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.


Some people might complain that if the social sciences are to be summoned to explain Victorian marriages, the anthropologist would have more to offer than the psychoanalyst, because marriage is an institution in which kinship, law, property rights, dowries, and numbers of other factors condition its possibilities and its effect upon society. But Gay shows in his text and bibliography that he is acquainted with the relevant anthropological texts.

He is for example at his best in his analysis of Victorian prostitution in all its manifestations, from the famous courtesans, to the kept women, to the brothels, and then to the streetwalkers. The trade was so widespread that none in a town could fail to encounter it or in the country to hear of its effects. Yet rare were the instances when it sullied the pages of an English novel (which was why the respectable went on about the wickedness of French novels). Nevertheless, dozens of social analysts in Europe wrote articles about prostitution, and some concluded that it was the price bourgeois society was willing to pay for its repressions. It was also the price paid for the chastity and stability of the institution of marriage. In 1890 Grant Allen declared that prostitution was the safeguard of marriage: or as Dostoevsky wrote, “A certain percentage must every year go to the devil, I suppose, so that the rest may remain chaste and not be interfered with.”

The Victorians accordingly tried to make reforms that would reduce the evil. In France and Russia the prostitute merely became a figure of concern in the social novel, but in Prussia and England there were crusades to close brothels. Civic investigators such as Josephine Butler and Jane Addams, or societies such as the marvelously called New York Magdalen Society, tried to reclaim prostitutes and reintegrate them into wholesome livelihoods. Of course these palliatives were nothing new: medieval times had seen similar initiatives. But

the mixture of psychological pressures, economic opportunities and political space for maneuver had never been as favorable for the activation of remorseful fantasies, and their translation into reality as it was to be from the 1840s and 1850s on.

There was also another variant of the socialist explanation. Bernard Shaw, like August Bebel before him, thought prostitution was inevitable in a capitalist society. End capitalism and prostitution would disappear.

Yet there was one Victorian at least who knew many of the reasons why women became prostitutes in one guise or another. This was the by now famous author of My Secret Life, to whom Steven Marcus introduced us in his pioneering work The Other victorians. That astonishing work is not quoted by Gay and in his bibliography he mentions a review of Marcus’s book but not the book itself. What emerges from My Secret Life is that, while poverty and the male monopoly in many jobs drove women to become prostitutes, numbers of them enjoyed it. They preferred that way of life to a more steady one, and they liked the money. This truth astonished English intellectuals when in the 1950s, with increasing prosperity and full employment, the numbers of prostitutes increased at a staggering rate. As one prostitute told Wayland Kennet, who wrote a splendid article on the phenomenon, she realized one day that she was “sitting on a fortune.”1 In those days the Strich ran from Leicester Square to Queensway virtually without a break, a distance of four miles; and the government set up a committee to recommend how to deal with the scandal. Victorian convention had it that women who accepted money for giving sexual pleasure were either villainous harridans or forlorn and virtuous. Convention also had it that prostitutes got no sexual pleasure from their trade. Convention, as the author of My Secret Life discovered, is a liar. It was not only the Reverend Charles Kingsley and his wife who enjoyed bed. Nor were all middle-class marriages or liaisons governed by middle-class custom. Bohemia was always a country to which some bourgeois decided to emigrate.

One’s dissatisfaction with Gay’s treatment of prostitution deepens with his chapter on homosexuality. Gay argues that homosexual behavior paradoxically was less frowned upon in the 1830s and 1840s than it was at the end of the century. By then the flamboyance of some homosexuals had provoked furious opposition. But help was at hand; the writings of continental sexologists and of Havelock Ellis, gingerly expressed though they might be, accustomed people to the notion that homosexuals could not help being what they were; and then at last Freud gave them “the stature they had been so strenuously denied, access to the prized domain of love.” Freud had the gift for synthesis that the others lacked. By relating homosexuality to his fundamental theory—that all human beings are bisexual and infantile sexuality determines how they develop—he showed that each of us, even the Don Juan or the nymphomaniac, had homosexual tendencies. Confirmed homosexuals could not be changed into heterosexuals: but they could enjoy love instead of sinking with shame provided society stopped treating them as criminals or madmen. What had been regarded as a vice came to be recognized as an aberration.

