The Victorian Sex Wars

The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud Vol. 1: Education of the Senses

by Peter Gay
Oxford University Press, 534 pp., $25.00

Historically,” Karl Marx once wrote, “the bourgeoisie has played a most important part.” Indeed, there was a period in historical writing, roughly coincidental with the first half of the twentieth century, when it seemed to play virtually the only part, credited as it often was with most of the major developments in the making of the modern world: from the growth of towns, the decline of feudalism, and the waning of the Middle Ages, via the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution, the consolidation of absolutist states, the English civil war and the Enlightenment, the Industrial, the American, and the French Revolutions, to 1848, the new imperialism and the growth of bad taste, and beyond. No wonder the middle classes were the ever-rising soufflé of history; they had a great deal to be rising about. Having traveled hopefully and arrived punctually at some crucial time and place in the unfolding historical drama, they did what they were supposed to do, and then moved onward to the next engagement. Whenever history needed a helping hand, the middle classes were always there, ready, willing, and able to provide it.

Today it all looks rather different. Whatever the middle classes were doing in the past, there is a widespread belief that they are no longer rising now, and since their contemporary circumstances give increased cause for anxiety, so the easy certainties and confident generalizations made about their trajectory and their accomplishments in previous centuries have in turn been eroded and undermined. After two decades of intense and skeptical scholarship, it is no longer fashionable to believe that all historical change must be explained by the movements of social classes, and the middle class of Marx has been the most significant casualty of this shift in historical thinking. Figures once eagerly recruited into the burgeoning bourgeois fold, all the way from Queen Elizabeth I to Queen Victoria, are now more usefully and realistically placed in other categories. At best, many historians now maintain that the middle classes may indeed have risen, but they never really got to the top. And at worst, the once-triumphant bourgeoisie has been relegated into an inert, residual category: the history of the people with the patricians and the plebs left out, and everyone else left in. What was once the motor of historical change has now become the trash can of historical taxonomy.

For the nineteenth century, Marx’s century, the picture of a triumphant bourgeoisie was painted first and challenged last. But even here, the safe citadel of middle-class supremacy has been undermined from without and eroded from within by recent scholarship. For Britain and Germany in particular, and more speculatively for Europe as a whole, it has become increasingly fashionable to argue that, however hopefully the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie was traveling, it never actually arrived. Internally divided, and insufficiently self-conscious, it failed to achieve economic preeminence as a class, social dominance as a status group, or supreme power as a political movement. A petty clerk like Mr. Pooter and a bloated financier like Augustus Melmotte might both share the designation “bourgeois,” but as the qualifications “petite” and “haute” implied, they shared very little else. Capitalist did not equal bourgeois, because the former antedated the latter; nor did entrepreneur, because many middle-class men were not in business but in the professions or government service. As Peter Gay candidly (if coyly) observes at the outset of his fascinating book, there was no such thing as a typical bourgeois: the unscrupulous entrepreneur, the ingenious engineer, the timid grocer, and the pedantic bureaucrat could all be sheltered beneath the very umbrella that was itself a misleading symbol of a spuriously uniform bourgeois culture.

Such candor is an agreeable, if not altogether auspicious, way for Peter Gay to begin what promises to be one of the major historical enterprises of the decade, a five-volume history of the nineteenth-century bourgeois cultural experience. Not surprisingly, after offering these important introductory disclaimers, he adroitly sidesteps such contentious and unpromising topics as class formation, economic characteristics, and political accomplishments. For the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie that Gay seeks to put back at the center of modern history is not that of Marx, but of Freud. Drawing extensively on private diaries and family correspondence, medical texts and household manuals, religious tracts and works of art, from Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, he aims to investigate the part played by sexuality, aggression, and conflict in the middle-class experience from the early nineteenth century to the First World War.

In this particular book sexuality is at the center (with love, we are told, to follow in the second volume). Here Gay is concerned with the middle classes as dreamers rather than as doers, in bedroom and bathroom rather than in boardroom or bourse. Boldly going where (almost) no historian has gone before, he takes us on a voyage of erotic exploration, into the private world, private lives, and private parts of the nineteenth century’s most private class.

