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In Bed with the Victorians

The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud Vol. II: The Tender Passion

by Peter Gay
Oxford University Press, 490 pp., $24.95

Peter Gay has set himself the monumental task of reinterpreting Victorian middleclass life. In this volume he has chosen the ever interesting topic: What did the Victorians do in bed? Was bourgeois marriage—that institution which demanded virginity before marriage, monogamy after it, and, within it, abstemious intercourse for procreation and not for pleasure—was this repressive norm responsible for producing that familiar Victorian ailment, “nervousness?” Did it drive men to prostitutes for sexual satisfaction? Certainly not, retorts Gay. It was not the norm. The stereotype of the innocent dutiful wife continually pregnant and the money-conscious husband resorting to prostitutes on the way home from the club is false. In fact Victorian diaries, journals, letters, and biographies show that both men and women enjoyed fucking, yearned for it during their long engagements, and continued to enjoy each other’s bodies for years after marriage. Lovers practiced and relished what they seldom discussed. Privacy and reticence concealed passion, and the very ways in which the bourgeoisie sublimated love enriched their erotic life. Romantic literature and music heightened expectation. Poets and novelists turned love into an applied religion.

As a Freudian, Gay believes historians should explain the past by using the concepts of psychoanalysis. But he is not his master’s voice. On the important matter of prostitution he contradicts him. Freud had argued that the Victorian obsession with prostitution—to say nothing of their fear of masturbation and preoccupation with adultery—was evidence of repression. Gay says they went to prostitutes because they were sexually superabundant. The sheer volume of the trade is evidence of the failure of repression. Of course they had to make excuses. The Victorian superego was so exigent that they made ostentatious reparation by redeeming fallen women in life as well as in literature. They did penance for the social evil; and took care that the penance should not be too pleasurable. When Gladstone discovered how much he was enjoying talking to prostitutes on his way home from the House of Commons he whipped himself in self-disgust.

Gay says that when in England a marriage was in the making, wealth and class were considered, but not to the exclusion of personal attraction. But he might have noted that Tolstoy put it differently. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy observed that the English custom of giving a girl complete independence could not be accepted in Russia. But neither would the French habit be accepted of the parents alone deciding their daughters’ fate. It is true that in their concern for the sanctity of the family the Victorians drew up a code of respectable behavior and tried to ostracize those who broke it. But what was this but respect for the power of passion? They knew how powerful passion was from the experience of their own marriage bed. The very fact that they sublimated their passion expanded the possibilities of sensual love. Grand opera was such an expression, and Wagner “manifestly embodied…sexual longings and fulfillments that ordinary mortals keep to themselves.” So were the tastes for haute cuisine and for mountaineering. Trains, gardens, banquets, the very way in which clouds are depicted, even department stores, offer clues to the erotic symbolism of the times. Indeed one has to leave the actual record since so much of it has been destroyed and ransack the novel for evidence of “erotic desires and precipitates.”

In fact, Gay argues, it was the novel that undermined the bourgeois ideal of marriage. The yearning heroes, the pale heroines, exotic scenery, tempestuous Nature, cruel obstacles and deeply satisfying deaths inflated the ideal so grossly that the currency of love in marriage became debased. If love became so spiritualized and passion so overwhelming, how could both be sustained in marriage? Did not Schlegel say “a happy marriage stands to love as a correct poem stands to an improvised song”? Freud said that love was two currents, the tender and the sensual. But Baudelaire and Flaubert, who hated the bourgeoisie, considered the portrayal of tender wives and fulfilled husbands fraudulent. They declared that passion destroyed marriage; and finally Proust embroidered an enormous tapestry depicting happiness in love as an illusion, passion an obsession, and jealousy the inevitable destroyer of all affairs. So the reader is left with the paradox that some of the interpreters of this century of happy, sensual, middle-class marriages denied they existed. Or perhaps there is no paradox: the unhappy ending has superseded the happy ending.

Some books are written for the common reader, some for scholars, some for cranks. This book seems to have been written for reviewers. Contrary to the belief of authors, reviewers want to find things to praise; and here there is much to praise. Gay’s breadth of reading is enormous. Bilingual in German, he is at ease in European literature. His energy is prodigious. He has dug out letters, journals, and biographies from obscure corners and revived forgotten novels; and his Freudian interpretation of this material is not narrow.

