The Worm in the Bud
The Empress Brown
Ermyntrude and Esmeralda
Some years ago a book was published in England depicting famous entertainments over the centuries, such as that given by the Duchess of Richmond three nights before Waterloo. The book was called Memorable Balls. It is a pity that this title has been pre-empted, for it would do admirably for Ronald Pearsall’s book on sex in the Victorian age.
Whatever else it fails to achieve, this book certainly covers the subject. It is an achievement to have brought together so many of the threads which ought to be used in a study of this sort. With a passing glance at royalty and at the well-known liaisons among the aristocracy, such as that between Lord Hartington and the Duchess of Manchester, Pearsall dredges up from the provincial press and advertisements in magazines a lot of curious evidence about courtship, marriage, and adulterous unions in the middle and lower classes, and examines how the beliefs current about menstruation, birth control, and venereal disease were affected by the image of woman, i.e., the ideal type, created by the moralists of the age. He then plunges into the whirlpools of prostitution, perversion, and pornography.
The book is light-hearted; and in writing about sex it is better to be light-hearted than portentous. But despite giving the reader many fascinating leads, the book is short on general ideas. Pearsall brings many things to light but fails to illuminate them. Too much of this book is taken up with retelling famous scandals, painting penportraits of famous courtesans, and sketching celebrated trials and criminal cases with a bit of Mayhew’s life of the laboring poor thrown in. Every age has its prostitutes and perversions, and depressingly familiar they are: what makes them interesting is the particular emphasis which society at that time places upon them; their relation to the kinship, moral, and economic structure of that society; and their relation to the sexuality of other ages. Perhaps Pearsall’s vigorous initiative will stimulate Peter Cominos and other scholars who work on the subject to publish some of their findings.
If anyone had asked an intelligent broad-minded member of the mid-Victorian clerisy what was the greatest achievement for which future generations would revere his own age, it is doubtful whether he would have cited humanitarianism, or thrift, or the triumphs of industrialism. He would not probably have staked out a claim for godliness since the church parties were so bitterly sectarian. More likely he would have replied that nothing had changed society more than the reform of sexual morals and the serious condemnation of what Matthew Arnold called Lubricity. If it was then unkindly pointed out that there were at least 80,000 street-walkers in London; that child prostitution flourished; that in the Prince of Wales’s set a hostess was expected to know how to arrange the guests’ bedrooms during a country-house visit so that lovers were not obliged to go for embarrassingly long walks through the passages in search of their inamorata’s chamber …