians. It seethes, with letters of inquiry sent to all universities of Europe.

Matthew Arnold refused to be ‘manacles and hoodwinked’ on such foreign soil. It is absurd that ‘the delicate and apprehensive genius of the Indo-European race, the race which invented the Muses, and chivalry and the Madonna, is to find its last word on this question in the institutions of a Semitic people, whose wisest kind had 700 wives and 300 concubines.’ [I think that’s a quote from an Arnold biographer, not the man himself. Not sure.] Arnold himself:

But when once we have begun to recount the practical operations by which our Liberal friends work for the removal of definite evils, and in which if we do not join them they are apt to grow impatient with us, how can we pass over that very interesting operation of this kind, – the attempt to enable a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister?  This operation, too, like that for abating the feudal customs of succession in land, I have had the advantage of myself seeing and hearing my Liberal friends labour at.  I was lucky enough to be present when Mr. Chambers, I think, brought forward in the House of Commons his bill for enabling a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister, and I heard the speech which Mr. Chambers then made in support of his bill.  His first point was that God’s law, – the name he always gave to the Book of Leviticus, – did not really forbid a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister.  God’s law not forbidding it, the Liberal maxim that a man’s prime right and happiness is to do as he likes ought at once to come into force, and to annul any such check upon the assertion of personal liberty as the prohibition to marry one’s deceased wife’s sister.  A distinguished Liberal supporter of Mr. Chambers, in the debate which followed the introduction of the bill, produced a formula of much beauty and neatness for conveying in brief the Liberal notions on this head: "Liberty," said he, "is the law of human life."  And, therefore, the moment it is ascertained that God’s law, the Book of Leviticus, does not stop the way, man’s law, the law of liberty, asserts its right, and makes us free to marry our deceased wife’s sister.

And this exactly falls in with what Mr. Hepworth Dixon, who may almost be called the Colenso of love and marriage, – such a revolution does he make in our ideas on these matters, just as Dr. Colenso does in our ideas on religion, – tells us of the notions and proceedings of our kinsmen in America.  With that affinity of genius to the Hebrew genius which we have already noticed, and with the strong belief of our race that liberty is the law of human life, so far as a fixed, perfect, and paramount rule of conscience, the Bible, does not expressly control it, our American kinsmen go again, Mr. Hepworth Dixon tells us, to their Bible, the Mormons to the patriarchs and the Old Testament, Brother Noyes to St. Paul and the New, and having never before read anything else but their Bible, they now read their Bible over again, and make all manner of great discoveries there.  All these discoveries are favourable to liberty, and in this way is satisfied that double craving so characteristic of the Philistine, and so eminently exemplified in that crowned Philistine, Henry the Eighth, – the craving for forbidden fruit and the craving for legality.  Mr. Hepworth Dixon’s eloquent writings give currency, over here, to these important discoveries; so that now, as regards love and marriage, we seem to be entering, with all our sails spread, upon what Mr. Hepworth Dixon, its apostle and evangelist, calls a Gothic Revival, but what one of the many newspapers that so greatly admire Mr. Hepworth Dixon’s lithe and sinewy style and form their own style upon it, calls, by a yet bolder and more striking figure, "a great sexual insurrection of our Anglo-Teutonic race."  For this end we have to avert our eyes from everything Hellenic and fanciful, and to keep them steadily fixed upon the two cardinal points of the Bible and liberty.  And one of those practical operations in which the Liberal party engage, and in which we are summoned to join them, directs itself entirely, as we have seen, to these cardinal points,and may almost be regarded, perhaps, as a kind of first instalment or public and parliamentary pledge of the great sexual insurrection of our Anglo-Teutonic race.

Almost be called the Colenso of love and marriage? Who’s Colenso?

Some more from Quarterly Review, 1849:

Change the sister of a wife into a young marriagable stranger and the attentions which are now offered by the husband and received by the sister and witnessed by the wife with purity, with delicacy and with confidence, become insults alike to both females. The union which is daily seen in families will, where it now exists, be broken and will never hereafter be formed; the relation of brother-in-law and sister-in-law will cease to exist; the parties now described by those terms will henceforth be strangers to each other; and the reflected tenderness which now binds them to each other must be abandoned by both as a snare and a danger; while the wife will be deprived of the support and the comfort which she now derives from the presence of the sister of her youth as a companion in her own house.

On and on and on and on. "It was always possible to taunt the sponsors of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill with not daring, or not wanting, to try to legalize marriage with a deceased husband’s brother." This was felt to be a devastating slippery slope argument.

