Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Truth About Victorian Sex

Sappho by Charles Mengin
I remember an old Private Eye cartoon where a man was shouting down the telephone after unpacking an inflatable Margaret Thatcher "No, no, no!" he yelled. "I ordered Victoria Principal not Victorian principles!"

(Victoria Principal was in Dallas, in case you forgot or weren't born then.)

It is hard to know what is less likely to get you in the mood, a inflatable Iron Lady or the idea of Victorian sex.

We all know about the Victorians, they are the anti-Viagra. They are to the erotic experience what lung cancer is to the enjoyment of a cigar.

They covered their piano legs lest the curves offend their delicate taste and recoiled at the sight of their wives' naughty bits. Queen Victorian refused to believe in the existence of Lesbians whilst Prince Albert had an unusual adornment to his physiology. They persecuted homosexuals, whilst in secret they corrupted young girls or visited prostitutes. Their literature meanwhile, is as erotic as Ann Widdecombe.

I must admit I would have signed up to most of those opinions until I read Matthew Sweet's Inventing The Victorians, in which I discovered there was a little more to it than that.

Take the story of the piano legs, for example. There is no record of anyone in Britain actually doing this, but they did make jokes about the Americans doing so. The original story appears in A Diary in America by one Captain Marryat in 1839. The Captain was probably telling a tall tale, but it is true in so far that the Americans of the Gilded Era were regarded as being more uptight on bedroom matters than Victorian Brits.

Or what about Ruskin and his wedding night?

We know that his marriage to Effie Gray was a complete disaster and was never consummated. Why that was though is a mystery, even though everyone at the time was discussing the issue. Ruskin's comments were "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." He never explained further.

Effie by Thomas Richmond
As the visible bits of Effie appeared to be quite a turn on to most Victorian males, Ruskin's comments made their imagination turn to less public areas. However it's equally possible that she had big feet, or a curly-out belly button, or maybe Ruskin just found her a really annoying person. Certainly when the nonsense poet Edward Lear visited her some years later he found her dreadfully boring and said "her drawling stoniness disgusted that I don't care ever to see her again", although as Lear was gay we can perhaps understand why he was not taken in by Effie's charm.

Or maybe, trapped in the middle of the biggest sex (or lack of sex) scandal of the century, and with the entire literate world discussing his failure to rise to the occasion, he just said the first thing that came into his head.

The theory that, brought up on a diet of classical nudes and before the advent of the shaven-haven, he recoiled at the sight of his wife's short and curlies dates from 1965, somewhat after the event (or non-event).

Ruskin isn't the only one to be mythologised a century or so later, take Prince Albert's Prince Albert for example. 

The idea that the royal member had a little attachment allowing it to be tucked away out of sight dates from the 1970s and the fertile imagination of one Douglas Malloy, the owner of a chain of piercing parlours.

Spot the Prince Albert (he's on the right)
Had the real Prince Consort been so embarrassed by his German sausage he probably wouldn't have worn such tight trousers whilst courting the young Queen, who seems to have been quite enamoured of the royal lunchbox.

However would Albert have been as free to strut his stuff if he hadn't been heterosexual? Had he been gay, would he have suffered the same fate as poor Oscar Wilde?

But was Oscar Wilde actually gay?

It may seem a daft question as he certainly engaged in plenty of man-on-man action (and a fair bit of man-on-boy action, but we'll come to that later), but if you went back in time and asked him whether this was a biological trait or a lifestyle choice he'd have probably just stared at you, and not because he was smashed on absinthe.

Instead the 1890s world he lived in was just as laissez faire sexually as economically. Many of his acolytes appear to have been solidly heterosexual, if they were sexually active at all, yet all shared his taste in art and nude boys. It appears they existed in a demi-monde in which the choice of gender of your sexual partner was no more important than your choice of sexual position, and of considerably less relevance than your opinion of Pre-Raphaelite art.

