In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

Former LoversMichael Mason
The Bourgeois Experience. Victoria to Freud Vol. I: Education of the Senses 
by Peter Gay.
Oxford, 608 pp., £18.50, March 1984, 0 19 503352 3
Show More
Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd 
by Polly Longsworth.
Farrar, Straus, 449 pp., £18.50, September 1984, 0 374 10716 5
Show More
The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds 
edited by Phyllis Grosskurth.
Hutchinson, 319 pp., £14.95, May 1984, 0 09 154170 0
Show More
Show More

Human cultures in the historical period are intimidatingly complex affairs, and it is usually very difficult for the cultural historian to achieve generalisations that are reliable and also interesting. But middle-class sex in the Victorian period, one might think, is an exception. Surely cultural history can say something definite, but not trivial, about this subject. Not only academic self-respect but, in a sense, the self-respect of 20th-century Western attitudes at large are tied up in the question. If ‘Victorian’ does not correctly connote a special point of view about sex, at least one prevailing among the Victorian middle class, an alarming instability starts to make itself felt. One of the most secure ideas, apparently, that we have about the recent past, which enters even very informal discourse on countless occasions, looks dubious.

Less disruption would be involved if there survived a categorical link, of whatever sort, between the Victorians and sex: if ‘Victorian’ continued to be entitled to a powerful sexual overtone, even if not the customary one. The reviewers of Peter Gay’s book have been very receptive to the thought that we have got Victorian sexuality wrong: for it is a leading part of the author’s argument that the Victorians were not prevailingly ignorant, inhibited, prudish and hypocritical about sex. But the reviewers have also tended to accept the broad assumption of Education of the Senses: that the sexual culture of the mid and late 19th century in the West, while it may not have been what we supposed, was nevertheless distinctive. It seems right to call this view the assumption on which Education of the Senses is based, if only because of the book’s design. It runs from ‘Victoria to Freud’, and is intended as the first of two volumes on sex in this period. These will themselves be part of a five-volume sequence on middle-class culture, of which the three further elements are all to deal with aggression.

That makes Professor Gay’s approach to Victorianism idiosyncratic, but also one that preserves, with considerable emphasis, the idea that the sexual culture of the Victorians was noteworthy. And this is a view that the author is prepared to back in his text – up to a point. Education of the Senses is, in fact, a book at odds with itself. The justifications for the historical bracket, Victoria to Freud, are offered, but sketchily. At the same time, the abundant documentation of sexual culture within that bracket tends to break it down from the inside, by exposing a great diversity of attitudes and behaviours (more richly, indeed, than any other book I know). Education of the Senses struggles, at one level, to restrict its disruption of our attitudes towards Victorianism to an inverting of clichés. But its stronger, in a sense reluctant, tendency is more subversive: to make the reader wonder if cultural history must, after all, abandon that promising arena, Victorian sex.

Even the overt argument of the book is conducted with a certain hesitancy: distributed over a number of short, separated passages that sometimes sound as if the author is trying to reassure not only us but himself that he has a thesis. To recapitulate: one premise of this argument is that the Victorians were not prevailingly ‘Victorian’ – that they had a more active, more candid and more knowledgeable sexual culture than we suppose. The other premise is that Victorian sexuality was nevertheless distinctive. The reconciling element is that the bourgeoisie not only advanced in power and wealth in the 19th century, but also sensually and emotionally. The theory is perhaps a pendant or sequel to Lawrence Stone (a historian whose taste for bringing his thesis into the foreground leads to a kind of sexual historiography very different from Gay’s).

