History of Sexuality Women's History Stella Browne Archives Books
Interwar Progressives Science Fiction and Fantasy Random Links of Interest
Victoriana Quirky Stuff
[Site Search]

This version October 1998

Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library, London

NB: Not to be quoted without the author's permission
Feedback welcomed

The temptation to construct historical actors as either 'just like us' or totally 'Other' is one to which historians of sexual behaviour and attitudes are perhaps peculiarly subject. It may be assumed that people have always behaved in much the same way, sexually, whatever the expressed codes of their society, or conversely that they were behaving in strange and bizarre ways which no-one today would contemplate, driven puppets of the sexual ideology of their time.

The Victorians exert a hypnotic fascination over historians of sexuality, comparable to that exerted by 'Woman' over nineteenth century investigators of sex. It may be because, as Lytton Strachey, author of the epoch-making Eminent Victorians suggested, we simply know too much about the Victorians ever to write their history, that they represent a challenge to the historian similar to that exercised by Mount Everest over the mountaineer. Victoria's subjects are exceedingly copiously documented, with vast troves of uninvestigated archives still awaiting the researcher, while of course post-modernist scholarship insists on interrogating their silences (not always listening first to what they were actually saying).

The fascination of the Victorians, however, may also have something to do with their peculiarly puzzle-picture quality of being strikingly both similar and different, depending on the angle of vision. As inhabitants of an industrialised capitalist society, rapidly urbanising and experiencing some of the same anxieties as ourselves about problems of the urban environment and life in a society undergoing rapid economic and social change, they can seem closer to us than any other historical subjects: and yet at others they seem entirely and confusing quite unlike ourselves. It is easy to cope with the difference from ourselves of the traditional 'South Sea Islander': the shock of the Victorians' differences may because they seem, in so many ways, so similar.

One is drawn to consider the persistence of a particular dualistic equation in which the Victorians tend to figure, which came into being almost immediately following the death of Victoria herself. This sets up the Victorians as not like us, the converse of we moderns, in a dynamic which does not seem to apply to quite such a remarkable extent to any other historical period. Michael Mason, in The Making of Victorian Sexuality (1994) suggests that there is a curious quality of hostility appertaining to the idea of the 'Victorian', mingling with the 'nostalgia, sense of affinity, and even admiration' with which we usually contemplate past epochs. What is particularly notable is that the Victorians seem to have performed this function for every generation since Victoria's actual death. The perception of the 'Victorian' since 1901 is itself an interesting historiographical theme but one which I do not have the time to elaborate here.

The still persisting rhetorical force of 'Victorian values' tells us that the concept of 'the Victorian' is still very far from outworn. Its place in this seesaw, however, has undergone alterations during the almost-century since the Widow of Windsor's death. In the earlier part of this century, 'Victorian' was a term to which free associations would be hypocritical, oppressive, old-fashioned, obfuscatory, religiose, pietistic, un-modern. Of recent years, however, there has been a harkening back to the assumed great days of the British Empire at its height, sustained by 'Victorian values' of self-reliance, free enterprise, moral severity: a rather naive vision which is readily contestable.

In this paper I will be considering some extremely persistent received ideas about Victorian sexuality, some recent historiography on the subject, and questions of dualism in the history of Victorian sexuality and more generally. Some of the received ideas may seem to a sophisticated audience aware of this recent historiography surely outworn and outdated: I can only say that as an archivist I am not infrequently approached for sources upon which to undertake research projects based on just such assumptions, and as a referee for learned journals have to critique articles whose arguments stand on such received ideas as on solid fact rather than on contested interpretative ground.

