Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Reframing the Victorians: The ‘Taboo’ of the Kept Mistress during the Victorian Era

During the Victorian era it was not uncommon for a married middle-class man to financially provide for a mistress who in return for this economical support provided his sexual satisfaction. Although this kind of conceit should seem corrupt and immoral to modern society, to the Victorians, this was simply a common convention within a middle class Victorian man’s life. Marriage in Victorian England was more of a contract rather than an act of love; sex within marriage was viewed as a way in which to procreate, not to fulfill the sexual desires, especially the sexual desires of the wife. The conventional Victorian wife was a specimen of submission and piety, her sexual desire was supposed to be non-existent. Therefore, married middle-class men would often turn to prostitutes to fulfill their sexual desires as well as keeping mistresses.

Not currently on display at the moment, but found on the Tate gallery website, is William Holman Hunt’s painting entitled ‘The Awakening Conscience’ (1853). Hunt’s painting depicts a young mistress perched on the lap of a married man; we can acknowledge that the two are not 
married due to the mistresses’ lack of a wedding ring as well as the various objects scattered around the room which are constant reminders of her ‘kept’ status. The gentlemen’s hat is placed on the table, making reference to the fact that his visit is only temporary rather than returning home to a wife. There is a cat toying with a mouse under the table, this relationship between cat and mouse mimics the relationship of the gentlemen and the 
mistress wherein the girl’s fate is at her ‘master’s’
complete dispense. The cat’s gaze and expression is exactly the same as the gentlemen’s expression suggesting the gentlemen’s predatory form in regards to his mistress. The girl seems to be transfixed by some sort of spiritual   calling, referencing her sudden realization of the dishonesty she is taking part in.

Hunt’s painting was created in 1853, sixteen years into the Victorian era and successfully illustrates how common this kind of relationship was in the Victorian period. Although Hunt’s painting does not advertise this adultery due to the girl’s ‘awakened conscience’, it does express how this kind of relationship was one of the more socially accepted and acknowledged taboos within Victorian society. There are various references to the mistresses’ empty and doomed life scattered around her however, this scene would not necessarily have seemed alien to most Victorians. Victorian women in all classes were expected to act in reserved and respectable manners, concealing any traces of any kind of sexual urge or desire. In an article from Girl’s Own Paper, titled ‘Etiquette for all Classes’ and published between 1881 and 1882, the expected conduct of a Victorian woman is described when the author explains why a woman should not laugh or talk loudly in public because it would draw unwanted male attention, “. . . such utter disregard of propriety, such a public and uninvited display of your feelings and emotions, such an attraction of notice to yourself . . . invites the intrusion of men into your party of merrymakers” (90).


From this extract it is evident that women had a specific role to play in Victorian society, however, it is also evident that various deceptions took place behind closed doors. “Walter’s” ‘My Secret Life’ is a testimony to this philosophy of Victorian life. The anonymous memoirs describe the nameless narrator’s various sexual encounters with numerous Victorian women, “One of Lucy's sons, in after years, I saw fucking a maid in a summer-house: both standing up against a big table; I was on the roof. Many years before that, I fucked a nurse-maid, she laying on that table, in the very same summer-house” (Chapter II, Vol. 1). The text is a clear illumination of the sexual conceit that existed in Victorian society, committed by both men and women.

Observation of Hunt’s painting reminded me of various scenes within Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, wherein it seems that Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester is similar to that of the relationship between a master and his mistress (obviously, before the revelation of Rochester's wife Bertha Mason, the reader is unaware that Jane really is a kind of mistress). During chapter sixteen Jane seems to categorize the relationship she has with Mr. Rochester as a form of prostitution wherein she is entirely submissive,

It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her; and it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them, which, if unreturned and unknown, must devour the life that feeds it; and, if discovered and responded to, must lead, ignis-fatuus-like, into miry wilds whence there is no extrication (186/187).
Although this master-and-mistress relationship is classed as socially unacceptable and corrupt by Jane, it is still a fantasy consisting of the “hopes, wishes, sentiments [that Jane] had been cherishing” (186). 

Works Cited
Bronte, Charlotte,  Jane Eyre. Penguin Classics, Penguin Books: London, 2006.

The Girl’s Own Paper, “Etiquette for all Classes” http://www.mostly-victorian.com/GOP1881/etiquette01.pdf

William Holman Hunt, ‘The Awakening Conscience’ http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hunt-the-awakening-conscience-t02075


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  2. Interesting how are posts are on the same topic, I like your take on it and combination with the text My Secret Life - I did mine earlier and compared the gentleman in the photo with Henry Carson from Mary Barton - I like how you talked about sexuality in regards with the painting ~ kudos :)