The Purple Undercurrents of Victorian England (2 of 2) — Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism, by Deborah Lutz

Jan 16, 2018, 04:58 AM

(Photo: A discreet Victorian shoe-fitting device)

From the British Library: “Not so long ago it might have come as a surprise to see Queen Victoria described as ‘Britain’s sexiest Royal’ (Empire review of The Young Victoria). It seems we no longer only think of ‘straitlaced patriarchs making their wives and children miserable [...], whaleboned women shrouding the piano legs for decency’s sake, then lying back and thinking of England’ (Matthew Sweet, ix). These stereotypes of high prudery were famously critiqued by Michel Foucault as the ‘repressive hypothesis’: the idea that the Victorians could not mention sex. Foucault pointed out that, far from being silenced, sex was spoken everywhere in the 19th century in a wide range of contexts including the law, medicine, religion, education. Much academic and popular work since has considered the many ways in which Victorians did experience and speak of desire. “Queen Victoria herself reflected on ‘dearest Albert’s’ physical perfections in her journal: Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist. (11 October 1839, Esher vol. 2:263–4). “Victoria’s frank expression of her desire cuts across another received view of the period; that the enjoyment of sex was an exclusively male prerogative. Gynaecological doctor William Acton, whose extreme views cannot be taken as representative, stated in his The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857) that ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind’. A form of this belief is certainly discernible in the virginal ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’, a term inaugurated by Coventry Patmore in his 1854 poem of that name, which laid out a model of the domestic goddess, who apparently retained her chastity even as wife and mother. In her purity and capacity for ‘sweet ordering’, as the influential Victorian critic and essayist John Ruskin memorably put it, the angel in the house was to sanctify the home as a refuge for her menfolk from the trouble of public life.”