There is a volume in a series of lighthearted introductions to history for young people entitled The Vile Victorians. This has certainly been one of the most influential ways of thinking about the Victorians and sex, embodied in such titles of early studies in the history of Victorian sexuality as The Worm in the Bud. Hypocrisy has been assumed to be the key-note: the central image might be that of a Victorian patriarch who holds lengthy family prayers before breakfast, married relatively late in life a virginal bride with whom he has an infrequent and inhibited sex life and who now spends much of her time lying on a sofa exhausted by childbearing and the strain of marriage to such a man, flogs his sons to maintain discipline, keeps his daughters as useless and ignorant as possible, turns pregnant housemaids out of doors with no pay and no character, keeps a mistress in a discreet establishment, and probably also has sex with underage prostitutes. This image is in itself a conflation of many different kinds of Victorian: at the very least, not all Victorian middle-class males habitually resorted to prostitutes or kept mistresses, for economic reasons as well as concerns of morality or health.

A brief look at the lives of some of the most well-known Victorians both does and does not confirm, in each case, some of these clichés. William Gladstone is famed (apart of course from his extended tenure of political office) for his desire to rescue prostitutes and his habit of spending his evenings in the streets for this purpose; however, his life is copiously documented, and his activities the subject of considerable contemporary scrutiny, and there is no evidence that he ever, in fact, copulated with any of them or did anything but take tea with them and try to persuade them to forsake their sinful ways. It seems, nevertheless, that he felt a certain degree of sexual temptation, and his diaries record his practice of self-flagellation. One of the other notorious flagellants of Victorian England, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, was at the distant other end of any spectrum of respectability from Gladstone, making no attempt to conceal his extremely bohemian way of life. As one might suspect from Swinburne's flagrantly masochistic poetry, he was an habitué of a St John's Wood brothel specialising in birchings, and was worn out by the excesses of his way of life (he was also an alcoholic, though it is unclear whether he ever indulged in 'normal' sexual relations) when taken into the home of the minor writer Theodore Watts-Dunton to lead a drab afterlife of excessive moderation in suburban Putney.

Charles Dickens, however, was much more of a classic example of the hypocritical Victorian. While hymning the virtues of domesticity and family life, he himself was repelled by his wife's fecundity and increasing girth, compelled her to accept a separation, and took up with a young actress named Ellen Terman many years his junior, who was forced into a life of meticulous concealment after becoming his mistress, a tale brilliantly told in Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman. Although an actress, she seems to have been a well-conducted and respectable young woman, but living in a stratum of society in which the advantages of such an illicit menage made it an acceptable option. Dickens, one of the vociferous moralists of his time, led this life of concealed sin. With considerable irony, the woman who was regarded as one of the most distinguished moral voices in Victorian literature was a woman who openly lived a life many people defined as immoral. Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the name George Eliot, chose to unite her life with George Henry Lewes, a man already married but legally unable to divorce his wife since he had previously condoned her adultery. George Eliot also rejected religion, but her writings attest to an exalted vision of moral conduct.

The lives of individual Victorians were more complex, any biography is likely to reveal, than the received picture suggests. If few lived up to the high ideals of manly or womanly conduct advanced in prescriptive literature, in few cases do we see the kind of knowing hypocrisy which the popular image suggests. I shall now consider broader aspects of attitudes to sexuality in Victorian Britain.

Victorian prostitution still exerts the fascination for us that it exerted over its contemporaries, as does Victorian womanhood more generally. Discussions of Victorian sexuality and attitudes to women often assume that for the Victorians there were two clearly distinct kinds of women: the pure and chaste, and the unchaste fallen. Although there is considerable scope for research in this area--there has been remarkably little empirical investigation into the worlds of Victorian prostitution apart from the studies of particular localities in Judith Walkowitz's Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980), Frances Finnegan's Poverty and Prostitution (1979) and Linda Mahood's The Magdalenes (1990), which deals specifically with Scotland--it is possible even in the restricted state of knowledge which exists to argue that the situation was rather more complex than the frequently repeated stereotype allows.