So far so good. The early industrial world has been given a sexual potentiality: but what of the conventionally emphasised traits of Victorian sexual culture? About this Gay is confusing. Here is one statement on the matter (it comes two pages from the end of the book):

that, of course, is the point – the point of this vignette, of this volume, indeed of the pair of volumes I am devoting to 19th-century sensuality and love. That treasured, almost miraculous encounter, happy marital intercourse suffused with tenderness, was the business of the lovers alone. Its very mystery, often taken as a symptom of the shame with which prudish bourgeois approached the marriage bed, was something of a tribute to their high regard for loving, erotic pleasures ... Bourgeois reserve, then, modesty, reticence, propriety, to say nothing of prudishness and hypocrisy, gave the middle classes time and space for organising their responses to a world in flux.

This is just a sketch for a good idea: vaguely stated, and fleeing to figures of speech. Unhappily, there is quite a lot of writing in Education of the Senses that has this quality of not yielding much if you give it the attention which its thought-provoking air solicits. The passage is also hard, indeed impossible, to reconcile with the idea that Victorian bourgeois sexual plenitude was a rebellion against restraint: but at an earlier point Professor Gay elaborates his Flaubertian title as a ‘re-education of the senses’. And he seems not to have decided if the intervening episode of repression was a phenomenon going back to the first anti-onanism tracts of the early 18th century, or to the Evangelical-led severity of the late 1780s onwards (and, at the opening of the book, confusingly, he takes the 1820s as his starting-point because ‘erotic reserve and moral earnestness’ were newly in the air).

The notion that the Victorians had had a surfeit of Wilberforce, Hannah Moore, Bowdler and the rest would have been worth pursuing, but it is only hinted at, then shied away from. The problem of the initial bounds of the subject – what is being claimed to grow out of what, and when – is perhaps the most unsatisfactory single feature of the argument of Education of the Senses, but on many issues Professor Gay gives the impression of a man who has gone to the typewriter too soon: with a magnificent accumulation of facts, and, less fortunately (though probably as a consequence of the very range of his explorations), with an accumulation of conflicting hypotheses about them. This is the point at which to stress that the research is indeed outstanding. Gay has found so much unfamiliar material from so many provenances – English, American, French and German – that his book will be a major resource for fellow historians for a long time.

He makes an important remark about the relation between his evidence and his conclusions at the outset of Education of the Senses: ‘The search for documentation, the construction of causal patterns, the vigilant, sceptical mistrust of speculation must go hand in hand with the analytical leap from the manifest contents of my evidence to its latent meanings. Certainly the historian can never duplicate, in his armchair or in the archives, the psychoanalytic situation ... Yet the historian can at least in some measure approximate it.’ A historian who was thoroughly committed to Freudian theory would not contrast the ‘leap’ of analysis so starkly and damagingly with the ‘search for documentation’ and ‘mistrust of speculation’. For the true Freudian the exercise is all care and empiricism. Professor Gay sounds as if he is throwing in his lot with Freud out of frustration or desperation. And while he lives up to this commitment in the sense that the book keeps sounding the Freudian theme, this is done to curiously little effect. Generally Gay’s psychoanalytical interpretations of his evidence involve so much admitted tinkering with Freud’s approach to human sexuality – sometimes at quite a basic level – that the association with Freud loses its point. From time to time Freud is acknowledged to be downright wrong about sex in his age. On the few occasions when a Freudian style is used with resolution – in relation to the dreams of some of the diarists drawn upon, for example – the usual abyss of arbitrariness opens up: most readers will be grateful that it closes again so quickly, and that the author has not sabotaged his remarkable efforts in research by actually carrying out the programme of ‘history informed by psychoanalysis’ that he announces. Professor Gay has enlisted with Freud in the fashion of a man becoming a Roman Catholic because he has doubts about Christianity. The impulse is understandable. One thing which makes writing about Victorian sex a more difficult enterprise than it promises to be is simply the difficulty of writing about the sexual element in human culture at all. There is a special concentration of problems over the acquiring and interpreting of evidence about this subject, at any period. Psychoanalysis is a confident (if very obscure) technique of interpretation that, for the historian of 19th-century middle-class sex, seems already to be on a footing of familiarity with the right kind of material.

