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Under the Victorian Bed

The Making of Victorian Sexuality

by Michael Mason
Oxford University Press, 338 pp., $27.50

Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld

by Theo Aronson
John Murray, 246 pp., $17.99

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 rural gentry. Certainly if one was the hostess of a country house when the Prince of Wales and his set were staying during the late nineteenth century one needed to know how to arrange, as well as the place à table, the bedrooms in order to avoid embarrassing encounters during the night. But aristocrats were not habitually unfaithful to their wives. Libertines were on the way out: club life—cards, politics, and gossip—supplanted orgies and sexual liaisons. Servants, Michael Mason writes, set an example to their masters. A notorious womanizer excused his hypocrisy in dismissing an erring footman by pleading that the servants’ hall would not allow him to overlook the matter. Another who wanted to pardon an offender also found that the other servants would not stand for it.

Yet foreign observers were astonished at the freedom that mid-Victorian unmarried upper-class girls enjoyed, often going shopping or for walks with young men without chaper-ones. Some got the reputation of being fast, surreptitiously smoking and engaging in equivocal allusions to sex. American girls, who were less boring, more animated and independent, were in fact more prudish. On the other hand, a girl lost her freedom when she married, whereas in France she gained it. Tolstoy noted in Anna Karenina that the upper classes in Britain gave their daughters independence in choice so that they could marry for affection, not for convenience. But Mason overlooks the importance of the dowry and where it came from. Yes, the aristocracy married neither courtesans nor actresses nor the daughters of steel magnates and merchants: a banker’s daughter possibly, but land was always preferable in making an alliance.

Mason locates classic Victorianism, as might be expected, in the middle classes. Yet Dickens and Carlyle shocked Emerson in 1848 by agreeing that “chastity in the male sex was as good as gone in our times, and in England so rare that they could name all the exceptions.” This may have been the equivalent of locker-room talk, but one misses in Mason’s account an analysis of what went on among the intelligentsia and in bohemia, the world of the Rossettis. How widespread was the homosexual community and what of the intense friendships between women?

There are all too few personal accounts of what went on in bed even among the intellectuals and artists. Mason refers to two well-known mid-Victorian diaries but admits that neither could be said to be typical. The first is by the anonymous author of My Secret Life, 1 “Walter,” a sexual athlete who needed to ejaculate at least twice a day and who surpassed with ease Don Giovanni’s one thousand and three in Spain. The other was by Arthur Munby,2 a barrister and archetypal bachelor who was obsessed by working-class women and the clothes they wore: the filthier the work—and hence the clothes—of colliery girls or mudlarks the more he doted on them. (I remember G.M. Trevelyan’s mild surprise when he opened the Munby papers in Trinity College Library after the expiry of the embargo, and there tumbled out the photographs of three hundred such women.) But doting was all he did. Though he married his cook, he never, so it appears, had intercourse with her or any of the others. His interest was not sexual, not even sociological: it was compassionate. Whereas the insatiable Walter had reason to think that many of the factory women and servants “when not working thought more about fucking than anything else,” Munby was stimulated only by them as workers and by the skill and endurance they displayed. His marriage seems to have been a blissful one: she learned French and he taught Latin at the Working Women’s College. But he was unable to break with social conventions and acknowledge her as his wife.

Mason has similar problems the further he goes down the social scale. He plunges into the thickets of demographic statistics: fertility rates, parish-register evidence revealing illegitimacy rates and early or late marriage. The decline in the marriage rate in the early years of the century was reversed in the 1840s, and it was not until the 1870s that the rate again declined. From mid-century on there was a tendency to marry younger. Between 1830 and 1860 one third to a half of the brides went pregnant to the altar: but that was because the husband wanted to be certain he would have a fertile wife, and many illegitimate babies were conceived in expectation of marriage.

The trouble is that the statistics are often inadequate and variations in occupations, between north and south, rural and urban families are inevitable. For instance miners and agricultural workers had high rates of fertility, but did women in factories have more or fewer children? Demographers disagree. Illegitimate births declined well before legitimate births and, since few among the working class would practice coitus interruptus, Mason argues that other forms of birth control were being practiced on a wide scale. In the second half of the century a condom cost only a halfpenny. They were used in working-class families though less frequently than the pessary and douche. Advocates of birth control like Annie Besant toured the country lecturing; but most of the uneducated learned about birth control through advertisements in urinals and drug stores, and on posters. After 1877 when Besant stood trial for advocating birth control and was acquitted, manufacturers launched a sales drive. Mason reasons that abstinence did not find favor with wives and quotes one from York saying “Self-restraint? …Not much! If my husband started on self-restraint, I should jolly well know there was another woman in the case.”

The Victorians lived when the population was soaring, and they also lived under the shadow of the economist Thomas Malthus, who published in 1798 his celebrated essay arguing that while population rose in a geometrical ratio, subsistence rose only in an arithmetical ratio: misery and vice were therefore the lot of mankind, and hunger was as natural as lust. Malthus stimulated both Darwin and Marx, but some Victorians, such as the utilitarians and the socialist Robert Owen, challenged Malthus’s pessimism. Change living conditions, they said, and sexual behavior will change. Conservatives scoffed that even if a loaf cost a penny more working-class men would have their wives just as often. The economist Nassau Senior talked much better sense when he said that what controlled marriage rates was the desire for the decencies of life—better living quarters, not having to share a bed with one’s sons and daughters, and social standing.

What then should your attitude be toward sensuality? Were you for or against it, did you believe restraint could be practiced and, if so, was it good or bad for your health? The rationalist W.R. Greg regarded celibacy as a “social gangrene.” The Reverend Charles Kingsley celebrated the joys of physical lovemaking with his wife; but if it was so enjoyable, how on earth could frailer creatures be restrained? So although the Anglican clergy deplored celibacy—a Roman practice—they backed restraint and later marriage, and deplored sensuality. On this the high-minded agnostics, such as George Eliot, were their allies. Sex became a subject of elevated debate among physicians, athletic coaches, and professional moralists. Did those deprived of sexual experience, such as spinsters, run a risk to their health? Per contra were men who experienced nocturnal emissions or forced their wives to submit night after night weakening their other powers? Was the Cambridge crew right to declare that a man rowed better if he refrained from sex?

Contrary to the assertion made by some writers, there was, as Mason argues, no priesthood at the top of the medical profession dictating to practitioners what to believe. For instance, George Drysdale, a precursor of Havelock Ellis, argued during the 1880s that sexual abstinence could cause lesions in the sexual organs. He did something to offset the influence of William Acton, the man usually cited as the typical Victorian physician, whose most notorious dictum was that “the majority of women…are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”; and hence prospective husbands need not fear that they will have to develop an erection night after night. Yet elsewhere, Mason notes, he gave a contrary indication when he spoke of the “efficiency” of the penis. In fact Acton’s denunciation of masturbation and sexual excess was less fantastic than Drysdale’s caricature of the evils of abstinence.

  1. 1

    My Secret Life (1916) (Grove Press, 1966).

  2. 2

    Derek Hudson, Munby: Man of Two Worlds (Gambit, 1972).

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