The Secret Life

The other Victorians: A study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England

by Steven Marcus
Basic Books, 292 pp., $5.95

W.E. Gladstone was not only a shaper of Victorian England, but also one of its exemplary figures. This is to say that he was morally fearsome and a trifle draft. If there was one thing he enjoyed more than chopping down trees (his passion by day) it was accosting prostitutes by night, enticing them home for tea, money, and condescending Christian lectures, and sending them back into the streets, presumably to sin no more. It was an odd way for the great reform minister to tackle a social problem. But the problem, of course, looks from our own perspective like Gladstone’s as well as his society’s. We know from a famous essay by Freud that “rescuing” low women is a classic Oedipal compulsion. No wonder the gossip of Gladstone’s enemies and the scandalized pleas of his advisers failed to make him behave more prudently. How could these innocent Victorians—how could Gladstone himself—appreciate that he was really smudging the refurbishing unconscious images of his parents? (Even those felled trees begin to look familiar.)

There was no shortage of London prostitutes to play in Gladstone’s private drama. Some sources put the figure as high as 80,000. They were there not only because the Benthamite marketplace of Gladstone’s England left them with no alternative besides wage-slavery or starvation, but also because dehumanized sexual contact had a great appeal for the Victorians. The ruling culture that equated Podsnappery with virtue needed whores as badly as it needed the priggish Queen, and unlike previous cultures it also needed to erase them from consciousness. If well-bred gentlemen and ladies paid no heed to their conspicuous sisters “pissing almost in rows…in all the bye-streets of the Strand,” this was not callous inattention but part of a strained effort to maintain a lie about womankind. When a whole class acts this way it becomes haunted, not exactly by the suppressed truth, but by a nightmare based on a disproportionate awe of than truth. And when such a culture looks, as it must, for masturbatory adventures in the real world, it wants its objects to be impersonal, socially low, forgettable.

THE QUOTED PHRASE about rows of whores is from My Secret Life, an eleven-volume autobiography whose factual resources have been untapped until now; in fact, among those who have written about it, Steven Marcus claims to be the only one to have read it through. The anonymous author stalked the same streets as Gladstone, and in a passing footnote Marcus fancies that the two men could have met. These wealthy zealots would not have imagined that they were thinking along the same lines, but both were “inner-directed,” both were influenced by an ideal of purity, and probably acting on unconscious dictates. The difference is simply that the author of My Secret Life passed his adulthood not in service to Church and State but in questing for the perfect lay. With a show of democracy and even a certain statistical pedantry, he rated the many vaginas of his…

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