Michael Mason in The Making of Victorian Sexuality has commented upon the tendency of Victorian social observers to exaggerate the number of prostitutes and amount of prostitution occurring in the rapidly expanding cities of the nineteenth century. Working-class women might be presumed by middle-class observers to be prostitutes, or at least well on the way to falling, through gross misreading of the behavioural codes of different social classes. The middle class ideology which was increasingly identifying respectable womanhood with the home and private life, tended to see women in the public realm as, if nothing else, falling away from this ideal--an ideal which took no account of the realities of life for working-class girls and women. In particular women frequenting places of public amusement were imagined to be there on business as prostitutes rather than for harmless recreation. Slightly ambiguous evidence for such attitudes may be found in a Home Office file which I came across in the Public Record Office London, concerning 'Annoyances on Clapham Common' (a suburb of London). The local Vigilance Association claimed in 1886 that the Common was infested with prostitutes and 'disgusting exhibitions of vice' took place nightly. The local police, however, asserted that the Common was frequented by respectable females and courting couples as well as prostitutes. While conceding that there were prostitutes, the police claimed that they conducted themselves in a discreet fashion, only soliciting men who seemed interested: this might, of course, have been a face-saving excuse for their lack of pro-active policing. But there does seem to have been an assumption by the protestors that women out in public after dark were up to no good and canoodling couples on park benches were vicious fornicators rather than respectable young people with nowhere else to go.

Quite apart from such misapprehensions, estimates of the total numbers of prostitutes by various observers often included women who were very dubiously definable as prostitutes, such as those having casual sexual relationships for their own pleasure as well as, or rather than, profit, and living in monogamous relationships without legal marriage. Bracebridge Hemyng in his contribution to Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor certainly lumped together under the heading of 'prostitute' any woman neither a chaste virgin nor able to produce marriage lines. The definition of the prostitute was, however, not as clearcut as this for most. One of the most famous of nineteenth century observers, William Acton, FRCS, mentioned the frequent route taken out of prostitution into respectable marriage. Walking the streets was often a brief phase through which girls passed, if they were lucky accumulating a little capital in order to set themselves up in business: an example of a young woman who quite deliberately took this course is mentioned in the diaries of A. J. Munby, the Victorian middleclass eccentric who was fascinated by lower class women but probably never slept with one, even Hannah Culwick, the maidservant whom he clandestinely married.

Something which illuminates a subtle apprehension of the meaning of prostitution and an awareness of the nuances of 'good' and 'bad' women in Victorian England, was the belief in what might be defined as the partial or retrievable fall. There was a quite widespread view that a single slip by a woman should not damn her to a career of vice and degradation. In some lower-class circles such a slip might hardly have impinged at all on a reputation for respectability or the possibility of subsequent marriage. The viewpoint had some support even in middle-class circles which might be supposed to have been more rigid in their attitudes, though it was certainly not uncontested: many argued for the necessity of a deterrent approach to sexual vice, to discourage others. However, numerous institutions existed which attempted to differentiate the woman who had fallen once, as the result of seduction or even rape, from women who made an habitual career of selling themselves.

Françoise Barret-Ducrocq's Love in the Time of Victoria (1991) draws on the extensive records of the Foundling Hospital, established in London in the mid-eighteenth century, which by the time of Victoria admitted illegitimate children aged under one year of women who could make a convincing case that they were respectable women who had made one slip, either seduced under promise of marriage, or who had been the victims of rape. Ginger Frost, in Promises Broken, her study of breach of promise actions, has revealed that women who had been seduced in what they supposed to be anticipation of marriage received a good deal of sympathy from judges and juries before whom such cases were tried. William Acton himself clearly differentiated the 'young-housemaid or pretty parlour-maid' who 'with shame or horror bears a child to the butler, or the policeman, or her master's son' from 'streetwalkers and professional prostitutes', and advocated the employment of these unfortunates as wetnurses to enable them to earn an honest living.