The result is a book that should offend conservative historians. Those who condemn fashionable or faddish scholarship, who regard psychohistory as megabunk, will find much to accelerate their pulse rates here. As if to forestall such criticisms, Gay argues that this is not so much a work of psychohistory as of history informed by psychoanalysis. But this is a fine and improbable distinction: a work that seeks to explore the inaccessible domains of the nineteenth-century unconscious, and the inner recesses of bourgeois erotic fantasy, is surely psychohistory if it is anything. And it is undeniably couched in the language of the couch: “her transfigured incestuous investment had extensive cultural reverberations,” etc., etc. Beyond doubt, Gay lays bare not only the mind, but also the body of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie as never before. This is not just a history of mentalité but of sensualité as well. In more than four hundred closely packed pages, Gay takes us on a breathless, steamy tour of castration complexes, Oedipal traumas, penis envy, and wet dreams, not forgetting such allied matters as erections and excrement, ovaries and orgasms, masturbation and menstruation, prostitutes and pornography.

The serious and scholarly purpose of this book is to investigate how the Victorians—mainly English and American—went about discovering sexuality for themselves, what they knew about it and what they repressed, and how outside pressures and experiences impinged upon their erotic lives. More polemically, the book is conceived as a weighty and explicit corrective to the popular and tenacious misconceptions concerning Victorian sexuality—the “dominant, derisive, little-challenged perceptions” that have prevailed for so long. One of these is the belief that middle-class Victorian men were devious and insensitive hypocrites, who presented to the world the image of good family men, but who in private satisfied their lusts by keeping mistresses, frequenting brothels, or molesting children. Another is that middle-class Victorian wives were competent housekeepers, doting mothers, and erotic disasters who preferred saucepans to sex, and poured all their love and warmth into housekeeping and child rearing. Terrified, ignorant, and unsuspecting, they were reputedly given the advice on their wedding night to “Grit your teeth and think of England.”

Gay accepts none of this. “The nineteenth-century middle-class wife who pours all her affection into her children and denies her husband all sexual warmth,” is, he insists, “largely a myth” derived not from the experiences of women themselves, but from the writings of a few moralists, like Dr. William Action, whose books misled many nineteenth-century readers and many twentieth-century historians. Gay, by contrast, begins with a fascinating case study, based on the late-nineteenth-century diary of Mabel Loomis Todd, who not only had a good time in bed with her husband, but also conducted (with his active connivance) an ecstatic affair for over a decade with Austin Dickinson, the treasurer of Amherst College and brother of Emily Dickinson. Nor was she alone among bourgeois women in her enjoyment of sex. Another half-dozen cases yield similar conclusions, and these are more widely corroborated by material drawn from some late-nineteenth-century surveys of female sexuality, Kinsey Reports before Kinsey.

To Gay, the conclusion seems clear: a high proportion of middle-class women enjoyed sex, took pleasure in marital sexuality, and regarded it as a healthy and wholesome pursuit. That works of nineteenth-century literature argued to the contrary merely shows the wide gap that can separate experience and expression. And of course, Gay argues, it was Freud who bridged it, by formulating the view that women were sexually as alive and passionate as men.

Viewed in this light, male blustering about nineteenth-century sex can, according to Gay, be seen at last for what it really was: not a description of female frigidity, but a symptom of male anxiety about sex and male fear of women. Throughout history, women have been depicted by men as evil, powerful, mysterious temptresses, all the way from Eve in the Garden of Eden to Alexis in the episodes of “Dynasty.” Men never recover from their early and total dependence on their mothers, or from their fear of castration by voracious vaginas. Woman as vampire, man as victim is a well-known stereotype, which was given added force in the nineteenth century as women made real and successful attempts to improve their sexual and secular circumstances by divorce-law reform, the campaign for the vote, the expansion of jobs, and the extension of educational opportunities.

In bed and out of it, Gay concludes, nineteenth-century women were a threat, and in this war of the sexes, the man had to retaliate. One riposte was to try to keep them out of higher education, ostensibly because the tensions of menstruation meant that they were not up to the physical and mental demands of university life, but in reality in the hope of keeping them in their “proper” calling, in the home. Another was to deny women any erotic desires, which effectively meant that the man was good enough in bed however well or badly he performed. In view of these reactions, the contemporary literature that claimed that women did not enjoy sex can be seen for what it really was: not as a description of women’s experience, but as a buttress for threatened male egos. In bed or out of it, the man must be kept on top.

