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).

There are other unwelcome guests at the early 19th-century sexual symposium whom we cannot surreptitiously delete, as we might the Utilitarians, when we think of the period as an era of freedom. There is the great anarchist William Godwin, whose treasured insight it was that our impulses are the artefacts of society and who didn’t hesitate to carry that insight into the sexual domain. His feminist partner Mary Wollstonecraft applied the same thought to women’s sexual drives. Looming behind these thinkers is Rousseau, the great hero, and the greatest embarrassment, of the age’s liberationism. Sceptical of the innateness of sexual impulses, and repressive in its recommendations about how they should be handled in young people, his Emile enjoys a thoroughly undeserved reputation as a liberal educational tract.

Emancipated sexual belief gets a better showing when we downgrade a notch, to the realm of the popular and the practically reformist. The awkward case of William Cobbett has to be sidestepped somehow (he was a fanatic for premarital chastity), but there is a promising cohort of liberationists among the period’s other radicals: William Thompson, Francis Place, George Petrie, Thomas Spence, Robert Owen and Richard Carlile. In his day, Carlile was no less celebrated as a political agitator, and as a polemical atheist, than he was as a sexual reformer: some such mix of activities was the rule for this group. But it was Carlile’s sexual programme which was mainly remembered after his death in 1843. His two long, overlapping essays, ‘What is Love?’ and Every Woman’s Book, are familiar titles in the canon of sexual reformism, but they are astonishingly hard to find these days, even by the standards of such non-respectable 19th-century publications. They have a complicated textual history, they have various ramifications in Carlile’s personal life and in his life as a polemicist, and they contain obscure contemporary allusions. For these reasons, an edition, but something more than an edition, of the two texts was needed, and Michael Bush’s book provides this kind of enlarged treatment. Here are the texts themselves, with their variations, and with their allusions explained, surrounded by an exceptionally knowledgable narrative of Carlile the journalist, lecturer, husband and lover.

Carlile was a Devonshire artisan drawn into England’s post-Napoleonic wave of radicalism as a journalist and publisher. He was a conspicuous and fiery denouncer of ‘Peterloo’ in 1819, and an advocate of extreme political reforms. Soon he was serving a six-year jail sentence, though for blasphemy (as the publisher of freethought works) rather than political subversion. It was during this exceptionally long sentence in Dorchester prison (from where he still managed to issue his journal, the Republican) that sexual emancipation took its place among Carlile’s other stridently announced libertarian views. Near the end of his ordeal he included in the Republican the 15-page essay ‘What is Love?’. In February 1826, after his release, he turned the essay into a small book, Every Woman’s Book or What is Love?

The sexual annexe to Carlile’s politics dates from specific experiences in prison, some of them painful experiences which he did not handle with dignity. His wife Jane, herself a courageous and advanced thinker, was imprisoned with him for the middle two years at Dorchester, in the same cell. The first occasion on which we know of Carlile arguing the case for sexual intercourse as a valuable stimulant to health and happiness – as an act which has no more ‘relation to morals’ than ‘eating or drinking together’, and therefore is no business of the priest – is in a letter to the High Sheriff of Dorset proposing that sexual liaisons between prisoners should be permitted. Although this letter was written after Jane’s release, Carlile was far from simply missing her sexual companionship. ‘I am not pleading for a wife; nor do I ever wish to have a wife locked up in the same room with me again,’ he informed the Sheriff somewhat petulantly, not to say cruelly. The Carlile marriage had deteriorated badly in jail, though the couple had continued to cohabit in every sense. Against this background, a passage from ‘What is Love?’ which may seem to be just an unabashed hedonistic plea for temporary liaisons, enlivened by the Blakean term ‘shackles’, takes on an uncomfortably autobiographical and literal colouring. Setting out ‘the principle or definition of love’, he writes: ‘the passion of love is nothing but the passion to secrete semen in a natural way.’ This

explains why married people are generally unhappy and hate each other soon after marriage at all times except the moments of secretion of semen ... It proves, and experience is wholly with it, that the marriage ties in this country are too many for the simple enjoyment of a passion that is not constant, but periodical, that is allied to but one object that dies with every gratification ... and that should not be forced nor shackled ... Nature disdains an artificial tie, and feels the attempted shackles to be an insult that generates enmity.

The Carlile who entered Dorchester prison thought of contraception, insofar as he thought of it at all, with repugnance. It was against nature, and would release women on a sexual rampage. But outside the walls lay that determined proselytiser for birth control, Francis Place. Place did not neglect the opportunity of a correspondence with his jailed fellow radical to promote his favourite cause. In less than six months, in 1822, Carlile was turned round. ‘What is Love?’ and Every Woman’s Book incorporated the first attributable practical advice on birth control published in English. Carlile, the cat’s-paw of Place, became a hero to neo-Malthusians many years later.

It is all too easy to discredit Carlile on personal grounds. He was an obsessive, in fact a crank, who had strange dietary convictions: no meat, alcohol or tobacco, but a daily ‘globule about the size of ... a rather large pill’ of mercury. And he was an inconsistent crank. The violent atheism which made him so distinctive in his early years gave way in his middle age to something he called ‘Christianity’. In between, in Every Woman’s Book, he decided that the Christian cult of the crucifixion and resurrection was a late variety of phallus-worship. But the idea is assimilated with wit and success into the anti-Christian tenor of the book. Revived pagan sexual rituals are indeed desirable, says Carlile, but only those which are egalitarian in their hedonism:

The Grecians and Romans had their Temple of Venus, where young people could appease their passions under the form of worship; and well would it be if such were the religion of every country ... In no other respect than in this Temple and worship of Venus would we recommend a return to the customs of ancient nations upon the subject of sexual commerce. We desire an improvement upon their customs. We would encourage genuine love, wherever it can be conducive to the happiness of either sex. We would not call upon the females of this day to join in a procession with a Phallus at their head; nor upon Christian ladies to preserve the cross as the standard of their faith, since that cross is but the mathematical emblem of that Phallus.