Studies are done. The Prince of Wales intervenes. The century turns. Last ditch defense by a thin white line of die-hard bishops. It is not until 1949 when the Marriage Act allows in the whole lot: marriage to deceased brother’s widow; husband’s brother; wife’s father’s sister; sister’s deceased son’s widow. "These liberties, which are not to be despised even though they may affect only one couple in a million, are among the more recent successes in the long, uphill campaign to lift harsh restraints on marriage; a campaign in which the first and most important bastion, the key to the entire defenses, was the right to marry a deceased wife’s sister."

I leave you to draw any improving morals with respect to Maggie Gallagher on SSM and – for good measure – Leon Kass on just about anything. (I think we should submit a ‘proof that P‘ on his behalf. If -P then ick; therefore P.) Last but not least, here’s a very moving tribute to the glories of progressivism and liberty.

{ 2 trackbacks } » Blog Archive » Relax the sphincter, mule
10.28.05 at 1:21 am
Crooked Timber » » got up with the sun (as ’tis called)
10.31.05 at 9:54 am



Jeremy Osner 10.24.05 at 12:51 pm

Hey nice try but John just posted about that Guiness ad…


Jeremy Osner 10.24.05 at 12:53 pm



David Margolies 10.24.05 at 1:12 pm

Lots of copies at the ABE website ( ABE is A[something — American??] Book Exchange. Search on ‘Roads to Ruin’ as title and Turner as author. Most are 1966 reprint by Penguin.

I own a copy of the “curious[ly] title[d]” ‘What the Butler Saw’. Good book. It really is about the servant problem. The USA is a bad influence: lots of dissatisfied servants emigrated.


Mrs Tilton 10.24.05 at 1:16 pm

Who’s Colenso?

An Englishman, a bishop in South Africa in Victorian times. That notwithstanding, on the side of the angels. By the standards of Victorian Anglicanism (indeed, by anybody’s standards at any time) a thoroughly decent man. Excommunicated, of course.


Andrew Brown 10.24.05 at 1:41 pm

Mrs Tilton, I believe I have detected you practising prelatry.

Colenso was indirectly responsible for the whole ghaslty edifice of world Anglicanism, since the first Lambeth Conference was summoned to condemn him. The _Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church_ makes patent his manifold sins.

bq. “In 1853 he was appointed the first bishop of the newly constituted see of Natal, where he soon became keenly interested in the native problem and provoked criticism from the orthodox by his leniency in not insisting on the divorce of the wives of polygamists on their baptism. In 1861 he issued a _Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans_ which by its denial of eternal punishment and rejection of much traditional sacramental theology aroused a storm of protest; still greater opposition was provoked by his papers on _The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua_ critically examined (in parts, 1862-79), challenging tha traditional authorship and historical accuracy of those books.”

The schism consequent on his deposition lasted until 1911, but it left a lasting liberal stamp on parts of the Anglican church in South Africa, which also does something to explain the emergence of Desmond Tutu.

[a former religious affairs correspondent writes]


Martin L. Martens 10.24.05 at 1:49 pm

Abebooks is definitely not “American” book exchange. It’s a Canadian company located in Victoria, BC. It stands for Advanced Book Exchange


talboito 10.24.05 at 1:49 pm

How closely does this argument strike me as reminicent of that between those great pioneers Shelbyville Manhattan and Jebediah Springfield.

Shelb.: I tell you, I won’t live in a town that robs men of the right to marry their cousins.

Jebediah: Well, then, we’ll form our own town. Who will come and live a life devoted to chastity, abstinence, and a flavorless mush I call rootmarm?


David Margolies 10.24.05 at 1:55 pm

M. Matens writes:

“Abebooks is definitely not “American” book exchange. It’s a Canadian company located in Victoria, BC. It stands for Advanced Book Exchange”

and a very good company it is too. I use it all the time, just do not know what the letters stand for.


Kieran Healy 10.24.05 at 2:08 pm

It’s a Canadian company located in Victoria, BC. It stands for Advanced Book Exchange”

So not “A Book, Eh?” then?


Keith 10.24.05 at 2:16 pm

Truly, there is a Simpson’s quote for every occasion.


Richard Bellamy 10.24.05 at 2:19 pm

Excuse me if my memory is wrong, but I had always understood from the Book of Ruth that if a husband died without producing an heir, the husband’s brother, or next closest relative, was LEGALLY REQUIRED to marry the widow, and the heir produced would “belong” to the first husband.

How could the “Deceased Husband’s Brother” law be the slippery slope, when that was already biblically mandated?

It seems directly comparable to SSM leading down a “slippery slope” to polygamy, as in the bible, polygamy isn’t really a bad thing.


