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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‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring: A Fascinating Depiction of an Opportunist Protagonist

I’m reading ‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring, published in 1940.

This is, of course, an epic story recounting the rise of the labour movement in the UK in the late nineteenth century until the 1930.s, and of the fate of one labour politician in particular; this is in some ways a dismally familiar story – an account of how a  firebrand socialist politician is incorporated  into the capitalist status quo he once opposed .

This depiction makes absorbing reading.  It’s an epic novel with ambitious scope, written with flashes forward and backwards –  grinding poverty, ambition, love and class conflict are vividly portrayed.

I started reading it as background reading for my planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.  I have been really drawn in. The writing style is uneven – some of it brilliant, other parts border on the sentimental, and some of the description is clumsily put – but overall, it is an impressive book and I shall certainly be reading more from this author.

I came across it when working in the libraries many years ago. Doing research for my own planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre, I remembered recently that the nickname, ‘Shawcross of Peterloo’ is given to the main character in the novel .

As a boy, he is literally handed a sword used on the crowd in that slaughter by ‘The Old Warrior’, his parents’  elderly lodger – his sweetheart was murdered that day.

That sword, standing as a symbol of support for the downtrodden, is a sort of leitmotif running through the story.

I gather the film – which I think I saw on television as a kid, but failed to understand– depicts Hamer Shawcross as a man who, coming from the dispossessed himself,  is a genuine firebrand who sells out.

The book is more complex. In it Hamer Shawcross is depicted as being disturbingly opportunist from the beginning; from childhood, using people comes easily to him. He is lucky, as his stepfather and his friend help build him a study bedroom – a thing unknown for a boy from his  background in the industrial Manchster at that time. He is always encouraged to study and broaden his mind.

His family cannot afford university for him, so he leaves school at fourteen to work for an older friend who runs a bookshop. With a single mindedness one can only admire he continues to study, including languages, and at the same time he works hard to develop an excellent physique.

He shows a less commendable singleness of purpose, when he leaves his widowed mother (who can’t afford to pay the rent to keep her home without him) to go travelling about the world for four years.

He returns, a charismatic man with an astounding capacity for making stirring speeches and sweeping people up in his enthusiasm.

While the reader cannot find this protagonist wholly sympathetic, what is interesting is that it is unclear whether or not he is fully unaware of his own lack of sincerity.

However, it is hard to say, for much of the time, we do not have access to Shawcrosses’ thoughts. We see only his acts, and we usually see him through the eyes of other people, ie, his humble widowed mother, then Ann, his besotted wife from a privileged background, and his Dull But Worthy friend Arnold Ryerson.

I have quoted before the late Elizabeth Gaskell critic, Graham Handley, on the issue of how intriguing it makes a character for the author to reveal only so much of the workings of his or her mind.  This is particularly the case where sh/e is in fact, shallow.

Graham Handley wrote this of Gaskell’s portrayal of the ‘romantic interest’ in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the Specksioneer turned navy captain Charley Kinraid.

I have written before of that character’s shameless opportunism, and the clever way in which the author makes an essentially stereotypical character mysterious, by revealing so little of his point of view. The rumours about his fickleness are never entirely confirmed or denied, but left as background hints that he is charming but unreliable, above all, a man who always has an eye on the main chance.

The depiction of Hamer Shawcross is a little like that; though his betrayals and changes in allegiance are more solidly depicted, he is mostly ‘seen from the outside’.

Interestingly, for all the occasional lapses into sentimentality in the tone of the novel,  there is no hearts and flowers happy ever after for Shawcross and his wife. Ann retains her ideals if she does continue to love her manipulative and increasingly successful life partner. He has promised to support female suffrage as an MP, but later equivocates.

By then middle aged, she becomes a suffragette, demonstrating and regularly being hauled off to gaol. There follow bitter years of conflict between them, though the bond between them is so strong that they cannot separate.

That struck me as being a realistic love story, as distinct from a romantic portrayal, and I find this impressive.

A manipulative, opportunist protagonist is always a fascinating concept. I haven’t gone much into how many modern ones there are; I can call to mind a few from classic novels.

What will happen to Hamer Shawcross I don’t know; I suspect – as it is a realistic novel – that he will gain success, but find it essentially hollow.

With regard to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my dissatisfaction with the undeserved glowing fate Elizabeth Gaskell allowed him. I have remarked on Kinraid’s shameless self serving attitude before. As chief harpooner on a whaler, he opposes the press gang to the point of shooting dead two of its members. When he is later impressed into the royal navy, he accepts a promotion to Captain, where he must, to get enough crew, routinely send out press gangs himself. Returning to Sylvia to find her tricked into marriage, though he has declared that ‘I’ll marry you or no-one’  he marries a pretty and doting heiress  within six months.

That is probably realistic, too. But for his emotional betrayal in forgetting Sylvia in weeks, I thought he ought to suffer at least to experience a sense of disillusionment in his new life.  This, I predict, a sense of the hollowness of success, will be the lot of the male lead of ‘Fame is the Spur.’

Intriguingly, the writer of ‘Fame is the Spur, though writing eighty years later than Elizabeth Gaskell and decades after Freud,  lays less emphasis on the sexual side of life in Shawcrosses’ career than might be expected.

While in the Victorian ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Charley Kinraid’s reputation as a philanderer is discussed by some sailors in an inn in  such a way as to disgust his listening rival Hepburn, little is said about any philandering on the part of Shawcross. One might almost expect so attractive and unscrupulous a man to  have worked as an unofficial gigolo, perhaps, but if he has, the author does not say. We are merely assured that he knew how to flatter women.

This is one of many novels which  I began to read merely for background information, only to find it really intriguing. I’ve ordered the film DVD, too.  The same was true of Mrs Linneus Banks 1873 novel, ‘The Mancheser Man’ , the robber novels ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ by Vulpius, the novella ‘Dubrovsky’ by Pushkin, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell and many more.