Some years ago a book was published in England depicting famous entertainments over the centuries, such as that given by the Duchess of Richmond three nights before Waterloo. The book was called Memorable Balls. It is a pity that this title has been pre-empted, for it would do admirably for Ronald Pearsall’s book on sex in the Victorian age.

Whatever else it fails to achieve, this book certainly covers the subject. It is an achievement to have brought together so many of the threads which ought to be used in a study of this sort. With a passing glance at royalty and at the well-known liaisons among the aristocracy, such as that between Lord Hartington and the Duchess of Manchester, Pearsall dredges up from the provincial press and advertisements in magazines a lot of curious evidence about courtship, marriage, and adulterous unions in the middle and lower classes, and examines how the beliefs current about menstruation, birth control, and venereal disease were affected by the image of woman, i.e., the ideal type, created by the moralists of the age. He then plunges into the whirlpools of prostitution, perversion, and pornography.

The book is light-hearted; and in writing about sex it is better to be light-hearted than portentous. But despite giving the reader many fascinating leads, the book is short on general ideas. Pearsall brings many things to light but fails to illuminate them. Too much of this book is taken up with retelling famous scandals, painting penportraits of famous courtesans, and sketching celebrated trials and criminal cases with a bit of Mayhew’s life of the laboring poor thrown in. Every age has its prostitutes and perversions, and depressingly familiar they are: what makes them interesting is the particular emphasis which society at that time places upon them; their relation to the kinship, moral, and economic structure of that society; and their relation to the sexuality of other ages. Perhaps Pearsall’s vigorous initiative will stimulate Peter Cominos and other scholars who work on the subject to publish some of their findings.

If anyone had asked an intelligent broad-minded member of the mid-Victorian clerisy what was the greatest achievement for which future generations would revere his own age, it is doubtful whether he would have cited humanitarianism, or thrift, or the triumphs of industrialism. He would not probably have staked out a claim for godliness since the church parties were so bitterly sectarian. More likely he would have replied that nothing had changed society more than the reform of sexual morals and the serious condemnation of what Matthew Arnold called Lubricity. If it was then unkindly pointed out that there were at least 80,000 street-walkers in London; that child prostitution flourished; that in the Prince of Wales’s set a hostess was expected to know how to arrange the guests’ bedrooms during a country-house visit so that lovers were not obliged to go for embarrassingly long walks through the passages in search of their inamorata’s chamber, he would have replied that although grossness continued to exist, it had been made to hide its head, and that within a few generations it would be reasonable to hope that the whole of the upper classes would have become reconciled to the banishment of the salacious, and that Progress would have spread Respectability among the lower classes. The outbursts in late Victorian days, which seem to us today so extraordinary, against Swinburne’s poetry or Zola’s novels, or the prosecution of publishers or the censorship of plays, or the final onslaught upon Wilde, were the natural reaction by a society which saw its most sacred belief challenged as an illusion.

In Western Civilization women had never before been put upon such a pedestal of virtue as in Victorian times. Goethe provided one of the favorite quotations of the times. He was thought to mean literally that eternal womanhood drew gross and brutal men upward to their salvation. This theory was especially convenient when women’s rights began to be discussed. Since the right to administer their own property, or take any worldly decisions on their own initiative, implied that women might be susceptible not only to worldly interests but to worldly passions, there was a built-in argument against altering the archaic laws on divorce or on married women’s property. Anything that suggested that women had the same sexual appetite as men and enjoyed themselves in bed was condemned as filthy, and to be suspected of being even to the faintest degree androgynous was the most damaging of accusations.

It followed therefore that the most poignant virtue in unmarried women and in children was Innocence. Writing to an American girl toward the end of his life Cardinal Manning concluded: “May God guide you and guard you in innocence and in fidelity through this evil, evil world.” The evil which Manning had in mind could not be curbed by reform. It was Adam’s curse transmitted to all mankind, and one could preserve one’s innocence only by refusing to acknowledge its existence. The systematic repression of sexual desires, so Pearsall argues, produced not only hysterics in women and guilt in men but a special kind of language as a talisman and of humor as an escape.


The cult of innocence certainly claimed some strange martyrdoms and even stranger saints. The author relates the well-known speculation that Ruskin became incapable of consummating his marriage to Effie Gray because of the shock on the bridal night of discovering that women had public hair. The cult led inexorably to the worship of small girls. Lewis Carroll gave his heart to them. So did the Victorian poet whose “I’m in Love with neighbour Nellie, Though I know she’s only ten,” graced the anthologies of the day.

