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The Secret Life

The other Victorians: A study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England

by Steven Marcus
Basic Books, 292 pp., $5.95

W.E. Gladstone was not only a shaper of Victorian England, but also one of its exemplary figures. This is to say that he was morally fearsome and a trifle draft. If there was one thing he enjoyed more than chopping down trees (his passion by day) it was accosting prostitutes by night, enticing them home for tea, money, and condescending Christian lectures, and sending them back into the streets, presumably to sin no more. It was an odd way for the great reform minister to tackle a social problem. But the problem, of course, looks from our own perspective like Gladstone’s as well as his society’s. We know from a famous essay by Freud that “rescuing” low women is a classic Oedipal compulsion. No wonder the gossip of Gladstone’s enemies and the scandalized pleas of his advisers failed to make him behave more prudently. How could these innocent Victorians—how could Gladstone himself—appreciate that he was really smudging the refurbishing unconscious images of his parents? (Even those felled trees begin to look familiar.)

There was no shortage of London prostitutes to play in Gladstone’s private drama. Some sources put the figure as high as 80,000. They were there not only because the Benthamite marketplace of Gladstone’s England left them with no alternative besides wage-slavery or starvation, but also because dehumanized sexual contact had a great appeal for the Victorians. The ruling culture that equated Podsnappery with virtue needed whores as badly as it needed the priggish Queen, and unlike previous cultures it also needed to erase them from consciousness. If well-bred gentlemen and ladies paid no heed to their conspicuous sisters “pissing almost in rows…in all the bye-streets of the Strand,” this was not callous inattention but part of a strained effort to maintain a lie about womankind. When a whole class acts this way it becomes haunted, not exactly by the suppressed truth, but by a nightmare based on a disproportionate awe of than truth. And when such a culture looks, as it must, for masturbatory adventures in the real world, it wants its objects to be impersonal, socially low, forgettable.

THE QUOTED PHRASE about rows of whores is from My Secret Life, an eleven-volume autobiography whose factual resources have been untapped until now; in fact, among those who have written about it, Steven Marcus claims to be the only one to have read it through. The anonymous author stalked the same streets as Gladstone, and in a passing footnote Marcus fancies that the two men could have met. These wealthy zealots would not have imagined that they were thinking along the same lines, but both were “inner-directed,” both were influenced by an ideal of purity, and probably acting on unconscious dictates. The difference is simply that the author of My Secret Life passed his adulthood not in service to Church and State but in questing for the perfect lay. With a show of democracy and even a certain statistical pedantry, he rated the many vaginas of his career by “friction, grip, and suction,” and he set down his findings in 4,200 pages which betray no trace of self-criticism. Gladstone, who was incapable of understanding any bawdy remark, would not have cared for My Secret Life, but he may have seen some of its heroines and shared the author’s morbid involvement with them.

The intent of The Other Victorians is not simply to incorporate the anonymous pornographer, and the more anonymous servant girls and prostitutes he exploited, into an account of the age. Like Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization, Marcus is asking how a culture’s dominant elements, scoundrels as well as statesmen, divide their consciousness along class lines and dehumanize the “others.” Being a Freudian. Marcus sees more clearly than Foucault that the repressed inevitably returns, that moral opposites begin to converge—that, for instance, Gladstone would have to be sex-obsessed and the author of My Secret Life would have to show a Puritanical streak, as in fact he does. Marcus is not interested either in moral debunking à la Lytton Strachey or in compiling “attitudes” and “ideas” in the manner of many intellectual historians. Rather, he is after a characteristic style of making reality manageable, a set of defenses. With nods toward Max Weber and Karl Mannheim as well as Marx and Freud, he sets out to say what is Victorian about the Victorian mind.

This ambition many surprise those who have heard that The Other Victorians is a survey of pornography. In part it is such a survey, drawn from the late Dr. Kinsey’s library at the Institute for Sex Research. But connoisseurs of “erotica” will learn to their irritation that Marcus takes a lugubriously disapproving view of their subject. Pornography, for Marcus, rests almost entirely on formula, plagiarism, and infantile fantasy; it is monotonously the same from one epoch to the next. Why then should he bother with it? I gather that the answer is threefold. First, and pornographer is bound to see himself as an exceptionally unprejudiced man, disabused of illusion and ideology. If the student of culture can show that an age’s unconscious assumptions were binding even upon a man who thought he had stripped himself down to organs and orifices, the demonstration is bound to be impressive. This is what Marcus does brilliantly with the author of My Secret Life: Second, though pornography in itself does not give reliable “data” about sex practices, the existence of a thriving and largely new pornographic industry in the mid-nineteenth century is an eloquent social fact. Like the boom in prostitution, it must point to circumstances in which aggressive sexual domination was “unthinkable”—i.e., relegated to a prosperous underworld. And most important, pornography defines an extreme sexualization of reality toward which other expressions of an embarrassed culture ought to tend. Marcus’s unenthusiastic summaries of pornographic works enable him to deduce an ideal pornographic vision. a “pornotopia.” by which to measure the reality-sense of Victorians who were trying not to be pornographic. Pornotopia is an impersonal world of instruments and positions, a secretly melancholy paradise whose promise is not achievement of gratification—for it is never achieved—but indefinite postponement of impotence. Marcus suspects that the fears governing pornotopia are largely identical with those of respectable Victorian society.

