Diane Mason, The secret vice: masturbation in Victorian fiction and medical culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008. £50.00. ISBN 978-0-7190-7714-2. Vii+184pp.
Given that it is forty years, more or less, since popular works such as Stephen Marcus's The Other Victorians (1966) and Alex Comfort's The Anxiety Makers (1968) drew attention to the pervasiveness of the medical and popular discourses on masturbation in Victorian culture, it is somewhat surprising that relatively little attention has been paid to the impact of these discourses upon literary texts. There is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's notorious and curious article on 'Jane Austen and the masturbating girl', (Critical Enquiry, 17, 1991) which, however provocative, deploys evidence in an achronological fashion not likely to appeal to the social historian of sexuality (it seems wilfully perverse not to look at texts on female masturbation by British doctors of Austen's own period, which did exist). There is the possibly almost transparent and much cited case of the clammy-handed and shifty-gazed Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. But, given the attention that has been paid to the occluded currents of same-sex desire in nineteenth century texts, the solitary vice has been largely ignored.
This is indeed curious, because whereas same-sex desire was not to be named, even when it burst upon public attention in the form of scandals such as the prosecution of Boulton and Park, the Cleveland Street affair, and most famously, the trials of Oscar Wilde, discourses on male (at least) masturbation were omnipresent and practically inescapable. There were discussions in the medical press, there were sermons against impurity, there were pedagogical concerns to prevent 'beastly habits' among adolescent boys, and there was a huge and aggressive commercial quack sector, deploying a range of strategies to generate the fears that it fed off of the dangers of the solitary vice and its alleged outcome in 'spermatorrhoea', a pathological leakage of the vital male fluids. Indeed, as a vice, it may have been solitary (despite some evidence of group sessions) but hardly secret. Less the love that dared not speak its name than the practice they would not shut up about.
Scholars who have looked at the cultural impact of the discourses of masturbation seem weirdly mesmerised by the topic of female onanism. This certainly spoke to anxieties about female desire, especially if active rather than responsive to that of the male, but it is arguable that it was its exceptionality that rendered it startling. There was no industry around fears to do with female masturbation at all comparable to that focussing on the self-pleasuring male, and the medical, religious, and educational discourses were also largely about the physical effects of wasting vital bodily fluids and the moral effects of the failure of masculine self-discipline. This is an area which still requires yet further investigation and analysis, but masturbation in the female seems largely construed as something pathological, strongly associated with other forms of female deviancy such as prostitution, nymphomania, and lesbianism, and very likely attributable to physical genital abnormality. We need only consider the perhaps over-emphasised case of Isaac Baker-Brown and the disastrous (for him) consequences of his practice of clitoridectomy, to see that the Victorian medical profession (and society in general) did not want to go there, in all senses of the phrase.
Whereas in the case of men, the anxiety appears to have been that this could happen to any young man, that there was, perhaps, even a natural propensity of the male to fall into it . If the propriety of warning girls about 'bad habits' was always in doubt, with fears that warnings might put ideas into their heads, the likelihood of boys acquiring the habit either spontaneously or through the beguilements of 'corrupt companions' was considered so probable that the necessity of warnings from parents, teachers, clergymen and doctors was extensively urged.
Thus, although Mason provides persuasive readings for auto-erotic meanings in Dracula and Carmilla as well as analysing the overt presence of female masturbation in the pornographic novella 'Lady Pockingham, or They All Do It' (published in The Pearl), in all these instances it comes closely associated with other forms of female deviance, transgression, and excess, both in same-sex and cross-sex forms. It is also somewhat problematic that most of the texts on female masturbation that Mason cites in these analyses are of American origin. Works on sex by American health reformers, phrenologists, and social purity campaigners had considerable circulation in the UK, but they came from a very different context and cannot be read in any straightforward way as representative of British attitudes and beliefs.
However, it is certainly a very worthwhile project to examine the ways in which certain depictions of men in Victorian texts are heavily inflected by the discourses of masturbation. This can be one among several signifiers of sin and degeneracy: for example, in the case of Dorian Gray, a case could well be made that Wilde was evoking ideas associated with a range of degenerate behaviours and phenomena, including sexually-transmitted disease. The project of deliberately going against nature and transgressing conventional morals there and in Teleny involves multiple yet related perverse and addictive practices.
A particularly striking gender difference, which possibly Mason might have explored more fully, is that the onanistic women in the texts she discusses tend to be positioned as horribly seductive and perilously alluring (Carmilla is an actual vampire). The self-abusing male, however, is , except in Teleny and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, in which it forms part of the general phosphorescent glow of sinisterly attractive decadence - an unattractive figure, lacking as much in manly attractions as he does in manly self-control.
This is a significant pioneering study in a hitherto neglected area. It draws attention to a subject which, although like many other sexual phenomena, could not openly be named in Victorian fiction, had a powerful subtextual presence and traceable influences in imagery and rhetoric. It is to be hoped that this work will stimulate further research into the topic.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library, London