It did not become an aberration. On the contrary, homosexuality became at the turn of the century a cult. Gay’s account seems to me to miss a good deal. To begin with he does not distinguish sufficiently between different kinds of homosexual behavior and society’s reaction to them. It is not true that there was greater indulgence shown to active homosexuals in the early part of the century. At the beginning as at the end active homosexuality ending in intercourse and seminal emission was abhorred and in certain countries punished as a crime. It went on as it had always gone on, in secret. The habitual trade of the upper and middle classes with soldiers, footmen, telegraph boys, and rough stuff continued. Provided it was discreet, eyes were averted. But if a scandal erupted it meant imprisonment or exile on the Continent for an Englishman, trial and ruin for Kaiser Wilhelm’s friend Eulenburg in Prussia, and imprisonment for Verlaine in France when he shot Rimbaud. Gay praises Proust for being the first novelist to be explicit about homosexuality and lesbianism: he got away with it, in Gay’s view, because he portrayed both as joyless. But Proust treated both kinds of homosexuality not merely as joyless but as vice.

There was, however, another form of homoerotic behavior that was acceptable throughout the age, and one specially prevalent in the middle classes. That was the romantic friendship. In Germany it could take the idealized sacramental form of Stefan George’s love for the gifted and beautiful boy, Maximin, whom he met in Munich and who was dead within three years. In England it was beautified by Tennyson, and eulogized in an astonishing and ardent passage by Disraeli. Dickens often alluded to it in David Copperfield’s feelings for Steerforth or Jasper’s for Edwin Drood; and he also drew the portrait of the sinister lesbian Miss Wade. So far from such friendships becoming more offensive to public opinion, by the end of the century they became stronger or more acceptable than ever. There was the new type of don whose delight was to be the guide, philosopher, and friend to the young, like Sligger Urqhuart at Balliol or Lowes Dickinson at King’s; there were numbers like A.C. Benson who every five years or so would fall for a new charmer. Who dared to censure the greatest scholar of the lot for publishing A Shropshire Lad? There was the American Etonian Howard Sturgis, who lived at Windsor with his manly cigar-smoking companion known as the Babe and who entertained Henry James and a circle of friends old and young while he sat doing embroidery. Some were offended by the picture Sturgis drew of high society, but no one ostracized him when he referred in his novel Belchamber to a “great massacre of the innocents” at Eton leading to the expulsion of several boys.

Forest Reid and at least a dozen authors of public school novels described such friendships. In the 1830s, the Tractarians had attracted attention in their time for the warmth of their affections for one another. John Bayley suggests that neither Kingsley nor Newman realized how much their antagonism, which led Newman to write his Apologia, owed to the sexual revulsion that each felt for the other. For Kingsley, reveling in the delights of heterosexual intercourse in marriage, Newman’s defense of immuring virgins in convents and praising celibate orders was effeminate blasphemy. For Newman, Kingsley was the school bully who could nevertheless be goaded and ridiculed. By the end of the century “spikes,” i.e., men who were Anglo-Catholic and Ritualists, were a byword for their equivocal relations with choir boys, and there were comparable low church movements such as the Boys Brigade and Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts. Some sniffy comments were made. But so long as there was no public outrage a blind eye was turned to this kind of homosexual attachment.

The most remarkable, perhaps, of these romantic lovers was Regy Brett, the second Earl of Esher, who was successively a member of Parliament, a public servant, head of the Office of Works and hence of all royal residencies, who became the confidant of the old queen, the éminence grise and close friend of Edward VII, and the adviser of George V and Queen Mary. He had a finger in every pie, moved everywhere in society, and had what might be described as a susceptible heart. He had been a pupil of the well-known Hellenist and Eton master William Cory Johnson, and he stuck by him when Johnson was required to leave the school. It was there that Regy formed the first of a myriad of attachments. Every so often some new dazzling blade would cross his path whom he found irresistible. The most startling of his attachments was his second son, with whom he conducted a lyrical love affair long after the son married. Indeed he courted his son’s wife, the actress Zena Dare, and was known for his devotion to the raffish Duchess of Sutherland.