Even the professional prostitute was not necessarily spurned as wholly irredeemable. There was an extremely active movement aimed at rescuing prostitutes from their life of sin, even before the passage of the Contagious Diseases Acts during the 1860s stimulated a political campaign against the regulation of prostitution. Much of the moral impetus behind the prostitute rescue movement came from a sense that many were unwilling recruits forced into the life by the severity of society towards a first slip. However, the activities of the rescue movement were not directed exclusively towards the partially fallen. Work on this important area of Victorian philanthropic activity is still requisite, but Mason has suggested that there were at least 300 asylums for prostitutes by the end of nineteenth century (far more than there were lying-in hospitals), as well as more transient forms of assistance. Different institutions specialised in different areas of work--early preventive work among endangered girls and women, refuges for the once-fallen, penitentiaries for the more hardened sinners--and even discriminated between the more common kind of prostitute and those of higher social class.

Mahood, in The Magdalenes, has painted a grim picture of the penitentiary at Glasgow. However, her study deals largely with the situation in Scotland, where there was a persistent and powerful tradition of proactive civic policing strongly intertwined with the dour influence of Calvinist moralism. There is certainly a general difficulty in disentangling the prostitute rescue movement's rhetoric of kindliness and compassion to fallen sisters from what were sometimes conditions of some severity, meant to inculcate remorse and repentance, within the institutions as they were actually run, but we are looking at a set of paradoxes rather than distinct divisions.

Mason had indicated this hazy boundary between the protective and the punitive, and points out that rescuing and policing prostitutes were not the dichotomous operations they have been depicted as by various writers. Both activities were among a range of strategies pursued by individuals and organisations concerned about the 'Social Evil'. In fact the big gap in attitudes towards prostitution was probably not between those who proffered different solutions for what they perceived as a problem, but between those who did, in fact, see it as a difficult moral and social problem, and those who took what Mason has called the line of 'classic moralism' based on an acceptance of the Double Moral Standard as 'natural', assuming prostitution to be an ineradicable and necessary institution of society. This is an area of fascinating paradoxes which demands further explorations far more subtle than assumptions about the delineation of the prostitute as a stigmatised and outcast other. Mason, for example, registers the curious and paradoxical imbrication of the idea of sisterhood between female rescue workers and the fallen women they worked among, alongside the notion that the 'intelligent and pious ladies' of the rescue movement were morally immune to the vices with which they came into contact.

There are a number of curious inconsistences in the ways in which the Victorian legal system treated women in connection with sexual crimes. Studies of rape and sexual violence (and consultation of textbooks of forensic medicine) indicate that although rape was inscribed into the legal system as a heinous crime, convictions were remarkably few and there was a pervasive male paranoia about the prevalence of the false accusation. Class as much as gender, and the vague but to the Victorians clearly understood category of 'respectability', were significant elements in the outcome of trials for rape. 'Real' rape was an attack on a woman who could be defined as 'respectable', by a complete stranger of a lower social class, which left her with severe physical injuries besides the actual rape. 'Respectable' men who sexually harassed, molested or raped domestic servants or female employees seem to have been regarded as incapable of a crime defined as the act of a bestial, subhuman, underclass.

The very act of women testifying in court to something which had caused them to be robbed of 'virtue' apparently worked against defining them as respectable, unless they could prove overwhelming physical force used against them - and even then factors such as previous acquaintance with their assailant could affect their case. Yet, as Ginger Frost has shown, women seduced under promise of marriage were accorded considerable sympathy when they sued for breach of promise: she suggests that their values were shared by the householders on the jury, who had no hesitation in awarding damages against vile seducing cads who had exploited a decent woman's affections. Also, the men were being defined as cads, and made to pay, but they were not being criminalised or identified as subhuman beasts.

