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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Character Development: Some Classic Best Sellers Without Much of It…

 

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No giant insect visible….

A couple of years ago, the latest thing in discussing novels online  or leaving reviews seemed to be a lot of talk about ‘character development’. I haven’t heard so much about it of late- maybe I haven’t been looking – but back then it seemed as if you couldn’t read a single review without that dreaded ‘character development’ coming into it , and no, it didn’t mean the hero’s chest and waist measurement.

Authors got paranoid about it. ‘Does my character develop enough’ was becoming the greatest fear. I saw reviews from that time where bestselling authors were slated because their characters didn’t undergo an obvious change by chapter two.

In a way, all this seems the more unfair, when one considers how many classical authors wholly neglected this aspect of writing.

Well, Kafka at least would have been all right regarding an early depiction of character development in his 1915 novel ‘ Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa undergoes a rather ‘life changing’ alteration in the first sentence. After that, though, he doesn’t seem to do a whole lot else except be ill treated and fed on rotten food for the rest of the novel.

Interestingly, and I’ve touched on this before – there are any number of classic books where the characters remain static. Dickens didn’t bother about it generally for his heroes and heroines. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay at the end are just the same as they were at the beginning, only a bit older.

With regard to the secondary characters, Sidney Carton the inert cynic, falls passionately in love with Lucie, and remains hopelessly in love with her for about ten years, and it is that which leads him to replace Charles Darnay as he awaits execution at the end, but that is about all the changing he does. He starts off a hopeless drunken loser and remains one. Does Dr Manette undergo any particular changes during the novel? Not so you’d notice; he gets addicted to making shoes in his long stint in gaol, so perhaps that counts a bit.

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There are exceptions in Dickens, to be fair. There are those characters who undergo a massive moral reformation, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or less dramatically, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’. Still, overall, good old character development wasn’t Dickens’ forte, and his sales were never seemingly affected by the lack of it. Maybe readers of the mid Victorian era didn’t like it very much. In fact, a good many of Dicken’s minor character characters, traditionally celebrated as ‘great characters’ are in fact stereotypes.

Of course, the whole issue of how far secondary characters are to be depicted as changing in a novel, and how much attention is to be devoted to this, and how much space is to be devoted to them anyway, is all highly debatable to this day. More on that in my next post.

P G Wodehouse- of course – made a fortune in writing about stereoptypes and static characters. We leave Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (does anyone know his first name? Does he know it himself?) exactly as they were when we met them. Bingham Little gets married, of course, to the romance writer Rosie M Banks, but that doesn’t seem to change his lifestyle much.

I was about twelve when I first read those, and I hoped that Bertie Wooster would end up getting married himself, but no such thing. In fact, in one story, one of his friends or relatives remarks that Jeeves will never allow that, and I never enjoyed the stories so much after that: it made Jeeves seem positively sinister. Perhaps he is a control freak? A Freudian study of that relationship might prove most rewarding.

I have to say, I never noticed any particular alterations in the characters of the heroines or the heroes of the couple of the 1950’s Mary Stewart novels I read, either. I personally don’t enjoy her writing, but she is highly regarded as the inventor of romantic suspense and a fine writer besides.  Still, it was a long time ago that I did read them, and I may have missed something.

Going back a good bit, there’s the question of how much character development there is in Jane Austen. Obviously, her most famous novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is centred about  a couple who do change throughout the course of the novel, and we know which qualities they are going to change from the title, but how about the other characters?
They are wholly believable, but they all – Mr and Mrs Bennett, Jane, Bingley, Lydia, Wickham, Mr Collins and so on, seem to leave the novel pretty much as they entered it.

They were well drawn and convincing at the beginning, and they are well drawn and convincing at the end, but they seem to remain static. Well, come to think of it, maybe Mary and Kitty do develop a bit. Mary is happier, because we learn that she is no longer mortified by being compared to her prettiest sisters, while Kitty, we read, becomes ‘less insipid’.

Quite often in love stories, in fact, all the transformation that seems to be required of a character is for him or her to transfer his or her love from one character to another – that would appear to be all the change that Edmund Bertram undergoes in ‘Mansfield Park’. The heroine Fanny Bertram does develop; she changes from a shy girl into a poised and efficient parson’s wife for Edmund, but she remains, I am sorry to say, priggish and humourless from beginning to end of the story.

Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, of course, does indeed have an alteration in character. I have often said that I found the subduing of her passionate and rebellious spirit one of the most depressing parts of Jane Austen’s writing.

To my shame, I must admit that I have only read two of Thackeray’s novels, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. He troubled about this modern bugbear of character development not at all. The villainous Barry Lyndon’s luck may change, but he remains the same faithless, fickle scoundrel at the end of his memoirs, save he is now living (attended by his mother, and in a good deal of comfort) in a debtor’s prison.

The same is nearly as true of another con-artist in classical literature, Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’. This enduringly successful novel has very little in the way of changing characters, a bit of moral repentance from secondary characters aside, and Becky is too villainous to go into any of that.

She is shown as becoming more conniving, it is true. At the beginning of the story she is openly rebellious. When the carriage she shares with Amelia Sedley leaves the boarding school where she has been employed as a drudge she shouts, ‘Vive Boneparte.’
At first, her lying and scheming is a bit blatant – she makes the mistake of claiming to love children to Amelia Sedley, and even the often undiscerning Amelia could not fail to see how much she had disliked the small girls at school. Within a chapter or so, however, she becomes a consummate hypocrite, and an arch manipulator, and stays that way from then on.

The character of Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband and for years her dupe and partner in crime, does have a moral reformation, apparently caused by fatherhood, though we are not given any access to his mental processes. His admiration for his sister-in-law Lady Jane appears to play a part in this.

He is even shown as feeling some shame about having cheated George Osborne out of his inheritance at gambling – when he meets the old Mr Sedley and he mentions him, Thackeray says Rawdon ‘flushes up red’ – and ‘blackleg’ (ie, card cheat in Regency slang) and Becky’s dupe though he has been, he is outraged when he learns that he is viewed as a ‘complacent husband’. He knocks down Lord Steyne when he finds him alone with Becky, and wishes to challange him to a duel, but he aging libertine sneaks out of it.

Amelia Sedley doesn’t change, but is of those characters whose love is transferred from one character to another. She ceases to worship the memory of the late George Osborne, apparently believing all Becky’s harsh words about him – and begins to worship the dull but worthy Dobbin, giant feet and all.

So, we may well envy those earlier writers for the easy time they had regarding depiction of character.

Still,now there is a wealth of online advice for authors about how to pursue character development on line. Here, for instance, are just two of many excellent articles.
here
and

here

That is actually by the Reader’s Digest – not the sort of publication I like to recommend – but it is very good.
here

Perhaps, if Fanny Burney had read these, she might have thought, ‘Hmm. It might be better if in my novel, there is just one person who doesn’t admire or envy Evelina…’

Maybe Charles Dickens might even have thought: ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make Charles Darnay a little more interesting…’