C.J.Colucci 10.24.05 at 2:38 pm

I get very tired of the content-free Burkeans who, when you get right down to it, aren’t saying anything more than what we already know –that long-established institutions may have merits that do not appear on superficial rational examination and that we ought not to create social institutions from scratch with compass, straight-edge, and graph paper. The real world is a complex organism, not a machine. Prudence is all, and so forth.
How about we all call bullshit? It’s precisely because societies are organisms, not machines, that they can handle change. Run a spike through a tree and a transmission and see which continues to work. Everyone from St. Edmund on has, in the name of prudence, opposed a vast variety of developments (reform of the suffrage and the like) that we now see, and many saw at the time, had no tendency to bring about the predicted disasters. Next time Chicken Little predicts a falling sky, let’s check her track record — and maybe even look upward.


sara 10.24.05 at 3:07 pm

This post supports my belief that each of the major right-wing think tanks (such as AEI, the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, etc.) has a long, low, wooden-paneled room with faded Oriental carpeting on the floor and creaky green leather-covered chairs and sofas, and with tall shelves full of very old, very bad books. (I’m describing a certain reading room at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library where frosh always went to fall asleep.)

It’s the job of the interns to trawl through these books and mark what might be plausibly updated with the least amount of effort.

I’m holding out for Generation of Vipers, myself. Even Jonathan Yardley reviewed it for the WP and said that it was rot.


The42ndGuy 10.24.05 at 3:45 pm

Sara: I do love that image. One small quibble: These days, anyway, that reading room in Sterling contains all the comic books and travel guides. The carpeting and sofas may be the same, but the books in the Sterling original are clearly a vast improvement.


Grand Moff Texan 10.24.05 at 4:17 pm

“diseased craving for abnormal enlargements of personal liberty which is the seamy side of Liberalism.”

Considering what “seamy” still meant in 1876, I think the “abnormal enlargements” part hilariously funny. Surely this was a joke? “Liberalism’s engorged gland has encrusted it with semen! Stereoöpticon at eleven!”



togolosh 10.24.05 at 4:24 pm

diseased craving for abnormal enlargements of personal liberty which is the seamy side of Liberalism.

Perfect. This is exactly why I am a liberal. It’s the diseased craving, you see…


rea 10.24.05 at 6:30 pm

“How could the “Deceased Husband’s Brother” law be the slippery slope, when that was already biblically mandated?”

Possibly because a dispute over the alleged invalidity of such a marriage led to the fracture between the Church of England and Rome? (Hence the references to Henry VIII, whose first marriage was to his brother’s widow).


KCinDC 10.24.05 at 6:51 pm

GMT, I don’t want to spoil your fun, but are there any dictionaries that agree with your unusual etymology for “seamy”? The OED certainly has only the humdrum, straightforward story that the seamy side (of a garment, for example) is the one that has visible seams, and that the figurative sense originated with Shakespeare.


A Pedant 10.24.05 at 8:35 pm

Could the author of the original post, or someone else with administrative access, please correct “wif’es” and “teh” in the penultimate paragraph?

It’s like unto a spike driven into my brain.

I mean, Ow.

Thank you.


Henry 10.24.05 at 8:50 pm

We have three copies (which apparently survived the fire and flood) at the Los Angeles Public Library. Come browse.

And fellow pedant: you missed “baston,” not to mention “wifes.” You may be more of a tree than a transmission than you thought.


DonBoy 10.24.05 at 9:00 pm

In the early 1980s, in the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library, I noticed an old book called something like “Heroines of the Recent Struggle Over Women’s Suffrage”. It was from 1921. I opened it and began to scan. Much to my surprise, each chapter was in praise of a different anti-suffrage woman.


John Holbo 10.24.05 at 11:59 pm

Wow, lucky for pedant I didn’t title the post ‘Teh seamy side of liberalism’, like I originally contemplated.


Alex 10.25.05 at 4:56 am

That monster quote from Dr. Arnold’s second paragraph contains only seven sentences…no wonder it felt painful to read.


serial catowner 10.25.05 at 12:43 pm

Yes, but Generation of Vipers is quintessential rot- the very essence of rot- a book that dares, in floridly demented language, to denounce the very institution of motherhood.

What’s more, it comes from an author totally lacking in socially redeeming values, an author who has left nothing behind that might excuse even a fraction of his existence.

Like Mount Everest, it may be useless, but it definitely is there.


bordenl 10.26.05 at 10:37 pm

Levirate marriage, the deceased husband’s brother’s marrying his widow, was not even practiced in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, so it would be very iffy for Christianity. I put my head together with my husband, and we think that a Jewish man can marry his deceased wife’s sister, because the passage says “You shall not take a woman in addition to her sister, to make them rivals“. If the one woman is dead, how can they be rivals?


bordenl 10.26.05 at 10:39 pm

Rashi must have commented on this, but we don’t know what it was.


Tom 10.29.05 at 12:50 pm

I would have expected any change of the books in that room to have produced a conservative cause celebre — were not those books specified by a donor?

I read Paradise Lost in one of those chairs.

Comments on this entry are closed.