The other area in which a perhaps curious sympathy was extended to female transgressors was in the case of infanticide. When the newly born child of an unmarried woman who had given birth in secret died, during the Victorian period the mother was never convicted of the major crime of infanticide, but, if convicted at all, of the much less serious offence of concealment of pregnancy. This was partly due to the difficulty of establishing whether the death of the child was due to accident or design, but also to an acceptance by judges and lawyers that these women were in parlous economic and social circumstances which mitigated their crime. There were attempts by the medical profession to take a more serious line on infanticide, but nonetheless, when it took place in these particular circumstances (rather than in the context of baby-farming or within marriage) courts remained sympathetic. There is an interesting disjunction between the moral panic over infanticide of the 1860s and 70s, and what took place in the adjudication of individual cases.

This is perhaps a good point at which to move on more generally to a consideration of Victorian assumptions about womanhood. Some writers who have written about Victorian sexuality are fascinated, rather like the Victorian scientific male, by the Victorian woman. There is what sometimes seems an almost prurient interest in what was going on under those cumbersome crinolines. The fact that some women managed to discover and enjoy orgasmic sexual pleasure is taken, by a rather dubious process of generalisation, to mean that the Victorian woman in general was a right little raver (Peter Gay's Empire of the Senses is a particularly powerful example of this, but Michael Mason does sometimes seems to be going along the same road, especially in his first volume, The Making of Victorian Sexuality). While we can no longer rest smugly on stereotypes of the 'lie back and think of England' and 'ladies don't move' kind, it still behooves us to be cautious and critical of the evidence, and to be aware that women were operating within a system in which the beliefs and expectations of males about their own sexuality, as well as that of women, had a significant impact.

The evidence for the views of the Victorian male about the sexuality of the Victorian female (there is extremely little evidence about the opinions of the Victorian female herself on this subject) is conflicting and ambiguous in the extreme, and strongly inflected for class and ethnicity. But even when middle class men were thinking about the sexuality of middle-class women, opinions could be very varied. Women might be perceived as in possession of desires which could constitute a demanding and dangerous temptation, or as appropriately cold in the manner described by perhaps the most quoted authority, William Acton, who thought that respectable women were little troubled by sexual desire, happily for themselves and for society, submitting to their husbands for reasons of domestic harmony and desire for motherhood. There was also a ideal of mutual sexual delight and pleasure, though this cannot be read as uncomplicatedly 'pro-sensual', since it was hedged around with the necessity of formal marriage ties and even within them regulated and rationed, and this will be discussed further. There could also be an unthinking male assumption, of which the pseudonymous 'Walter', author of the pornographic classic My Secret Life, is probably the best example, that of course women had orgasms automatically through the kind of penetrative sex that was pleasurable for the male, registering no sense that this might be a problematic area. The antithesis to this complacent belief is perhaps the confession by an elderly man to Marie Stopes in 1920 that as a young husband around 1880 when his wife had an orgasm he 'was frightened and thought it was some sort of fit.'

A complex of entangled mid-Victorian meanings about female sexuality was revealed during the 1860s in the furore caused by Dr Isaac Baker Brown, who believed that many female maladies were caused by self-abuse. He advocated clitoridectomy to eradicate this evil and performed the operation at his London Surgical Home. There is, it cannot be too often reiterated, no satisfactory evidence that the practice of clitoridectomy was ever a routine prescription by Victorian medical men for 'female disorders' such as hysteria. In fact given the lack of attention paid to the clitoris in medical textbooks, one wonders if many doctors could reliably have located it, especially given the reluctance of doctors to deal with their patient's sexual problems which I have discussed in my own article 'The English have hot-water bottles'.

The protests within the profession about Baker Brown arose from a variety of objections to his practice, including a feeling that he was advertising himself and his Surgical Home in ways that were inappropriate, for example directly to lay audiences rather than seeking referrals from other doctors. The attitudes to women and female sexuality expressed during, for example, the meeting of the London Obstetrical Society which led to Baker Brown's expulsion, do not reveal any simple and monolithic set of beliefs among a group of men who have often been assumed to have been rigorously defining and policing the female body as an object of medical authority and intervention. It was regarded as a foul insult to British womanhood to argue, as Baker Brown did, that they practised self-abuse at all, at least in the numbers he claimed. Horror was also registered, however, at his performing of a 'mutilating operation' with serious consequences for future married life. Issues of informed consent were also at stake.

