Victorian Sexuality and Prudery: Some Victorian Novels

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The following article follows a line that has become more popular in recent years. This suggests that the previous view, that Victorian’s were repressed regarding sexuality, and prudish to the point of hiding the legs of tables by long tablecloths, was at the least, exaggerated. It argues that in fact, sexuality was widely discussed in the UK – and by implication various other countries –of Victorian times.

Here is the link:

https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/victorian-sexualities.

It is an interesting article, but I find it odd that the writer insists that:

‘These stereotypes of high prudery were famously critiqued by Michel Foucault as the ‘repressive hypothesis’: the idea that the Victorians could not mention sex. Foucault pointed out that, far from being silenced, sex was spoken everywhere in the 19th century in a wide range of contexts including the law, medicine, religion, education. Much academic and popular work since has considered the many ways in which Victorians did experience and speak of desire. ‘

The author goes on to state that for instance, Queen Victoria made her desire for Prince Albert obvious in the following quote: –

‘ Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.’

Certainly, it is a commonplace that Queen Victoria was in love with her husband and no doubt enjoyed their physical relationship. But I think applying modern awareness to a nineteenth century girl’s admiration of a man’s appearance is hazardous. There will, of course, be a great deal of unconscious sexual desire in the admiration – but how far this is any way recognized consciously or whether an overt expression of desire is intended  is a completely different matter. It was all swept under the carpet as not to be mentioned in public.

No doubt many men did indeed write about sexuality – for a male readership.  The author of the article does acknowledge how great a role the indoctrination of women as ‘angel of the house’ and asexual played in their repression in the UK of the Victorian age. As always, of course, there would be individual exceptions.

The writings of the German born Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)  is the most outstanding example of an outspoken Victorian man – and the bawdy writing of the French novelist Ėmile Zola  -who perhaps was part of the reason why ‘French novels’ were synonymous with indecency  – another.

What was considered suitable reading material for a man was very different from what was  seen as suitable reading for females. The double standard, already well established regarding sexual morality, became applied to sexual knowledge itself by this era.

In ‘Pamela’ the priggish heroine is fully aware exactly what it is that her caddish master wishes to do to her. Descriptions of his frustrated attempts and his thrusting his hand in her bososm abound. This all changes in later novels.

And in the case of Freud, he did indeed write at length about sexual desire, but the reaction of horror and disgust of many of his contemporaries to his giving a prime place in the psyche to sexuality surely indicates how problematic writing about sexuality was, particularly that of women.

One only need read Victorian novels by, or for, woman, or written ‘for family entertainment’  to see this. I shall use as examples several I know well.

For instance,  Elizabeth Gaskell, writing in the mid rather than the  late Victorian era – the decades traditionally regarded as less prudish – got into all sorts of difficulties, precisely because of the sexual reticence which she brought to her writing.

This made it impossible for her to reveal in her novel ‘Ruth’ the exact circumstances of Ruth’s seduction at the hands of her admirer Mr Bellingham. We leave Ruth being urged by him to go away with him, and when we next meet them, they are openly living together outside wedlock on a prolonged visit to North Wales. Mrs Gaskell felt herself unable to write about what had happened in the interval. She indicates that Ruth in her innocence does not know that she is ‘living in sin’ until a remark repeated by a child reveals it to her.

‘Fancying’ together with  a heroine who is ‘no prude’ and courted by a physically appealing man and a far less attractive one are dealt with in her later historical novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ (1863), about which I just might have written before. It is assumed by various critics that Elizabeth Gaskell was depicting a heroine with a strong sexual urge, and that she found this less disturbing in a heroine who is an illiterate country girl at home with tending animals.

I think this is questionable. Just as ‘lovers’ had a different meaning in Victorian times,  meaning only ‘romantic admirers’ so, almost certainly, did ‘fancy’, which possibly meant only ‘romantic admiration and liking’.

Because of Elizabeth Gaskell’s reticence, as I have said in my article in ‘The F Word’ on this novel, it is impossible to distinguish if Sylvia is supposed to find her persistent admirer Hepburn physically unattractive or to be indifferent to him. It may even have been that the author saw the heroine as indifferent to the sexual act with all men, even her hero Charley Kinraid. She is shown as having a ‘virginal fierceness’.

