Former Lovers

Michael Mason

  • The Bourgeois Experience. Victoria to Freud Vol. I: Education of the Senses by Peter Gay
    Oxford, 608 pp, £18.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 503352 3
  • 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, ISBN 0 374 10716 5
  • The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds edited by Phyllis Grosskurth
    Hutchinson, 319 pp, £14.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 09 154170 0

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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