An argument for women’s sexual of equality is here neatly elided with a jibe against Christian observances. But it is the makeshift logic of a fundamentally incoherent author, creaking under the pressure of obsessions. Carlile continues with a description of the phallus as ‘an emblem on which the deified principle of reason always was, and always will be, periodically crucified’. He was no Lawrentian hater of reason. Free love, according to him, should be welcomed for its power to nourish all our faculties. But here the sex-act in free love seems to be a source of fear and resentment, like the ‘shackled’ passion of the married couple. The fact is that Carlile was at sea on the questions which troubled all early 19th-century sexual reformers: should an improved sexual future be more frankly carnal, impulsive and promiscuous – or should it be more rational, companionate, and infused with a higher kind of sensuality? With his obsessive, volatile temperament, Carlile was much less equipped to make some sort of sense of these dilemmas than such as Wollstonecraft, Owen or Shelley.

Michael Bush, in his comparison of Carlile’s texts, makes clear how the reductionist definition of love penned in Dorchester prison (‘the passion to secrete semen in a natural way’) mutates by the time of the 1828 edition into something different and confused, into a long passage in which Carlile juggles desperately with the categories of ‘love, in the animal sense’, ‘moral love’, ‘physical love’, ‘moral added to physical love’, and so forth. Readers may imagine, incidentally, that Carlile’s original definition of love, because it involves ‘semen’, is wholly lopsided and masculine-minded, but this imputation, at least, he can be rescued from: in 1825 he honestly believed that women secreted semen as well as men. But there is much gender lopsidedness in the essays nonetheless. The first sentence of ‘What is Love?’ unexpectedly and arbitrarily narrows the scope of its rather grand title: ‘the first person entitled to answer is the languishing maid of twenty’ – we are then launched into a sketch of this person’s behaviour which makes her sound like Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. Carlile’s second title, Every Woman’s Book, makes the lopsidedness fairly overt, though it is still startling to learn that he planned at the same time a companion volume, Every Man’s Book or What is God? Somehow it is only women who really need to be disabused about sex: men have higher things on their minds. (And sex is always something men do with women: masturbation and homosexuality, for Carlile, are deplorable.)

Carlile’s haphazard titling of his tract is different from Francis Place’s careful devising of headings for his sequence of anonymous handbills on contraception, issued in the same period: ‘To the Married of both Sexes’, ‘To the Married of both Sexes in Genteel Life’, ‘To the Married of both Sexes of the Working People’. One is the effort of a man with a bee in his bonnet, the other is the work of an accomplished spin-doctor, thinking about his readership. But then Place cared desperately about birth control, above all for the sake of the quality of working-class life (he was no enemy of erotic pleasure). Carlile may have been persuaded formally to accept birth control by Place, and by the representations of some of his own working-class readers and correspondents, but he scarcely put his mind to it in a practical way. In Every Woman’s Book he simply copies Place’s account of how to use a piece of sponge on a thread, and then throws in some further hopeful remarks about the contraceptive effects of the ‘dildo’ and of lying on your side during sex, while betraying his own rejection of the advice: ‘the writer has been informed by those who have made experiments upon the matter, that the sponge is not felt by either party.’ Carlile, it may be noted, fathered two children on Jane even after their marriage had started to crumble.

The fortunes of Carlile’s free-love tract in its day reflect the extremely divided nature of early 19th-century sexual ideals, even in progressive circles. There was evidently real support for its views: Every Woman’s Book sold very well – two thousand copies a year five years after publication – and Carlile records many expressions of gratitude and support from his working-class following, including some women. It was also widely condemned, and not only by self-serving fellow radicals: working-women in Nottingham in 1828 turned up at a talk of Carlile’s with pails of water to cool him down. This divided reaction anticipated that which greeted the Owenite campaign for sexual reform a decade later, an episode echoed in turn in the 1860s and 1870s by Charles Bradlaugh’s struggle to turn the free-thought movement onto the path of Drysdalean liberationism. If there was ever a time of sexual consensus in the 19th century it was a short period of about fifteen years, in the middle decades. And that was indeed a ‘Victorian’ consensus, intolerant of free love (though more at ease with birth control than previous generations had been). At all other times in the century, early and late, free love made its case heard, and simultaneously ran into great hostility, often of a wholly secular and radical kind.

At the close of his book Bush makes strong claims for the impact of Carlile on the 20th century. But he does not wish to celebrate the gradual achievement of sexual liberation uncritically. He is too aware of the shortcomings of Carlile’s original teaching, and of the issues which Carlilean freedoms, now that we enjoy them in the 20th century, have brought in their wake. All that shows up clearly on the modern sexual balance-sheet 170 years after Carlile is, according to Bush, ‘an obsession with sex’. That sounds right as the outcome of a sexual philosophy fashioned in the strange circumstances of Carlile’s imprisonment in Dorchester jail.

[*] 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).