Victorian female sexuality needs to be thought about in the wider context of the place of sexuality in marriage and the life of the individual. Mason, who has done such sterling service in undermining persistent stereotypes about Victorian sexuality in his two important volumes, nonetheless sets up his own dualistic categories of pro- and anti-sensual tendencies. While he does register the contradictions which emerge in characterising certain individuals and schools of thought in this way, and indeed his assignment of certain groups to either camp runs usefully counter to many preconceptions, this seems me one more example of attempting to reduce complex phenomena to a simple binary picture.

There is one historiographical tendency which assumes that Victorians were having sex about as much as people today, even if they were saying such very different things about it. This can be a naive view, or it can be one of considerable conceptual sophistication which suggests differing perceptions of the private and the mentionable and the role of codes of discretion. Others have argued that in fact the Victorians were having sex less: again, this can be a naive assumption that what people say and what they do are entirely consistent, or rather more nuanced in its consideration of the influence of sexual discourse and indeed of practical constraints (such as the lack of effective contraception) on actual behaviour.

The assumption that if the Victorians were not having sex as often as we, in the late twentieth century, think healthy and desirable, they must have been sad, sick, repressed people is still sometimes expressed. Anyone who has read Simon Szreter's recent study Fertility, Class and Gender in Great Britain, 1860-1950, will be struck by the gloomy picture he paints of the sex life of the late nineteenth century middle-class household--in particular among the professional classes--which resulted in the noticeable decline of the population from 1870 onwards. He does not attribute this decline to the use of contraceptives alone but places considerable emphasis on the role of abstention from marital coitus in reducing family size. While abstinence for contraceptive purposes was probably more frequent than has sometimes been realised, Szreter rather conflates deliberate abstinence for this purpose with an ideology of marital continence, which, by making sex less frequent, would reduce the probability of conception but was not necessarily intended for this purpose. He assumes that couples were having sex less frequently because of anxieties about the economic burdens of too many children, that this was more driven by the male than is often assumed, and that (as his term 'attempted abstinence' suggests) there was a gap between the wish to abstain and its actual practice.

An assumption often made by late twentieth century writers is that the pleasure of sex is quantitative: i.e. that more must be better, and that the important element is the gratification of desire. I would suggest that we cannot readily define the Victorians as either pro or anti-sensual but that we can usefully think of them as differently sensual (and I am much indebted in formulating this notion to work by the American scholar Margaret Morganroth Gullette on the discourses of ageing and sexuality). In John Maynard's fascinating study of Victorian Discourses on Sexuality and Religion, his accounts of the Catholic convert poet Coventry Patmore and of the very anti-Catholic muscular Christian, social reformer and novelist Charles Kingsley are particularly provocative of thoughts along this line. Patmore is best known for his poem of courtship and early married life, The Angel in the House, but his later works adumbrate a mystical eroticism, in which sexuality provides a central metaphor for the religious experiences he describes. Sex seemed to Charles Kingsley also a God-given pleasure, if contained and expressed within Christian marriage, and his well-documented courtship was full of mutual anticipations of the fulfilled pleasures of the marriage bed.

Neither of these writers, however, was praising simple indulgence, but a sexual praxis in which periods of abstinence were central, and in which anticipation seems to have been at least as highly eroticised as eventual gratification. Patmore, indeed, Maynard suggests, placed enormous value on the state of desire, regarding it as the intensest experience of the sexual. There is, indeed, some rather curious evidence--which I discovered in correspondence between one of his descendants and Sir Julian Huxley--that Patmore practised a possibly unique form of masturbation without ejaculation providing the pleasures of arousal without those of satisfaction.