The half-hearted Freudianism of Professor Gay’s method joins forces with the other features of his procedure which encourage the sense that a history of Victorian sex is a delusory project. The message of Education of the Senses, for all its efforts to find a pattern in Victorian sexual culture, is that this culture is too diverse and unsystematic to be a subject for historical generalisation. To experience the topic in this light is exciting even while it is disconcerting. A monolith collapses into a huge heap of diverse fragments: forms of life that each have their own identity and interest. Such a collapse could lead to new and more secure historical classifications – and even provide a point at which we could continue to attach our cherished label of ‘Victorian’ with its sexual connotation (the first two decades of the 19th century, perhaps). But historians ought also to feel regret if the idea of a Victorian sexual culture evaporates, and a sense that something distinctive has escaped their powers of description. To take one example: Victorian men seem to have been unusually subject to fears of impotence. At this period books on the topic become for the first time a fairly regular element in the literature of sexual medicine. It is in this light that much of the writing which is overtly about the merits of sexual restraint should be read. No doubt the idea of enfeeblement through ‘seminal loss’ was still thought plausible, and the evils of masturbation were commonly emphasised, but these are notions that arose in the dim unscientific past of the early 18th century, and their survival in the much more rigorous climate of the latter 19th is anomalous.

The analysis of his sexual powers that the American journalist and editor Joseph Lyman was given by a New York phrenologist in 1865 (an extraordinary document) surely – like the horoscopes in our modern press – trades on self-doubt in the subject, and peddles reassurance (and starts off, incidentally, with a sentence in the best vein of fortuneteller’s incorrigibility):

Your prick is either down or up – mostly down but when it is up you do vigorous work – so thorough that no sane woman would hanker for a change ... You ought not to fire a broadside oftener than once a week. That will content her and not hurt you ... Your wife has no occasion to feel jealous of you. You are a gentleman and you don’t want food unless it is flavoured right and served in a proper dish. If you do it once to a woman you will do it a great many times, for two reasons, first because you don’t want variety and second because she could not possibly gain anything by a change.

The line of thought is obscure, to say the least. Under the guise of a consecutive statement the phrenologist is repeatedly sounding certain preoccupations of his client. The last sentences, though they seem to be about Lyman’s fidelity to his wife, come back to the possibility of her adultery, of her seeking to ‘gain’ something from other men which, earlier, she might ‘hanker’ for.

As Professor Gay observes, female enjoyment of sex is clearly assumed in this document, but not, I think, with ‘calm confidence’. Instead, it seems to be the chief cause of the implicit anxiety about sexual performance. The same goes for one of the most celebrated passages in all Victorian sexual literature, Dr William Acton on the female sexual response:

The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally ... No nervous or feeble young man need, therefore, be deterred from marriage by an exaggerated notion of the duties required from him. The married woman has no wish to be treated on the footing of a mistress.

Far from denying the female capacity for lust, as it is so often cited as doing, this passage explicitly affirms it (and for good measure gives us a glimpse of Victorian extra-marital liaisons founded in lust). The question at issue is evidently whether a woman’s sexual appetite normally exceeds a man’s (men may be ‘troubled with sexual feelings ... habitually’ but they are also – in a telling absurdity in the logic of the passage – liable to be ‘nervous and feeble’).

Professor Gay sees further past Acton than many commentators. He recognises that ‘Dr Acton’s reassurances to timid men about to face their ... brides are thus an invaluable clue to distressing preoccupations in his culture,’ but then – in one of the few instances where his Freudianism really disables him as a historian – he traces these fears to a perceived ‘threat of castration’. At best this is a tautology. Why should men have feared women’s sexuality (their own castration, if you will) at this time? Perhaps because, contrary to the cliché, they were more and not less aware of it than some earlier cultures. The introduction of a female-centred pornography with Fanny Hill, the new ‘sex and sensibility’ standards of 18th-century marriage, the decrease in the age of marriage and first intercourse (plus, according to one reading of the demographic evidence, more of the latter performed without matrimonial intentions) over a century or so from about 1740, and the conspicuousness of female prostitution in 19th-century cities, do not make the alleged Victorian conviction of female sexual insensibility surprising: they make it incredible. Whether or not Acton genuinely held such a conviction in a restricted form (‘the majority ... are not very much troubled’), an unforced reading of his remarks – without any resort to Freud for a ‘leap’ of interpretation – strongly suggests that his readers did not. (A similar argument could be mounted in relation to children: leading from a Blakean-enhanced sense of childhood sexuality to the blush on the cheeks of Mr Podsnap’s daughters.)