Having looked at the unconscious as an influence on middle-class sexual conduct and sexual politics, Gay turns, in the middle section of his book, to consider how the pressures of the real world liberated or limited sexual practices and attitudes. Pregnancy, for example, was an ordeal and a danger for middle-class mothers throughout the nineteenth century. Despite all the cant about the need to fulfill women’s maternal urges, childbirth was always painful and often fatal, to the mother, the child, or both, and this necessarily detracted from the pleasures of sex, as that instrument of life could become an instrument of death. For much of the nineteenth century, too, the deaths of young children were commonplace in middle-class families: biology was destiny, to be accepted with submission and resignation. Only in its closing decades did the improvement in contraceptive methods bring some sense of mastery over the natural world, as the age of control superseded the age of conscience. But even this was an ambiguous gift, and Gay finds its impact on bourgeois sexuality hard to assess. In some ways, it diminished middle-class freedom, as sex became more self-conscious and guilt-ridden. But in others, it enabled middle-class couples to avoid biology’s most stringent decrees while enjoying its most delicious gifts.

As all this implies, the Victorian bourgeoisie’s attitude toward sex was a curious amalgam of awareness and ignorance. They actually had a great deal of carnal knowledge; but at the same time, there was much they did not know and did not choose to know. There were intimations of immorality to be found everywhere in the Victorian world which it was impossible to ignore. Gay cites lurid newspaper accounts of crimes and deaths, government reports on working-class life, Mrs. Beeton on blood and bones, free trade in pornography, smutty schoolboy jokes, and ubiquitous nude paintings and statuary. All these meant that it was unlikely that anyone would grow up in Victorian England completely ignorant of bodies or sex. Yet there coexisted with this a remarkable amount of ignorance, some of it unavoidable, much of it deliberate. Gay notes ridiculous euphemisms, evasions and circumlocutions like “the love that dare not speak its name” (homosexuality), “an interesting condition” (pregnancy), and “the birds and the bees” (the facts of life). And at a time of unprecedented progress in science and medicine, many doctors, teachers, and clergy mounted sustained and censorious campaigns against the evils of excessive sexual indulgence and masturbation, for which there was absolutely no medical support. In many ways, the bourgeoisie suppressed very well, better than it knew. As Gay puts it, “road maps to orgasm were hard to come by in the bourgeois century.”

What does all this add up to? Nineteenth-century bourgeois attitudes, Gay argues, were formed toward sexuality by the interplay of the public domain of discussion and the sheltered sphere of personal life. In public, there was indeed much reticence and circumlocution, just as in private there was much sexual pleasure and satisfaction. But this does not make the Victorians self-conscious hypocrites, saying one thing (that sex was bad for your health) and doing the other (enjoying it even so). On the contrary, Gay suggests that the “fortifications of the self” which the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie constructed were not to deny sensuality, but to provide a haven, a shelter, where sexuality might be enjoyed and where modern romantic love could flower. For the Victorians, sex was to be between consenting adults in private. Repression, reticence, reserve, and “hypocrisy” were the means whereby space was created for the bourgeoisie to live out their private, sensual lives. The middle classes cultivated their passions, like their gardens, behind high walls.

As Gay generously acknowledges, much of this argument, especially as it concerns the sexual potentialities and performances of middle-class Victorian women, has been made before, and it is a pity that he seems more concerned to traverse this old ground than to open up new territory. Much space, for example, is lavished on analyzing women’s sexuality; but the erotic lives and needs of men receive rather less attention. If, as Gay implies, the majority of middle-class men were either insecure or tender, or both, then who actually read the pornography or visited the prostitutes, both of which were such an all-pervasive part of the Victorian world? Nor are the chronological divisions as finely drawn or convincingly explained as they might be. We are told that there is a fundamental change in bourgeois attitudes during the second half of the nineteenth century. But since most of the material is called from this later phase, it is rather difficult to see how things differed earlier, or how they changed thereafter. Nor is it clear how a bourgeois attitude came into being in the first place, or how or when middle-class women lost the ground (what ground?) that Gay claims they were trying to regain since the 1870s. And there is a sense in which this all appears as a teleological tale, showing that the history of the bourgeoisie leads inexorably to Freud and the women’s movement. Perhaps it does; perhaps it should. But it all seems a little too neat for comfort. In writing about sex, it is probably better to be Whiggish than priggish; but it is arguably best to be neither.

Although this book is as fine an example of the psychohistory of a social group as I have read, this does not mean that it has avoided the pitfalls necessarily associated with the form. As Gay sensibly admits, “the reticence of the bourgeois century raises intractable questions about its erotic life,” which cannot convincingly be answered by perusing the pages of a handful of erotic diaries. They may be the best evidence available; but they are really not good enough. They are a bewildering amalgam of fantasy and candor, pride and shame, embarrassment and self-advertisement, which defy all attempts at rigorous historical analysis and make it impossible to transform what are essentially Freudian case histories of the dead into Weberian ideal types.