We might suppose Patmore's and Kingsley's sexual habits to have been generated through the potential conflict between powerful sexual urges and the dictates of their respective religions (and also by various elements of their personal lives which I do not have time to elaborate upon here). However, we find an ideology of abstinence as an essential element of the sexual life in a very unlikely place: in the works of the British pioneer sexologist, Havelock Ellis. While often seen as one of the earliest anti-Victorians, Ellis was also, and not only by chronological coincidence, very much a Victorian himself. In his vision of the ideal sexual life, periodical abstinence was essential, preventing pleasure from ever becoming stale or a banal routine. He did not believe that desire necessarily needed to be satisfied immediately it arose. This indeed was a theme much discussed in the late Victorian period, though some accounts have tended to concentrate rather misleadingly on proto-feminist debates on the subject.

Studies such as those of Sheila Jeffreys and Margaret Jackson have suggested that there was a feminist assertion of the rights of the wife to bodily autonomy within marriage, without relating these to a wider, two-sexed discourse of the virtues of continence. Lucy Bland has recently presented an interesting interpretation of the theories of 'psychic love' being advanced in proto-feminist circles during the 1890s. Jeffreys has interpreted these as protests against sexual slavery to men by replacing carnal conjugation with a spiritual union of hearts and minds. While immense importance was placed on women's physical inviolability, and absolute right to refuse unwanted advances, as well as to be the arbiter of when to bear children, Bland points out that this ideal of 'psychic love' did carry an implication of pleasure, even if the physical played second fiddle to the more mystical union of souls.

Bland further argues that one of the principal advocates of this theory was 'Ellis Ethelmer', a pseudonym for the radical Ben Elmy, possibly in collaboration with his wife, the veteran of women's rights struggles, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, but nonetheless a male. He was a supporter of the Malthusian League, the only British organisation advocating artificial birth control. 'Ethelmer's' language of ideal conjugality deployed concepts of 'temperance' and 'foresight' which were stock phrases in malthusian literature. It has been assumed that 'psychic love' and 'preventive checks' were antithetical but it is certainly arguable that they did not have to be and that the 'rational' use of forethoughtful prevention could be assimilated to the expression of 'pure and psychic love' on the physical plane and that contraception did not have to be (as some writers argued) merely an excuse for the unbridled expression of male lust.

In my own research on the letters received by the sex-guru Marie Stopes from 1918, I have found evidence for the ideas and experience of many couples whose marriages either dated from the Victorian era or had been profoundly influenced by Victorian sexual ideology. Many expressed deep idealism about the potential of the physical relationship within marriage, though often disappointed in practice. While there was strong opposition to the theory that sex should take place only when a child was desired, which might be at intervals of several years (suggesting that this must have been very widespread as an ideal) considerable qualms were expressed about the dangers of over-indulgence and excess. Prolonged abstinence, as opposed to temperate indulgence, was seen as deleterious to marital harmony. There are strong grounds for supposing that to the Victorians sex did not have to be either an uncomplicated (if sometimes necessary) evil or an unquestionably good thing, but that there was a way of thinking about sex as the place where the physical and the spiritual might, ideally, meet, given the right circumstances.

To begin to wind up my argument: when we look at the Victorians we may discern dichotomies and dualisms but are they the ones we expect? And are the ones which we perceive the divisions which the Victorians themselves would have thought to be obvious? Leonore Davidoff's The Best Circles is a thought-provoking study of the codes of etiquette of Victorian social life as social change was shaking old certainties and breaking up traditional networks. Davidoff points out that the codes of the upper classes were not simply exclusionary, meant to keep at bay anyone who was not 'quite-quite', but actually enabled a certain amount of boundary negotiation. Her book is immensely stimulating for thinking about how Victorian mores actually worked, the possibilities of both rigidity and fluidity which existed, very fruitful for a whole range of phenomena well beyond the social round of a relatively small elite she describes. The intricate hierarchies and gradations suggest other ways of thinking about questions of sex and gender, consistent with, for example, the classifications of Victorian anthropology. The Victorians were great classifiers but what strikes one is this intricacy and elaboration of their systems rather than the production of simple dichotomies.

