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.
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).
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
My Secret Life, Anonymous. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30360/30360-h/secret1.htm
William Holman Hunt, ‘The Awakening Conscience’ http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hunt-the-awakening-conscience-t02075