Certainly, the handsomeness of the one, and the plainness of the other is emphasized; the modern reader is left with the impression that Sylvia is sexually frustrated in a marriage loveless on her side, but given that her age had imposed such reticence on the author, we cannot be certain of this.

George Elliot, whose writing Elizabeth Gaskell admired, but whose unmarried status she abhorred, was equally circumspect in ‘Adam Bede’.  She makes no  mention of how Hetty’s pregnancy has escaped the hero’s notice, and everyone else’s – as she is surely at least seven months pregnant when she runs  away from home, one would think her expanding girth was obvious by that time, tight lacing or not.

Dickens’ hero Charles Darnay and his heroine Lucie Manette in Dicken’s 1859 novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are depicted vividly as falling in love in opposite sides of the courtroom, when the former is on trial for treason against the British crown. No doubt the hero’s facing the possibility of being hanged, drawn and quartered adds fuel to their developing passion as Lucie is obliged to act as an unwilling witness for the prosecution.

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However, this pair unfortunately thereafter degenerate into a typical asexual Dicken’s couple. Their children are lay saints, possibly as a result. On their honeymoon Darnay is depicted – the sensualist! – as standing with his ‘hand on Lucie’s heart’. However, she is clearly unaroused by this corporal act. She calmly lectures him on  how he must be kind to the man who cynically saved his life in the treason trial – his double Sidney Carton.

I think it is difficult to find an age which considered it ‘indecent’ to mention a man’s trousers – seriously! – as anything but one which was dominated by prurience and a fair degree of hypocrisy.  At the end of the nineteenth century, we have the writer of romantic melodramas for the mass market, Charles Garvice, describing the  outfit of the anti hero of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ . He describes in detail the costermonger’s outfit he wears as a sign of rebellion – his ‘absurdly short coat’  ‘vulgar cap’ and ‘red kerchief’, even the pearl buttons  on his gaiters-  but makes – Good Heavens no! – no mention of his trousers, or should I say, his ‘unmentionables’.

The heroine agrees to marry the slippery baddy, appropriately named ‘Stannard Marshank’. She certainly spends a lot of time shuddering at the touch of his lips on her hand, etc, and ‘white faced’ at the thought of their coming marriage.  Whether this is meant to be moral horror at intimacy with another man than the one she loves, or physical repugnance, is hard to say.

And I can’t resist adding another couple of books. In ‘Mrs Humphrey Ward’s’  ‘Marcella’ the hero breaks off his engagement with the heroine when he learns that the heroine has (unwillingly) been kissed on the lips by another man.

Then, in ‘Dracula’, Mina Harker acknowledges that in walking down the street on her husband’s arm, she is actually breaking the rules of good conduct she taught as a mistress at a select boarding school for young ladies. This contrasts with the Regency age, when a woman was actually allowed to be ‘handed up into a carriage’ or ‘taken into dinner’ (rather as if she couldn’t move on her own voilition) by any man of her acquaintance. Promiscuity indeed…

The case of the seduced innocent seems to be an obvious case of the mistaken nature of the assumption that regarding sexual matters, it was easy for naïve Victorian women to ‘read between the lines’. We belong to an enlightened age. We know what authors are hinting at, and chaperones, too, in their veiled warnings of ‘man’s nature’ and hints at sin. We know the physical acts that lie behind  these veiled allusions . Sheltered Victorian women too often did not.

Even in a later age, women often did not associate admiring a man’s physical attractions with sexual feelings and their expression. Barbara Cartland was by her own admission so disgusted in the 1920’s  when the mystery of human procreation was rather belatedly explained to her, that she broke off her first engagement.

These few examples – and I could quote dozens more – make me think that the reputation Victorians had for a prurient sex obsession was fully deserved, if later exaggerated for humourous purposes.

In the next age, by contrast, the ‘elephant in the room’  became death, a topic about which the Victorians were extremely open. In fact, a Victorian novel without a death bed scene was hardly worth opening. The Victorian emphasis on death, which, in the absence of effective hygiene and medical treatment, could come at any time, even to the young and healthy, was seen in the twentieth century as morbid.

I don’t think that it was. I  personally would argue that they were right, to embrace its inevitability, and later ages are wrong to behave as if it is an indecent, ‘not quite nice’ topic.

But then I have been accused of being morbid myself, what with  my affection for walking in graveyards.

 

 

 

 

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