The Making of Victorian Sexuality
Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld
Some studies of society resemble a garden laid out by Le Nôtre. You saunter down broad avenues, you know where you are going and where you will emerge. Michael Mason’s excellent book on Victorian sexuality is the very reverse. Reading it is like entering a dense forest, where whatever path you take, you have to fight your way through thickets and scramble over fallen trees. The tangle, however, serves a purpose, for Mason’s scruples get in your way and stop you from coming to hasty and false conclusions. No sooner does he generalize than he produces a qualification. Still, his prose is always readable, free from jargon, and it is clinically detached: he is not a journalist nudging, winking, and using four-letter words.
Mason is also an omnivorous reader of memoirs, magazines, demographic statistics, and of secondary sources. Yet there is a strange omission. Although he is a senior lecturer in English literature in London University, Mason does not use novels or even biographies of the novelists to reinforce a point. Does he believe they are less reliable than some of the memoirs from which he quotes?
For the past hundred years the Victorians have been mocked for their prudery and hypocrisy about sex: Who has not heard of piano legs being covered in chintz and human legs referred to as “pedal appendages”? Recently it has become fashionable to scout this stereotype. Did they not behave in bed as we do? Michel Foucault argued that the nineteenth century was one continuous attempt to know more about sex, ending with Havelock Ellis and Freud. You hardly have to read between the lines of Trollope’s novels to realize that his heroines long for the moment when the man they love will embrace them. But Mason is not fooled. Neither Trollope nor Dickens mentioned intimate matters familiar in the novels of Fielding and Smollett. However constant the pleasures of bed, attitudes toward sex had been transformed. Pecksniff and Podsnap ruled.
When did the change take place? That renowned Victorian G.W.E. Russell (whose Collections and Recollections, published in 1898, deserves to be reprinted) put the date as 1790; but toward the end of his life he deferentially moved the date to 1837, when Victoria was crowned. Mason prefers the earlier date and believes the Utilitarian radical Francis Place to be a better guide. Place argued in his autobiography that Victorianism, if understood as a change in attitude, and hence of behavior, began in 1800, at any rate among artisans and the better-off poor. Place thought things changed because men were becoming more rational, more politically minded, were better read and better clothed, educated their children instead of going every night to the pub, and were susceptible to reforming agencies. Tradesmen’s daughters no longer became prostitutes.
Mason’s most interesting chapters are on the sexual behavior of different classes. As usual the evidence is conflicting. The aristocracy were lenient toward adultery—an attitude very different from that of the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.