How typical of her time, for example, was Mabel Loomis Todd? We do not know; nor does Professor Gay. On one occasion he tells us that she was “in most respects wholly at home in the nineteenth-century middle class.” But elsewhere he is less sure: “I am not suggesting,” he later remarks, “that her erotic experience was in any way commonplace.” The most measured conclusion that can be reached is that, in the light of the evidence deployed here, it is now impossible to maintain that all Victorian middle-class women were “erotic disasters.” But it cannot be argued instead (and Gay does not try to do so) that all nineteenth-century bourgeois women were sexually passionate and fulfilled beings, happily cloistered with their husbands in some suburban love nest. All that can safely be hazarded by way of generalization is that no generalization is possible.

The real problem, as Gay wisely admits, is that in sex as in everything else, “there was no bourgeois experience in the nineteenth century or in any other: only bourgeois experiences.” And if anything, these were even more diverse and varied than Gay allows. To be bourgeois in 1789 was in many ways fundamentally different from being bourgeois in 1815 or 1848 or 1870 or 1914, and the common emotional experiences of these successive generations often cut across the bounds of class solidarity. And to be Catholic or Jewish or Protestant, or English or French or German or American only makes the category of the bourgeoisie even more chimerical. In an attempt to pull this bourgeois experience together, and to justify (one suspects) the high proportion of late-nineteenth-century American material in the book, Gay suggests that the United States was the leading influence on Western European bourgeois values. But this does not seem entirely convincing, especially when it is juxtaposed with another comment, that nineteenth-century bourgeois culture “varied markedly across time, place, rank and hence in attitudes.” It is, in short, hard to see how there could be a sexual attitude specific to the bourgeoisie when it is so hard to show that there is a specific bourgeois class. If there is no Marxian nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, there is hardly likely to be a Freudian one, either.

Nor is this the only difficulty. For while, in some ways, the bourgeois experience was diverse and fragmented, in others it was so commonplace and universal as to be virtually indistinguishable from nineteenth-century experience tout court. As Gay rightly points out, the “bourgeois century” was an age of steam, of movement, of migration, of great cities, of declining religion, of progress and optimism, upheaval and chaos. But none of this was exclusive to the bourgeoisie: to a lesser or greater extent, almost the entire population of the Western world was affected by these developments and these moods. So it is not at all clear how “under external pressure, the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie generated common styles of thinking,” about life in general or about sex in particular. For even those features of the external world that helped to educate the bourgeois sexually were a common part of the nineteenth-century experience. There was nothing specifically characteristic of a class in pornography, nude statues, birth control, or prostitution. And if, as Gay argues persuasively, some middle-class women in the nineteenth century did indeed enjoy sex while others did not, then how does this differentiate them from the women of any other class—or of any other time?

Insofar as it was defined by the external world, then, it is hard to accept that there was a homogeneous bourgeois class or a unique bourgeois experience, of sex or of anything else. But of course, there was also the inner world of the bourgeois mind, both conscious and subconscious, on which these perceptions of reality impinged, and to which it in turn responded. Perhaps there was, after all, something distinctive about this nineteenth-century bourgeois mind so that, however commonplace its perceptions, and however varied its circumstances, this still meant that there really was a specific, identifiable bourgeois attitude to sexuality.

But Professor Gay will not allow himself such a luxury. “I have constructed my volumes,” he notes, “on the fundamental building blocks of the human experience—love, aggression, and conflict.” For Gay, Freudian assumptions are not specific to the period and the class he seeks to describe, but are timeless and universal. “The essential ingredients of human nature,” he suggests, “are both very simple and very tenacious”; it is characterized by “timelessness and ultimate simplicity”; and so the bourgeoisie has shared its psychological development “with all mankind.” To try to conjure up “a distinctive bourgeois style in sexuality” out of a timeless mind exposed only to varied and commonplace experiences of reality is a daunting enterprise indeed.

Notwithstanding his title, Professor Gay is correct in his feeling that there was no such thing as the nineteenth-century bourgeois experience. There were many experiences, many conflicts, much ambivalence, and in this book Gay has succeeded in bringing some of these vividly to life, with learning and humanity, in a way that no historian has ever managed before. Of necessity, as the bourgeois experience is made more vital and varied, so the bourgeoisie whose experience it was becomes more faded and fragmented. But this is unavoidable: the more we know about the bourgeoisie, the less we know that there was a bourgeoisie. Certainly, Gay’s book does much to reinforce the current view that, historically, the bourgeoisie has played a less important part than was once supposed. But it also provides ample material for reworking Marx’s mistaken maxim into a more fittingly Freudian formulation: historically the bourgeoisie has most importantly played with its parts.