If society hadn't figured out homosexuality yet, neither had the medical profession. The distinction between being gay and being transsexual wasn't suggested until 1899. The medical books that pathologised homosexuality are a product of the twentieth, not the nineteenth, century.

But if they didn't medicalise being gay, they did criminalise it, but perhaps not in the way most people think.

She is amused.
The downfall of Mr Wilde, a lot of people forget, came about because he tried to sue the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. He lost simply because the codifier of the rules of boxing was telling the truth.

He was subsequently prosecuted and convicted of 'gross indecency' under the 1885 Labrouche Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

This bit of legislation is itself a subject of myth. That it refers only to acts between men was not because Queen Victoria didn't believe in the existence of Lesbians.

Maybe she didn't, but constitutionally it was irrelevant. Parliament could have passed a law against the Tooth Fairy and she'd have had to sign it, that's how the system works.

The Amendment Act itself was primarily involved with outlawing White Slavery. There is a story here, but we haven't time. Basically White Slavery didn't exist, but the press had persuaded the country it did so legislation was passed. The law also provided powers to suppress brothels and protect children from pimps.

Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas
Added almost as an afterthought was the paragraph about Gross Indecency which, crucially, wasn't defined. Labrouche himself was no puritan and a friend of Oscar Wilde. His only comments on the amendment were that he hoped it would be used equally against 'high and low' so maybe he was only concerned with protecting Working Class boys from aristocratic predators, or maybe the maximum sentence of two years was regarded as a progressive improvement on the life sentence for buggery.

If this was the case then by his sloppy wording he produced an act that allowed the full force of the law to be used against anyone transgressing the sexual norms of the time and which convicted Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing and thousands of others. The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

But if the Victorians were quick to gaol queers, they turned a blind eye to paedophilia. Or did they?

Rev. Dodgeson with Alice Liddell
Several thousand Twitter users have recently learnt a hard lesson about making accusations without evidence, but posterity still seems to make an exception for the Victorians. Ruskin is one such accused, along with Lewis Carroll and Wilkie Collins.

We can't prove Ruskin wasn't a nonce, or that the Rev. Dodgeson wasn't doing something unmentionable to Alice Liddell by the banks of the Thames, so a certain amount of mud is likely to stick. But for the inventor of the modern detective novel there is a case for the defence.

First the case for the prosecution. Wilkie Collins entered into a long correspondence with an eleven year old girl he called Nannie, and even entertained a mock marriage to her. In his letters he mixed smutty puns such as 'delighted to receive conjugal embrace' and suggestions she adapt to a spell of hot weather by wearing 'a hat and feathers and nothing else.'

Collins; connoisseur of the female derriere
Petty damning evidence. Newsnight would have to put on a specially extended edition if the story broke today, but as I said, not only is there no evidence he touched a hair on Nannie's head - or any other part of her - he has a defence.

Collins, you see, used to order sack loads of heterosexual, adult porn in brown paper parcels from a well know New York photographer. The details of his purchases are on record, along with his correspondence which indicates he was an ass man. All boringly normal I'm afraid.

The only eminent Victorian of whom we can say with any certainty did have sex with minors was the aforementioned Oscar Wilde, although as an honorary Modern he seems to have been forgiven for it.

The bearded novelist's taste for artful smut though brings us to another little known fact about the Victorians. They liked their dirty mags. Indeed, they invented the term 'top shelf magazine'.

Today such titillation is usually associated with newspaper proprietors on the right of the political spectrum, but in Victorian times it was the left that sold sex. Mass market porn was pioneered by, of all people, the Chartists.  Magazines such as Town, Crim. Con. Gazette and Exquisite detailed upper-class sex scandals to raise money for the cause and discredit the Establishment. Perhaps, as Sweet suggests, they should have called them Socialist Wanker.

These days only the Daily Mail publishes those sort of stories. They probably have a different motive, although I have my suspicions.

Pornographer in chief was William Dugdale, who had once been part of the Cato Street Conspiracy to assassinate the whole Tory Cabinet. Not something Richard Desmond ever tried.