Needless to say Esher was the friend of the Earl of Rosebery and of Lord Arthur Somerset, who had to leave the country after the Cleveland Street scandal involving liaisons with telegraph boys. Even more so of Lewis Harcourt, the notorious “Loulou” who tried without success to seduce both his son and his elder daughter. Harcourt was to commit suicide when he made advances to a thirteen-year-old Etonian, who told his mother, Mrs. Edward James (the one-time hostess of King Edward), who told everyone. Esher had far better judgment and knew how far he could go with whom. His excellent biographer, James Lees-Milne, judges that “to Regy sex was the corollary, and by no means the essential corollary to love.”2 He was, of course, careful not to accept any great state office—he refused to become the viceroy of India—but his refusal owed as much to boredom with ceremonial and official life as to the demands of prudence.

By the end of the century other strains emerged. There was another type of don totally unlike A.C. Benson. That was the austere, silent, ascetic, patriotic conservative, such as Housman, who idolized a soldier’s red coat as an emblem of protection and self-sacrifice, the soldier who would die for him in battle while he sat in the shadows editing Manilius. Wittgenstein, Montherlant, Saki, and T.E. Lawrence were among those who prided themselves on not showing emotion. They admired the brave and the hardy and despised the effeminate.

And so it came about that the different shrines of homoerotic behavior—the religious, the martial, the romantic, the pathic, the Hellenist—began to attract worshipers, and their worshipers began to recognize that despite some antipathies—for instance an aversion to sissies or queens—they were celebrating the same mysteries.

The cult attracted those among the young who wanted to show their contempt for the morality of the Establishment in the same way that each in their time, young communists, hippies, or student rebels, did. The Establishment reacted. The successors to the reforming headmasters of the English public schools, who had stopped the orgies that early Victorians hinted at in their memoirs, tried to stamp out the practice. But in vain. Wilde’s sentence was assumed to be a sufficient warning to the amoralists. It proved to be nothing of the sort. The cult grew even stronger, and during the interwar years suffused European culture, especially in the performing arts. Its headquarters were in Paris, but every European capital had its own places of pilgrimage. To join the cult was to live a partly clandestine life. Not so clandestine that other adherents could not at once recognize a brother by speech or dress, movement or looks. There were passwords and phrases that proclaimed allegiance to the fraternity. But except in a few cases the differences were not so exaggerated as to divide the fraternity from the rest of society. It was a way of mocking society, not of dissociating oneself from it. Conformity to social norms, while flouting the most fundamental norm, was part of the game.

Gay should have asked himself whether the Victorian ideal of marriage was responsible for turning young men to the homosexual way of life. The growth of the cult in late Victorian times was in part a reaction against the ideal of spiritual womanhood lifting carnal man upward to a higher life. The dismay that some young Englishmen felt, when faced with the ideal of the innocent wife and child-bearing mother, was matched by their distaste for the melodrama of courting a mistress or of the saunter to the brothel, after which one became obsessed by the fear of venereal disease. They felt defrauded if a girl had to be either a plain-speaking, plain-looking bluestocking or a demure and dutiful wife. It is true that George Meredith imagined a new kind of woman in his novels the girl of spirit, wit, sensitivity, and imagination with whom to be in love would be delight and to live with in marriage a perpetual pleasure; and perhaps Margot Asquith was an awful warning of what happened when Meredith’s dream was realized. Of course there were witty and companionable women, but more often than not the mid-Victorian girl was replaced by the uneducated, conventional Edwardian girl corseted by the conventions of her class and determined come what may to impose her will on those affairs that were not entirely a masculine preserve in that male-dominated society. No wonder American girls so often made desirable matches. They were renowned for their independence, spunkiness, and ability to please; whereas young Englishmen were renowned on the Continent for their gaucherie with women.

No one could possibly blame Gay for not following the homosexual cult into the days between the two wars when it flourished most luxuriantly. Still less for not remarking on its replacement by the political movement of gay liberation when the cult disappeared and was no longer chic and daring. We need synthesizers if only to stimulate and to make new distinctions, and no one except Peter Gay has had the energy and learning to attempt the task. There will, however, be those who will shake their heads over attempts to encapsulate the experience of a social class not merely in one country but in Europe and America and not merely in one or two decades but over a period of seventy years.

This Issue

November 20, 1986