Acton sounds, however, like a man uttering an orthodox view, and we have tended to receive him in this spirit. In general, it is wrong to accept published statements of this sort as expressions of orthodoxy. To start with, if we find Victorian sexual culture to be complicated, we may be sure that Victorians found it complicated also, and would not have had a clear sense of the orthodox and heterodox (the idea that contemporaries will have a better grasp of their culture than the historian may be corrected by reflecting on our uncertainties about our own sexual culture in the late 20th century, and the interest which research into other people’s attitudes and behaviours holds for us). But in this lay the spur to utter opinions. Writers do not bother to set down views which they consider to be shared by most people in their society. Though it will often suit them, as a rhetorical ploy, to present their beliefs as if they commanded wide support, writers are usually motivated by a sense that the views of their fellows are, to a significant extent, mistaken. William Acton is writing with a purpose, though he does not state it: he is trying to counter the effect of a tendency in his sexual culture, the enhanced recognition of female sexuality.

All this may be called the Axiom of Tendentiousness, and it is a helpful principle to bear in mind in the face of the diverse Victorian literature of sex, making worthwhile generalisations more feasible. It means that the diversity may overlie a relatively homogeneous sexual culture: in the sense that writers are likely to be more alert to other possibilities of belief and action in their community than they acknowledge (something of this sort is often all that people mean when they detect a ‘prurient’ element in prudery: of course euphemisms, for example, entail acquaintance with another way of saying things – as the Victorians, when they called trousers ‘unmentionables’, made explicit). We tend to assume that the written output of a culture will not do justice to its diversity, but it may happen that such evidence exaggerates diversity: one Early Victorian commentator arrived at a polemically high estimate of the number of prostitutes in London which has been gratefully repeated by many historians of the period – even though it was contradicted at the time by a Commissioner of Police. In reading a text like Acton’s we are entitled to a certain extent to disregard overt positions and look instead for the unspoken context. At the same time, we can hope to notice features of a writer’s thought which lie even deeper, below the level of his or her tendentious consciousness, and are fundamental assumptions of the sexual culture.

The range of texts which may have a tendentious element is wide. Professor Gay opens his analysis of middle-class sexuality with some eye-catching extracts from the diary of a late 19th-century New England girl, Mabel Loomis Todd. Her sexual activities were certainly interesting. She was physically enthusiastic about sex, and had an affair with Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin which her husband not only condoned but aided and abetted. However, all this is recorded in the diaries in a far from neutral spirit. To Mabel her sex life proved something: ‘The greatest proof I have ever had that I am different from ninety-nine others, and that my girlish hope – that I had something rare in me – was well-founded, lies in the great, the tremendous fact that I own the entire love of the rarest man who ever lived [Dickinson] ... David [her husband] is large enough to see that if he does not answer to me at every point and another does it’s not his fault, nor mine, nor the other’s ... It is a dangerous doctrine for the masses, but one in a thousand can understand it.’ Such passages will prove to the reader that Mabel Todd was repellently self-centred and conceited. There were also some rather impressive contemporary opinions to the effect that she was a fraud. Her daughter Millicent recorded as ‘one of the earliest things I can recall’ her realisation that her mother ‘distorted the truth’. After Austin Dickinson’s death the family claimed that Mabel had persuaded Austin’s sister and heir, Lavinia, by fraud and misrepresentation, to sign away part of his legacy: a piece of land worth $2000. The resulting lawsuit went as far as the Massachusetts Supreme Court, where Mabel lost, the judge declaring: ‘seldom is there a case in which the reasons for a rule that weight should be given to the impressions produced by seeing and hearing the witnesses are so strong as in this case.’