When Chartism collapsed he became a full time publisher of adult material. Although raided by the Police on numerous occasions, he continued his trade for more than forty years.

Not that Dugdale was unique in putting adult material in print. For the Victorians, it seems, the printed page really was their Internet, and there was sex everywhere. Even the worthy Household Cyclopedia of 1881 includes, amongst the recipes for devilled kidneys, advice for men who can't get it up. You don't find that in Nigella.

Most discussed of all is My Sexual Life. A mammoth tome, it was published in eleven volumes, possibly to make it easier to hold in one hand. It's a tale of  'firkytoodling', 'gamahuching' and visits to the 'dumpling-shop' and is racy stuff, far too explicit for a family blog like this. That the book could be published and distributed freely should be cast iron evidence that the Victorians were anything but prudish about sex.

Instead though it's taken as proof of exactly the opposite. Some academics seem to be under the impression that this story of a thousand visits to prostitutes is actually gospel truth. As the book was written by a globe trotting businessman who had married into a Jewish textile family, it probably wasn't. He didn't have the time.

Instead the book is almost certainly the work of an over-active imagination and is as useful as a historical document as Fifty Shades of Grey. However it has helped to create the myth that the only way a Victorian man could get his end away was with a lady of the night, although to be fair, this was a myth the Victorians did their own bit to help foster.

The Dancing Platform at the Cremorne Gardens by Phebus Levin
Now there certainly was a lively sex trade in London in Victorian times, just as there is now, but quite how widespread it was is open to question. The Cremorne, for example, was a pleasure garden - a sort of Victorian outdoor nightclub - and was supposedly the place to go to purchase a tart, and not the sort Mrs Beeton baked.

William Acton, a medical Doctor, was sent to investigate. He really was a Victorian stereotype as he thought 'self abuse' weakened a man and women were naturally frigid. However in the Cremorne he found men actively seeking an alternative to the former and women who were anything but the latter, and it was all consensual and non-commercial.

So how did the Victorians become victims of such slander?

Virginia Woolf and her circle have a lot to answer for. After Lytton Strachley, whose book Eminent Victorians had demolished the reputation of four prominent Victorians in a humorous, but not always factually accurate manner, had come round for a bit of posh sex talk she claimed "It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation." On another occasion she said fighting Victorian patriarchy was equal to the fight against fascism.

The irony being that whilst the Bloomsbury Group could discuss Victorian sex lives as they were all out in the open, they themselves remained firmly in the closet. Their friend John Maynard Keynes, for example, was never in the closet himself and kept a rather racy diary, but his biographer chose not to mention this even after he was dead.

Woolf's commitment to anti-fascism was also a little suspect. Her friend, and lover, Vita Sackville-West was married to a member of Oswald Mosley's New Party and edited the gardening page of his newspaper.

John William Godward
However everyone needs someone to look down on. If the Bloomsbury Group were neither as open about their sexuality nor as removed from fascism as they would have liked, at least they could claim they weren't as bad as the Victorians.

None of this is to suggest that all Victorians were broad minded libertines. There were plenty of people then who were bigoted, repressed, puritanical and hypocritical, just as there are now, which is the point.

Pornographers like Dugdale were raided even as the Pre-Raphaelites were painting their 'stunners'. Poor old Oscar Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol, but Bouton and Park, the most famous transsexual entertainers of the era, were found not guilty of buggery despite being as 'out' as it's possible to be.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Some inappropriate, by modern standards, friendships were struck up with young girls, but to date no Victorian Jimmy Saville has been proved to exist.

They had top shelf magazines and sex manuals for married couples. They devoured racy novels and flirted at night spots.

The point is that they were just like us. In fact they are us.

Modern urban life was invented during the Victorian era and has now spread round the world to become the major mode of human existence. They were the first Metrosexuals.

Looking back at the Victorian era, we see the past really is like a foreign country.

They do things exactly the same there.

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