“avowedly a literary orgie:” A Contemporary Review of A Marriage Below Zero

The following is a review of A Marriage Below Zero published in Belford’s Magazine in June of 1889 upon the novel’s first publication. This review, among others, is featured in our new edition of A Marriage Below Zero, edited by Richard A. Kaye.

In producing this book the writer, who wisely conceals his identity under an evident pseudonym, has touched the very lowest stratum  of indecency. Not one word may be said in palliation of the work; it makes no pretense of teaching any lesson; it points no moral; it utters no warning. It is simply and avowedly a literary orgie, a saturnalia in which the most monstrous forms of human vice exhibit themselves shamelessly. No, the hideousness of sin was not here depicted for the purpose of reformation or cure. The author’s intention was to make a sensation. Lacking the talent to write a pure, honest, manly book, and aware of his inability to awaken the interest of the public by legitimate means, he resolved to startle it into attention through disgust and loathing. He chose the vilest of themes, a vice which upright men wish to disbelieve in and all men with healthy minds shudder at, and upon it built a dull and disagreeable story. It is a case of pure vanity, a morbid craving for notice and a determination to be talked about at all hazards, not different, though a thousand times more reprehensible from the motive which causes a Frenchman to throw himself from the Vendome column in order to get his name in the papers.

Fortunately, the majority of persons, masculine and feminine, who may read this book will not comprehend its meaning, and to such it will appear only intensely stupid andobscure. There are some deformities with which art cannot deal, and some social possibilities which are beyond the province of fiction and belong only to the surgeon’s table and the dissecting knife. In human nature there is a capability of moral hideousness which the most worldly-wise cannot reflect upon without a shudder. But these forms of disease, for they are nothing more, are infrequently manifested, and the writer of fiction who drags them into the light of day and descants upon their monstrosities deserves the severest and most unqualified reprobation.

The erotic in fiction has at least the poor excuse that it is the dark side of an instinct which in proper development is one of the beautiful things of life. But in “A Marriage Below Zero” there is nothing erotic, nothing so decent or dignified as the most unlicensed passion. Perverted animalism of an unnamable sort forms its plot and incident. The story is supposed to be told by a  innocent young woman who, however, in the course of it shows herself to be far more knowing than most men. We conclude as we began by saying there is not one good or worthy point, not one excuse for existence, not a touch of true, pure, or honorable feeling in the whole of this scandalous offspring of a morbid imagination, and we believe that it will speedily sink into the oblivion it so richly merits.

Posted on November 14, 2017