When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians
The Naked Heart
Sixty or seventy years ago the word “Victorian” was used by many cultivated people as a term of abuse: it seemed self-evident that the Victorians’ art was either hideous or odiously sentimental, and their prudishness a moral deformity. Walking through Kensington Gardens, the philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood had a revelation: as he looked at the Albert Memorial, he decided that ugliness could be a spiritual evil; not to be disgusted by this monstrosity was to be stunted as a human being. Yet in the 1960s it was being used on posters to lure tourists to London. The superior persons who sneered at the Victorians may have suspected, at moments, that time would exercise its usual softening effect, and that as the years went by, the Victorian ghastliness would join ducking stools and Jacobean screens and the six wives of Henry VIII among the jumble of the past—things not admirable or beautiful, but stored up as quaint parts of the national memory.
But they would have been astounded to learn that the Victorians were to become objects of envy, their very name a magic word. Mrs. Thatcher called for a return not to bourgeois values or traditional values but to Victorian values, and sexy lingerie is sold as Victoria’s Secret. The process by which attitudes have modulated from hostility to amused contempt to irony to affectionate humor and finally to an openly acknowledged nostalgia is part of the psychopathology of the later twentieth century, and when the historians of the future want to understand us, they will do well to examine our outlook upon the past.
Patricia Anderson’s When Passion Reigned is a symptom of this cultural shift. Her moment of revelation, she tells us, came in the British Library, where a publication of 1850 unfolded to her the public, exuberant sexuality of the age. Her argument is that the Victorians were much more open in talking about sexual matters than has traditionally been supposed, and that their approach to sex was eager and healthy. But beyond this claim—which is largely a matter of establishing the facts—there lies a further, bolder claim: that Victorian passions were much more exciting than ours are. “There is a sense,” she suggests, “in which sex today is a shadow of its Victorian self”; sex then “was robust and passionate. It expressed itself through the entire being—through intense physical sensations, fervid emotion, overwhelming pleasure, and release.”
The worst thing about When Passion Reigned is its title; it is a chirpy, unpretentious, occasionally vulgar book, always warm-hearted and for the most part sensible. Historians have been sweeping out the old dusty notions about Victorian repression for some years now and scholars may say that Anderson’s story is not new; but she would not claim to be original, and she marshals her case well. She recalls us to the unabashedly lewd doubleentendres of the late Victorian musichall and the lush eroticism of popular serial fiction in the mid-century, exemplified in best-selling magazines like Reynolds’s News. Tellingly,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.