Body Parts

Lawrence Stone

  • The Making of Victorian Sexuality by Michael Mason
    Oxford, 338 pp, £17.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 19 812247 0
  • The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes by Michael Mason
    Oxford, 256 pp, £17.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 19 812292 6

All my lifetime, until very recently, conventional wisdom has had it that there was something very peculiar about the ‘Victorian’ era. Since about 1910, its values and practices have been subjected to an increasing barrage of criticism denouncing them as alien to the modern world and about as comprehensible as the culture of a wholly different civilisation. The defining characteristics were, it was said, a moral rigidity about sex itself, and sexuality in general. A fanatical prudery, satirised in the figure of Mrs Grundy, reigned supreme. This moralism and hostility to sensuality were particularly evident in attitudes to language and art, which were purged and purged again of all hint of sexual content. Museums put fig leaves on Classical nude statuary, Wedgwood put drapery over the nude figures on his pottery, while Dr Bowdler cleaned up Roman and Greek classics, along with Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Bible.

There were, from the start, problems about this definition of the 19th century as ‘other’, squeezed in between the age of the Enlightenment, Revolution and Romanticism, and our own progressive, libertarian age, when freedom of speech and expression takes priority over control of content and action. One question was: when did all this prudery begin? Thanks to the work of E.K. Brown, M. Jaeger and M.J. Quinlan, historians since the Forties have accepted that the austere ideology of ‘Victorianism’ was already in place among the middle classes, as well as the poor, by 1800. There is no way around the fact that the novels of Jane Austen were free from the coarse sexual innuendoes of Aphra Behn, Defoe, Fielding or Smollett, while Dickens ignored the subject of sex altogether.

Michael Mason’s main problem is to determine how prudery affected behaviour. Was it merely a veneer of hypocrisy, covering up a very different sexual reality? Were there fewer, and less enjoyable, sexual acts inside and outside marriage? Wild figures once circulated about the gigantic numbers of prostitutes, especially in London, which suggested that middle-class males, dissatisfied by the quality and quantity of the sex available at home – a consequence of their wives’ anti-sensual ignorance – were seeking satisfaction elsewhere. But nobody really knew, or could suggest ways of finding out.

In 1981, Michel Foucault threw a time-bomb into this debate by claiming, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, that the 19th and 20th centuries had one quality in common which was far more important than any that set them apart. This was the desire to know all there is to be known, scientifically, physiologically, biologically, culturally and psychologically, about every aspect of sex. The process culminated in Havelock Ellis and Freud in the 19th century, and in Masters and Johnson and their imitators in the 20th. Foucault was a philosopher who knew little history, so he read scientific texts and paid scant attention to the enormous weight of evidence supporting the theory that a suffocating blanket of prudery had for nearly a century characterised ‘Victorian’ England – France, too, for that matter. Mason agrees that, as defined by Foucault, sex ‘was certainly not repressed in the English 19th century’. ‘In fact’, he adds, the point, ‘like much in Foucault, emerges as something of a platitude when expressed in a straightforward way’. Foucault, in short, was true but trite. Mason goes on to point out that he also ignored the linkage between beliefs about sex and sexual practices. As a result, ‘he leaves the field of bodies and pleasures perfectly intact as a subject of historical enquiry, with its linkages to belief, if one only chooses to investigate it.’

Shortly afterwards, in 1984, Peter Gay, in The Bourgeois Experience: Education of the Senses, published new evidence of sexual hedonism in practice, especially in the record of one joyously sensual upper-middle-class threesome living in the Connecticut Valley at the height of Victorian prudery. He claimed too much for his new data, but the accepted wisdom now is that perhaps the Victorians did not behave all that differently from ourselves, but were merely more hypocritical.

Michael Mason, rightly, will have none of this revisionism. He describes ‘Victorianism’ as ‘the moralism which characterises English sexual culture in, approximately, the period 1800 to 1860’ and, unlike Gay, makes no attempt to rescue the Victorians from the doghouse of obsessive prudery in which they have lived since 1910. Again and again, he argues that ‘19th-century anti-sensualism had a very broad base,’ that it consisted of ‘a set of widely held values which commanded wide assent’ and that it was ‘a widely and warmly embraced creed’. He accepts that prudery was ‘a real phenomenon’, notably among middle-class groups, where verbal and visual inhibitions ‘ran deep’. Finally, in exasperation, he defines ‘Victorianism’ as ‘a moral code which unless we understand its roots might strike us as one that only a monster or a madman could espouse’.

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