Perhaps the most extreme form of innocence, or coyness, or wide-eyed effrontery, it is hard to decide which, is to be found in the verse of the East Anglian clergyman, the Rev. E. E. Bradford, under titles such as “Passing the Love of Woman” or “The Kingdom of Heaven Within You.” Boys—how to chat them up and get off with them—were his special concern:

Soldier boys, sailor boys, scout cubs and rovers, I am of each the inveterate lover.
Boys of rough trade and the laddies of leisure All give me equal and infinite pleasure.

The poem which begins with that remarkable line “The Institute was radiant with gas” ends with the comment “Common boys, Have great temptations and few wholesome joys.” These were the verses which on publication got the following kindly review: “Cheery and wholesome”—The Times. It is odd to reflect that the last adjective one would apply today to Bradford’s outpourings is wholesome, just as men who bathed in a river naked, the normal Victorian practice, would today in England be charged with indecent exposure.

Very rightly Pearsall distinguished between this kind of homosexuality and the fashionable cosmopolitan kind practiced by what is sometimes called today the Homintern, the world in which Wilde met his doom and which was typified by Lord Arthur Somerset in London in the Eighties, by Baron Robert de Montesquiou in Paris during the belle époque, or by Baron Janchi Wolfner in Budapest in the Twenties; the world of Guardsmen, sailors, and blackmailers, in which the chase, the catch, the row on dismissal, and danger form the kernel of the experience. That kind of homosexuality had always flourished in England: the earliest reference to it, I think, is Anselm’s rebuke to William II at the end of the eleventh century. What was peculiar in Victorian times was the extent to which the cult of romantic homosexuality flourished in the public schools and in those extensions of celibate public school life, the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Only toward the end of the century was it possible for dons to marry and still hold their Fellowships and the rush to matrimony when they were freed of their bonds was not all that startling since marriage entailed maintaining an establishment with servants and keeping up appearances on inadequate salaries.

Part of the fascination of the Oxford Movement lies in the passionate avowals and declarations of devotion which the protagonists made to each other. Time and again when Victorian memoirs record the years at school and university they reveal the unusually tense emotional relationships between the writer and his friends; and how charged with emotion are the friendships of Tom Brown or Eric in the classic Victorian school story. In these small worlds women scarcely existed.

Not only the celibacy in these institutions but the curriculum—the staple diet of Latin and Greek—encouraged and seemed to justify such friendships. Undergraduates in those days did not ask for “relevant” studies because they and their teachers never doubted that the classics were relevant to their times. Jowett at Oxford taught Platonism as a kind of proto-Christian morality, as Boethius had done centuries before, and Broad Churchmen such as himself used the classics as a liberalizing force to widen Victorian notions of Christianity.

But by the Seventies there were dons who wanted not to reconcile but to contrast pagan morality with the asphyxiating moral theology of the churches. Pater was the Marcuse of the rebellious young (and just as astonished at being cast for the role). Lowes Dickinson idealized the homosexuality of ancient Greece: his Greek View of Life had something of the influence which Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa had in recent times. And Housman spoke for all the silent strong-willed men who buttoned their secrets within themselves.


Out of these influences came the early short stories of E. M. Forster and Forrest Reid’s Uncle Stephen. Perhaps it was because there was such a gap between the world of trade and the renter, and the world of romantic attachment and idealization, that English literature produced nothing to rival the Alexandrian poet, C. P. Cavafy, a few of whose poems (but not the homosexual ones) Forster published in translation after the First World War. A book on the ways in which the Victorians used the classics, and the influence these studies had upon their beliefs remains to be written.

Not by any means the least interesting specimen of Victorian sexuality was the Queen herself. Although she was never worshipped and embraced by younger women as was George Eliot, Victoria was enough of a mother figure to arouse Lesbian yearnings in some of her ladies-in-waiting. But even more positively than George Eliot she craved masculine protection. Idealizing her husband to the point of fantasy, she immersed herself in mourning him and was somewhat peculiar in her choice of a substitute. Tom Cullen’s study of her relationship with her Scottish servant, John Brown, is sensible, just, unsensational, and absorbing.

Here again is a study in innocence. In 1873 a Scottish republican called Alexander Robinson, who was slightly touched, maintained in a pamphlet that the Queen had travelled to Lausanne to give birth to John Brown’s child, having been morganatically married with the Duchess of Roxburgh as witness. The allegation was absurd. The Queen had never visited Lausanne. She did once visit Lucerne but was cooped up in such a small residence that she practically shared her room with her ladies-in-waiting; and they were so pious, and she so suffused with religiosity, that no one in his senses ever believed the tale.

