Rational and Companionate, or Carnal and Impulsive?

Michael Mason

  • What is Love? Richard Carlile’s Philosophy of Sex edited by M.L. Bush
    Verso, 214 pp, £19.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85984 851 6

Anti-Victorianism seems to have settled in as a permanent feature of our modern historical consciousness. What started as a mischievous or irritated gesture on the part of a small intellectual élite around the time of World War One has become the firm orthodoxy of the middle-brow mass. The Victorians have retained their demonised status despite the emergence of powerful rivals, as later periods slip back across the line marking off the historical past. Even the Sixties have come in for some hefty stigmatising, but that has not lightened the burden borne by the Victorians. Professional students of the period are more interested in analysis than judgment and see things differently – but they tend to be out of touch with general opinion. A collection of academic essays on the subject of ‘Victorian values’, first published in 1990, has just been reissued.[*] It is revised and enlarged, explains the editor, because so much has happened to change our vision of the Victorians since 1990: the Tories are out, Princess Diana has died, and so on. These remarks will be baffling to many for whom the basic indictment of the Bloomsbury circle has never been revised.

If the rot set in around the time of Victoria’s accession – in Virginia Woolf’s words, there then formed ‘the great cloud which hung, not only over London, but over the whole of the British Isles’ – just what was lost as a result? Logic suggests that we will find ourselves back in congenial company once we are divagating mentally in the early years of the 19th century, or the last years of the 18th. This is above all an attractive prospect in relation to sex. What we find least forgivable about the Victorians is their sex lives, or non-sex lives. It would clinch the case against them if the pre-Victorian years could be shown to be populated with sexual free spirits, who affirmed our capacity for erotic pleasure, and celebrated it; who deplored constraints on our range of sexual satisfactions. At first glance, the enterprise looks promising. Didn’t Blake and Shelley believe in free love? Didn’t Coleridge and Southey plan to establish a liberationist commune in America? Didn’t Byron and Hazlitt write with startling candour about sex?

On closer inspection, things are more tricky. Whatever their views on heterosexual intercourse, Blake and Shelley both drew a firm line at other practices: Blake at masturbation (‘The self enjoyings of self denial’), and Shelley at homosexuality (he was incredulous that the ‘operose’ act of sodomy should have been performed by the Greeks). Shelley is famous for having written that ‘chastity is a monkish and evangelical superstition,’ but he went on to declare that both chastity and ‘unintellectual sensuality’ were the foes of ‘natural temperance’. In Shelley’s view sensuality becomes less and less ‘unintellectual’ as mankind progresses: ‘the gratification of the senses is no longer all that is sought in sexual connection.’ The only tolerant remarks about homosexuality made by an English intellectual to have survived from the early 19th century are Bentham’s. But the Utilitarians are more often yet another stumbling-block for the seeker of sexual free spirits in the period. James Mill’s belief in the felicific calculus, and disdain for conventional morality, did not budge him one inch from an extreme austerity in sexual ethics (nor from marital exploitativeness: his wife was an unloved ‘drudge’ who bore him ten children, although Mill campaigned in a vague way for birth control).

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[*] Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in 19th-Century Society edited by Gordon Marsden (Addison Wesley Longman, 304 pp., £12.99, 6 July 1998, 0 582 292 89 1).