IF THIS SEEMS SUPERSUBTLE, Marcus offers a test ease. The commonsensical reader would not look for pornographic traits in the prose of a popular physician who wanted to enlighten his countrymen about their biological selves. A clergyman’s son, a high-minded reformer, liberal yet austere in Gladstone’s vein, Dr. William Acton was also one of the age’s chief authorities on sex. His influential book on prostitution is a model of straightforwardness and hygienic enlightment. Yet Marcus shows that Acton became a significantly different man when he addressed the middle and upper classes about their own sexuality. His widely sold book. The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, is a compendium of obsessions, denials, and displacements of an ominously sensed truth. Acton nowhere states that women possess genitals, much less functions and disorders of them. Sexuality is treated as a working-class and criminal phenomenon which should be kept quarantined if possible, and young men who have consorted with prostitutes (in other words, Acton’s male readers generally) need not think “that the marital duties they will have to undertake are beyond their exhausted strength, and from this reason dread and avoid marriage.,” You can snuff out any smouldering desire in your wife if you can just manage to keep her pregnant and suckling until she is half-dead.

This is interesting enough, but its importance for Marcus lies in the defensive thought-processes that are involved. Acton is too busy allaying anxieties to attend to logic or evidence. If retention of sperm leads to madness and death, so does expenditure of sperm; Acton’s contemporaries were worried about both ideas. If children are ignorant and asexual, it is also true that horrid temptations await them at every turn, so that their chance of surviving to maturity without becoming sex maniacs appears very slight. Such contradictions would not have been perceived as an intellectual defect; Acton’s readers surely appreciated his putting eleven fingers in the sexual dike. But the noxious stuff will find a way to come through even when every orifice has been crammed and sealed. By taking alarm at everything remotely connected with sex, Acton sexualizes everything. The result is nearly a mirror-image of pornotopia. In both visions moral will is overruled by implacable organs; both are mechanical, anti-psychological, dissociated; even their difference of mood is superficial, since in Marcus’s view the unending revels of pornography express by denial the anxieties that Action makes explicit. The reader who disagrees is left with some remarkable similarities to explain in his own terms.

I DON’T MEAN to exaggerate the degree to which Marcus’s argument makes all Victorians seem equally compulsive; he respects Acton’s work on prostitution and admires him for daring to wrestle publicly with the demon of middle-class sex. But inevitably The Other Victorians has an effect of downgrading the age’s favorite virtues of duty and self-control. It seems that will-power was directed less against misfortune than against consciousness, and the difficulties it fronted, though often real enough, were made lurid by repression. Once this point has been accepted—and Marcus’s analysis seems irresistible—one can no longer avoid seeing a cramped sexuality in the highest productions of Victorian culture. The novelist who writes of terrible chains of consequence and tragic struggles against temptation is not only thinking in Acton’s style, he is maintaining an oblique reference to Acton’s fears of sex.

Yet the Victorian novel had convictions as well as unconsciously charged conventions. If it could not bring into plain awareness the sexual tyranny that made pornography and prostitution so necessary, it did challenge the class tyranny that made those activities so profitably. Marcus shows this latter tyranny in dramatic operation through episodes from My Secret Life, whose social import consists in its being simultaneously pornography and an authentic record of how a wealthy gentleman was able to pass forty years among the poor. As Marcus says, “The prepotency of class goes hand in hand with the omnipotence of thought, and permits fantasy to be translated into behavior.” By juxtaposing excerpts from My Secret Life and remarkably parallel scenes from Dickens, Marcus shows that Dickens is euphemistically protesting a sexual feudalism that the memoirist spells out unrepentantly. It was the latter who was the more typical Victorian in “objectifying” all women beneath his station, yet Dickens expressed an emergent conscience that must also be counted as an aspect of the age. And Marcus seems relieved to arrive at an opportunity to praise a Victorian for correctly assessing a fragment of reality.

The Other Victorians is not reducible to a few propositions. When the case is briefly stated it looks familiar and even a little stale; we have already heard about the Victorian’s unconscious hypocrisy, the paradoxical effects of repression, and so on. In the reading, however, there is nothing stale about this book. Its merit lies not in its conclusions but in the process of demonstration. Marcus examines his texts at microscopic range and with the awareness of a first rate literary critic, a social and intellectual historian, and a psychoanalyst. Though he claims to have set preconceptions aside, in fact he has taken the social and psychological preconceptions of his excellent Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey and applied them with rigor and sensitivity. His success in bringing nuances to life is the best possible refutation of those historical positivists who imagine that one can understand the past by accumulating facts without the aid of theory of values.

AT THE SAME TIME, Marcus’s taste for theory becomes a handicap in certain passages of speculation. Secure as he is in drawing out the unconscious assumptions from quoted passages, he sometimes goes on to portentous and unsupported statements about the Death instinct in pornography or the waste of libido in modern civilization. This is not so much argument as piety toward views of Frend’s which are inessential to the methodology of the book. Even when he seems right, as in his idea that Victorian sexual notions were “a superstructure, to which the more resistant institutions of economic and social organizations function as a substructure.” his language reaches out for a level of abstraction that leaves his evidence too far below. Yet this is not a serious defect, only an irritant in a work of high and steady intelligence.

The Other Victorians deals with compulsions and prejudices so rooted that they started and shame our humanity. In this decade it has become modish to see the pornographic here as a liberated man, a new Descartes who requires nothing beyond the reality of his phallus. Without prudery, Marcus resists this idea; not does he listen to neo-religious advocates of better orgasms or of polymorphous perversity, as if these slogans offered an exit from the permanent realities of our nature. Instead he remains aware that intimacy between persons is the first casualty when obsessions is turned into a programmatic guide to conduct, and that pornography, with its dehumanization of sexual objects, only dramatizes the privacy and preoccupation that rule our mental life. And because he is thus able to perceive that people in one age were in much the same ironical fix as their more knowing descendents. Marcus has written a work of lively historical sympathy.

Letters

Gladstone’s Prostitutes October 6, 1966

Gladstone’s Prostitutes October 6, 1966

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