Is there a desire to discover dualism? The Victorians do not only constitute one half of a dualistic them and us system, we like to read back such a simple and satisfying pattern into the complexities of history. It is a pattern which we should perhaps employ with caution, given its tendency to produce too simple a picture from complex and paradoxical evidence.

Is sex an area particularly productive of attempts at dualistic divisions? In my forthcoming essay on 'The Sexual Body' in Medicine in The Twentieth Century, I suggest that one story which emerges is that of thwarted but continuing attempts to create clearcut, either/or divisions: between men and women, between homosexual and heterosexual, between the good and the bad sexual body, between the biologically and the psychosocially determined. In fact in none of these cases is the line easy to draw and in all of them it is a frontier subject to constant violation.

As historians, therefore, we should be wary of our own tendencies to create binary classifications as well as making assumptions about those of our historical subjects: did, for example, the female Victorian worker in the prostitute rescue movement see the prostitute as a woman wholly alien from herself, or a sister who was she as she might have been? Or was the relationship much more complex than this? The Victorians for many reasons have had a peculiarly mirror-like quality for subsequent historians, and have been taken as either a reflection, or as a perverse reverse image, of the spectator. We should not be influenced by, as Oscar Wilde expressed it in the Preface to Dorian Gray, either 'the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass' or 'the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass'.

And, thinking of looking glasses and going through them, the answer to Lewis Carroll's conundrum as to whether, on the other side of the glass, Alice is dreaming the Red King or the Red King is dreaming Alice, is, of course, that they were both dreamt up by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician and clergyman writing as Lewis Carroll; i.e. either/or questions can be a sleight of hand distracting the observer. As I have mentioned in discussing prostitution, we may be imagining as embattled opponents groups which at least agreed that there was a problem, as against those who were indifferent or took an unthinking conventional line such as 'you can't change human nature' in order to justify the Double Moral Standard. Accounts of attempts by women to discuss questions of sexuality at the turn of the century have tended to classify them into two camps, 'social purity' and 'sex reform' feminists. Lucy Bland's recent Banishing the Beast (1995) presents a much more nuanced and complex picture, and my own research suggests that in spite of significant differences of approach, these two groups had a common enemy in the conventional and patriarchal assumptions of 'classic moralism' about male and female sexuality and the inevitability of a Double Moral Standard.

It may not be possible, but perhaps we should look at the Victorians, at the past generally, as far as we can not as at a mirror but as if through a window. Given the mass of evidence about them, it is tempting to use some simple organising principle to order it. Is dualism a human way of categorising phenomena based on deep biological patterning?--after all humanity comes in two sexes, and the human body is bilaterally symmetrical--and should we be cautious of this possibly biologically constructed pattern-making? Given the amount of material available about the Victorians, it is always possible to find an exception to binary classifications. Might I suggest, is it not possible that other less well-documented epochs were equally complex and contradictory, that dualism is a simplification which distance enables us to make?

Any Comments?

Top To History of Sexuality Home


Because this discussion was largely based on secondary literature, I did not give detailed citations to references in the text, but appended a list of the works to which I referred or which had a significant influence on this essay. This has now been expanded and brought up to date as a more general bibliography on sex and the Victorians.

I will be happy to provide further details to archival material cited on request.


To History of Sexuality

Condom Page The Clitoris The Great Scourge Sex, Victorians and Historians
Histsex List Useful links My own writings Research register Literary abortion
Recent recommended reading Reviews
The Great Scourge': Syphilis as a medical problem and moral metaphor, 1880-1916 My Victorian publications Victorian reviews and recommended reading Victorian psychiatry Victorian sex factoids

History of Sexuality Women's History Stella Browne Archives
Interwar Progressives Science Fiction and Fantasy Random Links of Interest
Victoriana Books Quirky Stuff


[Site Search]

© Lesley Hall
Last modified 17 March 2009