All the same it is strange in a book with the name of Victoria in the title not to find more references to the letters and journals of the great queen of the bourgeoisie. Queen Victoria enjoyed what was then called a cuddle, and no one who reads what she wrote can doubt that Albert aroused her sexually and she continued to be passionately in love with him: what she disliked was the product of her passion—babies. There is another source which Gay hardly uses: the law reports or at least the newspaper accounts of divorce proceedings and crim. con. actions. But even so we have at the least a superb sourcebook of material. No review can do justice to the richness of Gay’s text and the examples he cites. Who would want to interrupt the flow of illustrations from the great nineteenth-century novelists or to miss the erotic anticipations and descriptions of their couplings which the apostle of muscular Christianity, Charles Kingsley, and his wife Fanny left?

But then the reviewers warm to their work. The book begins by comparing the Hamburg official Otto Beneke and the English man of letters Walter Bagehot. Does the comparison prove anything? It is certainly odd to choose Bagehot as a typical member of the Victorian middle class when he is often cited with Disraeli, Meredith, Pater, and Samuel Butler as being a good example of what Victorians were not. In any case are German, English, and French experiences comparable? Surely the institution of marriage in each country was subtly different, sometimes not so subtly. Some of the novels Gay chooses to make his case are not about marital happiness at all. And even if marriages began in physical delight was the passion sustained for decades? Beatrice Webb overcome her physical disgust for Sidney and both would every two hours or so break off their work for her to leap on his lap to embrace for five minutes. But long before the end of her life she was famous for explaining to whomever she was with that love was the waste-paper basket of the emotions. Can she really be cited as taking “an undisguised pleasure in physical intimacy”?

Moreover Gay’s argument seems sometimes to contradict itself. For the nineteenth-century novelist, he says, love was the “governing preoccupation.” But when Gogol refuses to include any “intimations of deep erotic involvements in his fictions,” Gay declares that this was an “indirect tribute to love by his energetic exertions to evade it.” Freud may have been the first to reverse the accepted view that nervousness and hysteria were caused by sexual excess and by the pace of city life. But then Gay confesses that Freud’s patients were abnormal types very different from the happy uninhibited married couples whom he declares were typical of the age. In other words Freud may have been right to diagnose repression as the cause of hysteria but he was wrong to conclude that repression governed the behavior of most middle-class couples. If Freud is so wrong about Victorian culture as a whole, why should we try to apply his concepts to that culture?

In Britain the Oxford professors have given Gay a hard time. For John Carey, Gay’s book is a prime example of “Americanismus,” that “mixture of dauntless enterprise and naive optimism that alarms Europeans when they ponder the American mind.” When religious Victorians declared their love to be pure and holy, were they not in fact admitting to religious guilt, Carey asked. Saint Jerome’s dictum that all ardent love for one’s wife was adultery was never far from their minds. For John Bayley the central theme of Gay’s book is a platitude: Who ever supposed otherwise than that husbands and wives were frank with each other about what turned them on? The middle classes were sensible to preserve appearances and never to talk or write about what excited them: people’s inhibitions and society’s injunctions stimulated the emotions and heightened the drama of love more than today’s permissiveness. That was what made the Victorian novel so rich. Baudelaire, Flaubert, Hardy, and all those novelists who denounced the censorship that the law or public opinion imposed upon their publishers were killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Tell “all” and all becomes banal. Henry James and Ivy Compton-Burnett were far wiser in letting the reader discover what was going on beneath the surface.

Some reviewers have not done Gay justice. The application of the human sciences to history and biography has led to marvelous illuminations; and possibly the skepticism of the British critics toward Gay’s book can be explained by the fact that British culture has not been permeated by Freud to the same extent that American culture has been. To use the insights of psychoanalysis came as naturally to Hollywood as it did to the finest critics, such as Lionel Trilling. Nor is there anything wrong in using ideal types to distinguish between one form of behavior and another, whether the types are created by Freud or by Weber. Psychobiography starts with ideal types and intends to show the subject of the biography displaying traits identical to those which research has shown to be a common pattern of behavior. We can complain, however, if the biographer acts like Procrustes and either stretches his victim’s body or cuts his legs down to size in order to fit the bed of his typology. Gay does not do so. He is only too willing to show deviations from stereotypes and to remind us of the variety of ways in which human beings react to the unconscious promptings of infantile sexuality to which they are predestined. Although I am uncertain what he means when he says that Bagehot’s public life and writings “exhibited a certain emotional ground tone testifying to the imperialistic ventures of libido in unsuspected places,” he is sensible and sparing in the use of Freudian terms.

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