These damaging verdicts on Mabel Todd are to be found in Austin and Mabel: a selection from the love-letters, with a commentary in which the compiler, Polly Longsworth, does her best to put Mabel in a good, or tolerable, light. Mabel’s personal writings, however polemical, were presumably not written with an eye to publication: though she was thinking soon after Austin’s death of putting out their letters as a rival to those of Heloïse and Abelard, and at the end of her life she charged her daughter to ‘set the record straight’ with the help of all her papers (she evidently was not aware of Millicent’s different notions of veracity). John Addington Symonds, on the other hand, did intend the astonishing Memoirs which he composed in 1889-90 – some three years before his death at the age of 53 – to be published as a contribution to the homosexual question. He also instructed his literary executor to postpone publication until his wife and family would be spared pain. ‘I do not just now know how to meet the difficulty,’ he wrote, and in the event the Memoirs have had to wait for nearly a hundred years for publication in volume form.

They are closely connected with two non-personal projects on the theory of homosexuality undertaken by Symonds at the same time: the pamphlet ‘A Problem in Modern Ethics’ and the research contributed to the Sexual Inversion volume of Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Their version of his own homosexual past is visibly governed by a wish to test ideas about the homosexual personality, and the outlines of the picture waver a good deal. Symonds accepted in principle the idea of an innately homosexual character, but the suggestion is always in the wings that better experiences with women (Symonds’s wife Catherine was frigid) might have diverted him into heterosexuality (Symonds represents himself as a homosexual who is prepared to accept indefinite postponement of consummation, but as a husband whose need for ‘sexual outlet’ leads to unwanted pregnancy – and the only reference to a penis which is not either disgusted or saccharine in tone concerns his own on his honeymoon).

Symonds was also trying to make sense out of writings and certain material actions of his past which were themselves intensely imbued with reflection on sexuality. Indeed the Memoirs emphasise, no doubt with fidelity, how the sexual life of a late 19th-century homosexual could be a series of transactions with outside opinion. Over the course of these episodes, Symonds’s sexual ideology evidently veered greatly, though the mature account imposes as much consistency of attitude as possible. Most startling of all is the contrast between his dealings with Charles Vaughan and his later views on homosexuals in society. While still an undergraduate, Symonds, with the backing of his father and John Conington, threatened the man who had recently been his headmaster at Harrow, Vaughan, with the exposure of his passionate affair with a schoolboy contemporary of Symonds if he did not resign his post. Nor was Vaughan allowed by the Symonds clique to accept any of the distinguished public appointments which he was offered when he did resign. Yet the Symonds who wrote the Memoirs had come to regard society’s treatment of homosexuals as cruel, and hoped his history ‘might render the scientific handling of such cases more enlightened than it is at present, and might arouse some sympathy even in the breast of Themis for not ignoble victims of a natural instinct reputed vicious in the modern age’. As with St Paul, hate and love of the persecuted were closely bound up. Symonds speaks of the personal misery flowing from the Vaughan affair in striking vocabulary: ‘It was a severe strain upon my nervous and moral strength – this probing of Vaughan’s case, this separation from old friends on a question of casuistry, this forced envisagement of my own emotional attitude.’ That technical term ‘casuistry’, used frequently by Symonds in this context, is juxtaposed, almost equated, with the most subjective processes. Symonds himself survived an attempt to expose him as a homosexual in 1862, and became a teacher at Clifton College, where he had a long-lasting affair with a pupil.

