Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Sexuality in Victorian Britain

Sexuality in 19th Century Victorian Britain

Life in Victorian Britain was very conservative, unconventional thoughts were oppressed, sexual desires were discouraged and repressed, not to mention underlying taboo such as homosexuality, were not only frowned upon, but were in fact illegal.
Sex in the 19th century was considered a forbidden subject. There was no formal education on the matter and it was not a subject that was openly discussed. Standard practice in Victorian Britain either involved being courted which led to your eventual engagement and marriage, wherein you would then learn that sex sole purpose is for reproduction. For a Victorian of working or middle class to defy this social convention and to fornicate simply for pleasure, was a stigma on their reputation. The stigma would decrease a Victorian’s respectability, as well as that of their family.
Middle class woman on the left, Working class on the right.
Middle class women and predominately upper-middle class women, were mainly taught social responsibility. Their knowledge only went as far as what would be respectable; the definition of respectable at this time would be what society would deem acceptable. Women of such status were required to have knowledge of religion, social practices and increased their domesticated knowledge by socialising with women of lower status as them. Women of higher class did this, so that they would be on form in terms of their family and to hone their expertise in domestic affairs and household management. These women believed that not only were they learning from their peers, they were not only helping themselves, but helping the lower classed women to become more like them – as though associating with the right people would cure afflictions like poverty, vices such as infidelity and ignorance.

Affliction of character

An affliction in character came in many forms. Homosexuality was deemed as a medical condition in 19th century Britain, it was deemed as a psychological and bodily ailment. It was thought that the wide spread of diseases were spread through sex especially contracted through homosexual sex, syphilis, boils, as well as other unsightly illnesses. The ignorance and lack of knowledge on the matter, stemmed from a lack of sexual education, sexual education was considered only necessary when the time arose for procreation and was to be by no means practiced or discussed for any reason alternative to that.
Control over sexual deviancy was incorporated within society, Puritan teachings and control resonated throughout society, whimsical and impulsive behaviour was stifled and respectability was a core value ingrained into Victorian Britain by the bourgeoisie - the middle class. Respectability was even personified in the guise of a fictional character named Mrs. Grundy; characters such as Mrs. Grundy were created to mold the Victorian people into conforming to societal ideals and prevent a falter in character.  Fornication and masturbation were among many forbidden sexual practices, in extreme cases a cure for such sickness would be penile cauterisation or female mutilation.

Bondage, formerly known as a corset.

What did sex mean in Victorian Britain?

Although sex was most commonly associated with marriage and new life, there were some practices that deviated from Victorian conventions. Notable Madam’s of wealth, and or power ran brothels and indulged in a trade known as White Slavery. White Slavery consisted of abducting women and children when they least expected it and selling them on to the depraved, so they may indulge in their wanton desires. White Slavery was a method of human trafficking, which saw some victims of the trade being transported around the country, some not surviving the journey or the peril at the hands of their masters. Some Victorians felt it more acceptable to discreetly go to brothels to be serviced for their afflictions, brothels and their services varied in Victorian Britain, an example of alternative brothels were those run by Mary Jeffries and Theresa Berkeley. Not much is known of the history and origin of Madam Theresa Berkeley; however she can be inferred as one of the most infamous dominatrix’s of her time, and her high class flagellation brothel oozed sadomasochism. Sadomasochism is a word used to describe one who derives pleasure from giving or receiving pain and or humiliation. The word originates from the names of two authors, Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, both men indulged in sadomasochistic activities, both recording their sadomasochistic fantasizes and thoughts in their novels.

Sadomasochism in modern day Television.
“You’ll see how delicious it is to be whipped with this… you’ll feel it, you’ll feel it my rascal” ‘Justine’, Marquis de Sade.

Sexuality in Literature

Reading is thought to unlock your minds eye and can not only teach you a number of things, but can also influence what you do and how you do things. The Victorians of 19th Century Britain used literature mainly to teach the people, but also to give them a censored education of things. Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. was widely received as a somewhat lament for Tennyson’s deceased companion. Despite being a married man, some would infer that Tennyson’s love for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam was much deeper than that between a man and his friend. Literature is used as a platform to express thoughts and feelings, could Tennyson have used his writings “To put in words the grief I feel”, Tennyson portrays himself as a widow mourning her partner “In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er. Like coarsest clothes against the cold… is given in outline and no more” Words are used to expressed to personify his feelings, but “For the unquiet heart and brain” Tennyson uses his writing as a “sad mechanic exercise, like dull narcotics, numbing pain”, his feelings seem as though are oppressed by societal conventions, would it be normal to mourn a friend so deeply as to dedicate a heartfelt poem to them?
Homosexuality was illegal in Tennyson’s time, so would he have kept the relationship discreet to honour the memory of his friend? Or is it simply because sex was almost always linked to either marriage or death? Death in early poetry was categorised into one of four categories: John Keats represented a longing for death in the hopes of peace and an end to weariness. Tennyson represents the Christian view of life lived and relieved by death, the third type is presented as a glorious battle, a somewhat Armageddon, whereby relief is generated by death. An example of death and sexuality within literature can be seen in another of Tennyson’s works – ‘Lilian’. “If prayers will not hush thee, Airy Lilian, like a rose-leaf I will crush thee, Fairy Lilian.” (11.27-30). A prevalent theme in Tennyson’s writings, is that the sexually wanton and confident are punished by death and that the sexually depraved long for death. Sexuality or morality? Do I follow my head or my heart? If I choose the wrong one, will I go to hell? In Victorian Britain, as long as you know the right people and or have enough money, your secret is almost certainly safe.

Works cited list:

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