Dear God, the self-indulgent heterosexual, masculine arrogance that is evident on the nearly 500 pages of this book is enough to make me want to hurl it across the room. Instead, I finished it (while skimming entire sections as needed, I’m not here to punish myself) because while this book does contain interesting information and occasionally a look at some of the past three centuries’ literary output through the angle of the seduction narrative (thus the two stars I am awarding it) it unfortunately buckles under its own weight and its author’s inability to stick to the thesis. Knox continuously undercuts his points and inflates his page count by not adhering to his own narrative goal stated in the subtitle.
I found almost nothing but problems with this book.
Seduction: A History from the Enlightenment to the Present begins with a look at the narrative of seduction in 18th century English literature, but it quickly devolves to a handful of biographies of writers who had a hand in shaping the narrative, those whose work Knox would argue is linked to it, or those caught up in morality laws –already too broad a target. But even that is not the largest of the book’s sins: because at the end of the day, this really isn’t a book about seduction due to the author’s chasing of his own peccadillos and the incredible blind spots shown in the narrative.
The more subtle problem with the book was it seems Knox did not grasp the importance of the root cause of all the uproar surrounding seduction: children and paternity. In the chapters focusing on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley Knox acknowledges and then proceeds to talk around the real and lasting emotional and legal consequences of affairs that led to children out of wedlock. You only need to look to the chapter focusing on Mary Shelley to see the problems of Knox’s narrative. Dozens of pages are spent on the Shelley-Byron origin tale, including mind numbing pages on Byron’s traveling companion Polidori and his publication of The Vampyre (which has no real bearing on anything), but the important points in the chapter are an examining of Shelley’s Frankenstein through the lens of fathers abandoning bastard children and the story of Norton and her crusade for women’s rights including her decades of writing and work which culminated in going to court to argue that laws regarding divorce and children should be about morality and not just property. But neither woman fall comfortably within Knox’s definition of seduction, and therefore the chapter around them blossoms to include those that do which only serves to dilute the points which are important.
There’s also the issue of the overwhelming heterosexuality of the book. Seduction is inextricably linked to homophobia and sodomy laws but there is almost no mention of anything vaguely related to queer history in the book. Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, Lord Byron and Jack Johnson’s accusations of sodomy, and a passing description of Carmilla as sapphic are briefly mentioned, but there is no analysis of how they fall into the larger queer history in the context of seduction narratives. In a book so long, which attempts to cover so many other angles, and brings in so many other factors that impact the way seduction is understood – race, economics, nationality, age – it feels purposeful to leave out anything that does not qualify as heterosexual in a book so inextricably linked to sex and sexual relations.
The reading experience left me feeling the exact opposite that I did reading Halle Rubenhold’s The Five (a book which I was reminded of as Knox does not bother to unpack or contradict the idea that the women killed by Ripper were prostitutes). The Five is written in accessible language, inviting the reader in while Seduction features language that is unnecessarily “eloquent” and the use, and frankly misuse, of certain terminology meant to show the intelligence and education of the author instead muddies meaning – even for those who are familiar with it. In her book Rubenhold takes the large socioeconomical tides of the time and uses them to tell the story of the women, and in Seduction that doesn’t happen, we are no better informed about the larger society than at the beginning. Instead, we are left with the self-important writings of Knox, who has the possibility of doing real damage by purporting a narrative that leaves out entire swathes of the populace and doubles down on placing women in the position of victim only. I hope someday we get a version of this book written by a historian such as Rubenhold (Knox is a non-fiction buyer for Waterstones with advanced degrees in International Relations and Economics in addition to his undergraduate work in Modern History) or perhaps a literary scholar familiar with the Romance genre. Either of those lenses would be far better than this.