This is not to say that the Memoirs are all theory about sex and no practice. For those who like to catch the Victorians with their pants down, the volume offers frequent satisfactions, for Symonds is the first to admit that his public presentation as married man and scholar is bogus (‘Meanwhile I was giving my lectures on Florence to the Royal Institution. Very dull lectures they were, for my soul was not in them; my soul throbbed for the soldier’). The theorising is chiefly intrusive, perhaps, because it seems so strained and inappropriate to the realities of Victorian homosexuality that are also exposed. Symonds was enthralled by a picture of himself as isolated by his sexual appetites (‘I was born out of sympathy with the men around me’). Even in the satisfaction of those appetites he likes to stress the episodes where a full homosexual feeling was not reciprocated: for example, in his adventures with bisexual Swiss and Italians. In her Introduction the knowledgeable editor of the Memoirs, Phyllis Grosskurth, is rather ingenuous in accepting this claim at face value: not only because Symonds’s tastes were known to both his father and his wife (as Vaughan’s, incidentally, had been to his), but more importantly because of the allusions throughout the Memoirs to a large, institutionalised homosexual freemasonry with good internal lines of communication.

To enter this world you did not even have to serve a probation. While Symonds was still a child ‘a handsome lad of a full-blown healthy type once masturbated in my presence.’ The depiction of Harrow is lurid: ‘Every boy of good looks had a female name, and was recognised either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow’s “bitch” ... The talk in the dormitories and the studies was incredibly obscene. Here and there one could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, the sports of naked boys in bed together.’ At Oxford, homosexuality was evidently continually discussed, and practised quite openly by some. We see a graffito on a corner in Marylebone: ‘Prick to prick, so sweet.’ In 1877 ‘an acquaintance of old standing asked me one day to go with him to a male brothel near the Regent’s Park Barracks’ (this will have been Mrs Truman’s famous establishment on Albany Street, which fronted as a tobacconist’s). We never learn who this acquaintance was: indeed it is hard to imagine, on Symonds’s account of himself, how such an invitation could ever have been ventured. In the last resort there is something uncharitable towards his lovers in Symonds’s attitude. Perhaps this man who presents himself as a victim of unreciprocated, stigmatised feeling aroused true homosexual love in someone. If so, it seems not to have been regarded. Symonds thought of himself as writing on behalf of the homosexual community, but its real shape and proportions he apparently found irrelevant, or even distasteful.

The invaluable, shocking glimpses of Victorian sexual life in the Memoirs are not restricted to the homosexual domain. Symonds casually tells us how, in 1864, ‘I went to Norwich, for some forgotten purpose, and stayed with a clergyman of our acquaintance. I must have been in a sexually electrical condition; for his young wife nearly led me into an adulterous amour with her. Had it not been for my constitutional repugnance for mere casual acts with women whom I did not love emotionally, there is no doubt that I should have possessed her.’ But the most memorable single instance of this sort – memorable because it is actually double, adding one cruel vignette to another-arises from the public bullying by his lovers of one of the Harrow ‘bitches’, called Cookson, ‘a red-faced strumpet, with flabby cheeks and sensual mouth – the notissima fossa of our house’. He was regularly beaten up, stripped, and showered with saliva and mucus: ‘I have seen nothing more repulsive in my life – except once at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, when I saw a jealous man tear the earrings out of the ruptured lobes of a prostitute’s ears, and all the men in the saloon rose raging at him for his brutality – I have seen nothing more disgusting in my life, I say, than the inhuman manner in which this poor creature Cookson came afterwards to be treated by his former lovers.’ None of this is very much to Symonds’s main purpose, but it is considerably more suggestive for the historian than his discussions of the corrupting effects of Greek literature on a sensitive schoolboy, or the delights of a purely emotional liaison with a young man. Symonds does not much resemble William Acton (who cauterised his urethra for him as a remedy for seminal loss), but like him he is a writer of the period who, if read attentively, brings to life, in the attempt to communicate certain cherished opinions, a context of values and actions which is more interesting than the opinions themselves.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences