Unshockable Victorians

John Bayley

  • The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Vol. II: The Tender Passion by Peter Gay
    Oxford, 490 pp, £19.50, June 1986, ISBN 0 19 503741 3

In any century feelings of superiority about the one before are accompanied or succeeded by feelings of nostalgia, even envy. Fifty years ago we laughed at the Victorians: now we wish we could be more like them. They made life more exciting for themselves than we do. They made sex far more exciting. Or so it may now seem. We wouldn’t actually want to be Victorians, but we love now to understand them to the point almost of identification.

So it appears from all the books about them, and their popularity. The popular class for this fond backward look is the Bourgeois. Once mocked and despised, it now comes retrospectively into its own: its complacencies, tyrannies and inhibitions now seem positively seductive. Peter Gay proposes to write a series of six volumes on ‘The Bourgeois Experience’, of which this is the second, and it is clear that he is on the way to sales and success. Shrewdly, the first two volumes deal respectively with sex and love as parts of the bourgeois experience: later instalments may not prove so interesting to the ordinary reader.

To get at the inner life of bourgeois culture Gay proposes to use ‘history informed by psychoanalysis’ – that is to say, a mild version of the scholarly techniques of inquiry used by historians like Braudel and Zeldin, combined with a fairly straightforward Freudian analysis of the results. In accordance with this historical method, obscure diaries, memoirs and records are extensively used, and certainly tend to be more interesting than the already well-worn generalisations about the love life of 19th-century bourgeois society – repression, persecution, prostitution, the marriage market, hypocrisy, respectability ... Nothing in the book is very new except individuals and details, and the facts are considerably more interesting than the exposition and the criticism. But that is natural enough. At the same time, Gay is enthusiastic about the culture he describes and good at putting ideas about it into the reader’s head.

Where the feelings are concerned, the models or metaphors we now take for granted are of inhibition and repression leading to liberation and release. Or failing to do so: remaining paralysed, frozen, hung up. The idea that personal inhibitions and social proscriptions may themselves be releasing, may offer to the feelings far more in the way of individual excitement and drama than the stereotyped patterns of modern permissiveness, is one that our culture finds it hard to take. Some such idea, none the less, seems to lurk at the back of Peter Gay’s presentation. In commenting at some length on the journal of Alfred Dodd, a student in 1836 at Washington College, Hartford, Connecticut, he remarks on the fact that Dodd, ‘discovering his capacious gift for erotic investment in the first days of Queen Victoria’s reign, loved men and women indiscriminately without undue self-laceration, without visible private guilt or degrading public shame’. So of course might the Dodds of today, but Gay suggests – and indeed the diary entries show it – that Dodd’s feelings were an inspiration to him, a source of psychic energy and selfhood, offering a limitless vista of indefinable emotional satisfaction rather than being shrunk or diminished, as they might be today, in the bored world of the clinically commonplace. (The term ‘shrink’ for analyst is a tired old joke that reveals none the less what the patient has come to feel and assume about the process.)

‘Dodd’s impunity,’ says Gay, ‘is a tribute to the unsuspected openness of his culture. He preserved the appearances; it never occurred to him, in fact, to do anything else. In a culture in which appearances thoughtfully preserved meant denials successfully sustained, Dodd was allowed to pursue his women – and his men – in peace.’ Unsuspected, and unsuspecting, openness offers joys which our involuntarily closed culture can have little or no idea of. It was such an openness which made the Victorian novel the richest, most seductive, most exciting in the history of the genre. It also, in Gay’s view, gives an equal interest to the diary of a Dodd, an Amiel, or a Mabel Barrows, a young lady of 16 who in 1885 was keeping an artless private record at St Margaret’s School in Waterbury, Connecticut. ‘Mabel’, as she liked to be known to her friends – her real name was Mary – had various crushes on her fellow students (‘Carrie and I lay on my bed all afternoon and either fought or spooned’) which made her fascinating to herself and popular with her fellows, young and old, and of both sexes.

Of course there were, so to speak, puritans and killjoys in this bourgeois paradise. Historically, the irony might be said to be that it was the enemies of the bourgeois, not its leaders and lawgivers, who most deplored the paradoxical openness of its society. Baudelaire and Flaubert, who viewed the bourgeois with a hatred and disgust almost pathological in its intensity, hated in particular its most tender emotions. They were a sham, a pretence, a revolting hypocrisy. But in retrospect it can be made to appear that it was these disaffected intellectuals who tried to kill the goose that was laying golden eggs. The many authors, for example, even Hardy himself, who increasingly denounced the paralysing effect upon literature and society of Mrs Grundyism – were they themselves being hypocritical, or just blind to their own best interests? Could they not see that the whole depth and suggestion of their art depended upon ‘appearances thoughtfully preserved’ and ‘denials successfully sustained’? ‘A truly refined mind,’ says Mrs General in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, ‘will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid and pleasant.’ How conscious was Dickens of the implications, for Victorian art generally, of that ‘seem to be’? Possibly more conscious than the satirical and crusading side of him was prepared to admit. No formula, it now appears, can be more successful for the novelist than the surface propriety which a master of the genre can manipulate to reveal everything that lies beneath. Henry James and Ivy Compton-Burnett knew exactly how to do this, and they were the exceptions in not complaining of the censorship to which they were subjected by the standards of the philistine bourgeoisie.

The writer who offers his own version of a proper, placid and pleasant surface has a double advantage in art, denied to the fearless honesty of those who plunge straight away into the murky depths below. He can let the reader do the work, deciphering his subtext as if he were deciphering experience. And he gives equal pleasure to another class of reader unable or unwilling to do this. The ironical nemesis lying in wait for the author who can, and does, instantly tell all, is that ‘all’ will speedily come to seem banal, while at the same time the fare offered by such an uninhibitedly conventional modern novel comes to seem much stronger meat than any that ordinary life affords. The situation has then reversed itself: ‘realism’ today comes to seem as unreal as Mrs Radcliffe, and a proper, placid and pleasant surface may seem to carry us back to ordinary life in the way that Jane Austen did.

Our emphasis today on the healthiness of sex, Aids-causing tactics always excluded, and its place in society as a kind of domestic football, narrows a once spacious emotional area. Where the tender passions are concerned almost everything used to be sexier than sex. Even Flaubert felt that nature was like an amante, a maternal mistress in whose embraces he could safely and observingly confide. Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies and champion of muscular Anglicanism, made little or no distinction between love, religion and his own engagingly sadomasochistic fantasies, into all of which his wife entered with ingenuous and amorous enthusiasm. Gay reproduces some of Kingsley’s sketches, in one of which he portrays himself and his buxom nude fiancée bound together on a cross. Another, entitled ‘She is not dead but sleepeth’ (the ‘she’ had been blacked out into a ‘he’, presumably by Mrs Kingsley), gives us a winged Kingsleyesque angel bearing upward between his legs her drooping form, nude and as if pleasurably exhausted from intercourse. Fanny Grenfell Kingsley preserved those artless sketches in her own journal.

Today’s climate of opinion is probably turning back to the idea that it is a good or at least a harmless thing to mix sex with piety, compassion and caring Christianity, as Kingsley so lavishly did. But the Victorian and bourgeois attitudes can hardly be recaptured, except by means of nostalgic reconstruction. Self-consciousness has eaten too many of Eve’s, or Freud’s, apples. When an ardent feminist writes shamefacedly to the agony aunt of a woman’s magazine confessing that she has private fantasies of being sexually dominated by brutal men, the understanding columnist bids her be of good cheer. Such vagaries of the unconscious can be safely ignored and disarmed. A hundred years ago these fantasies would not have been rendered harmless so easily, but – conversely – they would have had the dignity of a secret and potent status in the area of things all the more important for not being mentioned.

Among the civilised feelings, and the institutions in which they found a home, the status of homosexuality was equally undifferentiated. We can now see, though Gay does not himself go into the matter, that the strong antagonism between Kingsley and Newman, which led to the writing of the latter’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, was quite simply sexual in origin, although both parties would have been surprised and no doubt disgusted to have had this pointed out. Both had a secret life of intimate sensations and feelings which emerged into open sublimation in their religious attitudes. And those secret lives were hostile and incompatible, Newman’s being gently but emphatically homosexual, Kingsley’s aggressively heterosexual. To the latter the former was a ninny and a wet: to the subtle and intellectually sinuous Roman Catholic convert the Anglican parson was a male chauvinist, a macho bore. Gay quotes the delightful story, told in Geoffrey Faber’s Oxford Apostles, of how the convert W.G. Ward once described a dream he had had, in which he found himself at a dinner party next to a veiled lady, who charmed him more and more as they talked. At last he exclaimed: ‘I have never felt such charm in any conversation since I used to talk with John Henry Newman, at Oxford.’ ‘I am John Henry Newman,’ the lady replied, raising her veil to show the well-known face. The touchingly beautiful and moving end of Newman’s poem, ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, is a perfect example of how easily the Victorians merged religious feeling with earthly tenderness and love.

And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved, long since, and lost awhile.

There would be no doubt of the sex of any angel to whom Kingsley turned for love and comfort, just as the attractive aspects of nature herself always appeared to him in alluringly feminine guise, the aspens ‘shivering deliciously’ in the bracingly chilly breezes of spring.

Whatever the naturalness with which Kingsley and Newman assimilated their personal being to their religious faith, there were many among the Victorians themselves who also had a shrewd idea of what was going on. The horrible John Kensit, demagogue and bully boy of the Protestant Truth Society, reported with glee on Good Friday services conducted by ‘priests in petticoats’, and attended by ‘very poor specimens of men ... a peculiar sort of people, very peculiar indeed’. Kensit’s myrmidons often broke up Anglo-Catholic services. Censorship, bourgeois-style, could be carried out by professional prudes as well as by the bookshops and circulating libraries themselves. The French judge and criminologist Louis Proal published in 1900 a weighty treatise on Le Crime et le Suicide Passionels, which was almost immediately translated into English. Proal, by no means a crude or a philistine writer, was inclined to think, as so many reformers had done before him, that the moral fibre of whole nations was collapsing around him from excessive consumption of bad books, fiction especially. The particular interest of Proal’s argument, which seems at least to have been based on statistics and forensic experience, is that he considered pornography more or less harmless, though he did not put the matter quite that way. Romance was what did the damage. Seducers even lent such things to young girls to lead them astray, as evidenced in Bourget’s vicious novel Le Disciple. Look at what happened to young Emma Roualt, before she became Madame Bovary. Or, he might have added, to Tatiana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Or what about Paolo and Francesca, who had been reading about the amours of Lancelot? Literature itself had always supplied the evidence for its own demoralising effect upon the youthful mind: but it did not seem to have occurred to Proal that the process was at least as old as reading.

There were plenty of other prophets of woe among the bourgeoisie, including the American George Beard, whose influential Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia), Its Symptoms, Nature, Sequences, Treatment, was published in 1880 and almost immediately translated into German. Beard’s all too familiar argument was that nervous wear and tear was produced by the finer feelings themselves, and that ‘the Indian Squaw keeps almost all of her force in reserve because she is unblessed and uncursed by the exhausting sentiment of love.’ This was not specially helpful for the bourgeoisie who were not Indian squaws and who had to put up as best they could with civilisation and its discontents. One way of doing so was in a frank and free exchange of sexual desires between wives and husbands, as exemplified in the letters that passed between Emma and Arthur Roe during and after the American Civil War. These are one of the pieces of more or less obscure evidence that Gay produces to show that husbands and wives in the Victorian period could be quite frank with one another about what each wanted, and what turned them on. But whoever supposed otherwise? Gay’s evidence that the Victorians were not as inhibited and hidebound in their feelings and communications as received opinion suggests will hardly come as a surprise.

Nor is literary criticism his forte: his generalisations are apt to be glib and his accounts of novels insensitive, though he ranges widely and has a fine collection of comparative examples. His search for the Oedipus complex throughout Victorian fiction, from Queiros’s Os Maias and Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale to David Copperfield and Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel, does not do much more than show how many stories make use of a triangle between a man and a younger and an older woman. Few of his many readers and fans minded that Henry Esmond virtually marries his mother at the end of Thackeray’s novel, although George Eliot called it ‘the most uncomfortable book you can imagine’, and George Saintsbury referred to its erotic plan as ‘very shocking – and excessively human’.

In many ways, the Victorians were curiously unshockable. Naturally enough, Thackerary was portraying himself through the love relations of Henry Esmond, and in the year the novel was published he confessed in a letter to an old friend that ‘it gives the keenest tortures of jealousy and disappointed yearning to my dearest old mother that she can’t be all in all to me, mother sister wife anything, but it mayn’t be.’ Having rejected his mother, Dickens was also doing the opposite thing: creating the image of the perfect young girl who could be mother sister wife etc. The enormously popular Spanish novelist Juan Valera produced a typical happy solution in Pepita Jiminez, in which the widow and older woman who is being wooed by the father is eventually – and with the father’s blessing – carried off by the son, thus uniting, as Gay puts it, the two strands of love the 19th century did not like to see separated: the couple resolve, at the end, to ‘unite conjugal love with the love of God’. By the time we reach Guy de Maupassant’s Fort comme la Mort the Oedipal theme is being manipulated with a good deal of cynicism. The rich bourgeoise who is comfortably married has an equally satisfactory relation with her painter lover. But she also has a daughter, to whom the painter Bertin is naturally attracted, seeing in her the same qualities he loves in her mother. Mother tries to combat this by forcing Bertin to regard the daughter as his own, thus trapping him in a kind of incest. The strain becomes too great, and Bertin virtually commits suicide under a bus, rather like Bosinney in The Forsyte Saga.

The inevitable conclusion is that the Victorians wrote such good novels because Freud had not made them self-conscious, and thus their imaginations were in a curious sense more free than if they had been writing in a permissive age. But this again is hardly new, and as an interpretation of the Bourgeois Experience Gay has no very challenging thesis to put forward, either in terms of literature or sociology. His book is full of interesting matter nonetheless, and will no doubt make its contribution to the reaction towards ‘Victorian values’, whether real or imaginary, which seems to be going on today.