In Bed with the Victorians

The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud Vol. II: The Tender Passion

by Peter Gay
Oxford University Press, 490 pp., $24.95

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…

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