But Cullen shows just how perturbed her family and courtiers were about her infatuation. Victoria’s daughter, Princess Beatrice, who copied out and edited the Queen’s journals, destroyed not only the originals but numerous references to Brown in the same way as Edward VII destroyed memorials to Brown which his mother had erected. It was only Randall Davidson’s firmness, when he was Dean of Windsor, that prevented Victoria from publishing her biography of Brown, which was already in draft. When he offered to resign the Queen sulked and then submitted, and her private secretary burnt the draft.

But not all the evidence of her sentimental spooning could be destroyed. There exist valentines alluding to a lovers’ tiff; a letter in which she addresses Brown as “darling one” and another which refers to “my beloved John.” Spry as ever Strachey noted that Victoria was like a dowager who loves to be told to wrap up warm and do what she is told by a gruff servant though she would have snubbed a relative or friend who did the same. The lengths to which she went with Brown were certainly astonishing. The Queen was right in believing Brown to be honest enough (though he saw to it that members of his family got jobs at Court). But when he got drunk or was more than normally boorish she pretended not to notice and swept the matter under the carpet.

They swept things under the carpet, and yet many of them knew and acknowledged what went on. The aristocracy and the lower classes were freest from cant. It was an aristocratic survivor of Victorian womanhood who said in the 1920s when a peer had had to leave for the Continent in a hurry for a protracted spell of living abroad because his wife was intending to give evidence against him: “I can’t think why Lucy’s cuttin’ up so rough after all these years. We’ve all known about Willie’s goin’s on with the footmen.” The more one reads the Victorians, the more one realizes that, although society appeared to consist of puritans and rakes of all classes in different degrees of disguise, there were also large numbers who were neither: who were anxious to pass as bien pensant yet who, when pressed, scorned to fall back on cant.

Nevertheless the strain of keeping up appearances in public, and of consigning women to a role which bore no relation to actuality, had almost as great an effect on twentieth-century literature as it had on Victorian literature. For the first fifty years of this century writers were excessively selfconscious when they were concerned with sex. It was not so much that it took such a long time for writers to use four letter words. It was that they had to use circumlocutions or became affected or over-intense. The segregation of the sexes, and the grotesque formalities which stopped men from introducing so many topics or using indelicate words when ladies were present, distorted literature and manners. (Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf recalled the occasion in the first decade of the century when they were overcome with suppressed laughter and a young man became rigid with embarrassment when he used the word bottom in an ambiguous sense.) Lawrence was usually at his worst when describing physical passion, and a comparison of his imagery on this topic with that of Warwick Deeping is startling. The alternative (which Lawrence so hated in Bloomsbury) was to giggle. Time and again the novelist is either shouting, There! I said it, or whispering with a titter, There! I didn’t say it. The stock joke of the post-Victorian world was to discomfit the innocent by confronting them with the facts of life, and to expose schoolmasters, clergymen, judges, and all the other guardians of the decencies as pious frauds.

Lytton Strachey’s Ermyntrude and Esmeralda is a document of those times. It was originally written to amuse his Bloomsbury friends and consists of a correspondence between two innocent girls who are puzzled by the propensities of their own pussies to pout or young men’s bow-wows to rise when they are attracted by the opposite sex. Esmeralda’s brother is caught with his Oxford tutor in flagrante delicto, and Ermyntrude is had by the footman. The letters end with the two culprits being banished by their parents accidentally to the same pension in Germany.

The whole affair depends on the reader accepting that the two girls know nothing, that all the characters greatly enjoy what they are not supposed to enjoy, be it sex, indignation, outrage, and all the other things which the young and the middle-aged pretend to disapprove of but delight to indulge in. Whether you are amused depends on for how many years you can go on laughing at the post-Victorian joke. Just as pre-1914 wit, which depended on paradox and epigram, looked in 1939 like threadbare Wilde, so this old camp-fire story written in 1913 looks today for all its elegance like shopsoiled Strachey. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that the campaign that Strachey led against the Victorian conspiracy of silence, repression, and misinformation is now finished. It may also be a premonition that the liberators of the inter-war enlightenment will appear to new generations of the young as terrible old bores, winking, sniggering, and eternally tapping their noses with their forefinger.

This Issue

February 12, 1970