The Literary Invitations into the Nineteenth-Century Erotic

Marie-Luise Kohlke
Marie-Luise Kohlke

In Brian Moore’s 1975 novel ‘The Great Victorian Collection’, the staid and respectable academic Anthony Maloney dreams into life an exhibition of Victorian artefacts in historical room settings, which include “the parlor of a famous Victorian brothel” alongside objets d’art and displays from the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Maloney’s collection can be read as an emblem of neo-Victorian novelists’ obsession with “exhibiting” the underside of nineteenth-century propriety and morality, a sensationalised world of desire and novelty, where any sexual fantasy might be gratified.

When a representative of The New York Times announces the completion of the collection’s documentation on film, Maloney cautions him: “There are a number of concealed drawers, cupboards, and compartments which have things hidden in them. The Victorians had many secrets. For one thing, there is the Carrington Collection of Flagellatory Instruments and Literature, which is concealed behind a false wall in the Zollverein Indian Room. There is the Dodson-Hutter Collection of Pedophilic Photographs, concealed behind false panels in a sideboard carved in oak in the Renaissance style by Graham and Sidgwood of London […] There is an artificial phallus concealed in a false compartment in the statue The Turkish Slave by Henry Powers. There are a number of wonderful things like this, which you have missed.”

Maloney proceeds to reveal what is hidden, to expose what is deliberately obscured from view. His collection constitutes a veritable orgiastic fantasy of erotic excess, demanding a correction of prevalent modern-day notions of our forerunners’ sexual repression. Yet it could also be viewed as a Bluebeard’s chamber — our own age’s heart of the darkness, representing the omnipotent fantasy of penetrating and mastering the sexual unknown.

The opening of Michel Faber’s 2002 bestselling ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ renders this desire explicit, enticing the reader to lose him/herself in the night time underworld of Victorian London in a metaphorical encounter of time-travelling punter and streetwalker: “you are an alien from another time and place altogether […] you did not choose me blindly. Certain expectations were aroused. Let’s not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you’re too shy to name, or at least show you a good time.”

Not surprisingly, Faber opts for a prostitute protagonist, Sugar, who quite literally deals in the fulfilment of every possible (and perverse) sexual fantasy, since being forced as a child into the sex trade by her own mother.

Indeed, our fascination with the Victorian erotic unknown seems to derive largely from depictions of such anomalous practices as child prostitution and sexual slavery or of the paradox of wilfully maintained sexual ignorance and unchecked libertinism.

In one sense, we extract politically incorrect pleasure from what has become inadmissible or ethically unimaginable as a focus of desire in our own time. We thus enjoy neo-Victorian fiction at least in part to feel debased or outraged, to revel in degradation, reading for defilement. By projecting illicit and unmentionable desires onto the past, we conveniently reassert our own supposedly enlightened stance towards sexuality and social progress.

In another sense, however, the twenty/twenty-first century proliferation of sex clubs and prostitution, increases in global sex tourism, sex trade, and sexual slavery, the exponential rise in sexually transmitted diseases, violent internet and child porn, and paedophilia more generally could be read as an uncanny doubling and intensification of prevalent Victorian social problems, indicating a return of the repressed rather than “progress.”

Neo-Victorian fiction’s project of the retrospective sexual liberation of the nineteenth-century becomes disturbingly infused with preferred ignorance — or deliberate denial — of our own culture’s complicity in free market systems that enable continuing sexual exploitation and oppression.

Organised stag nights to Prague or world-cup match celebrations, for instance, could be viewed as modern-day versions of Victorian gentlemen’s nights on the town, encouraging an orchestrated influx and ready supply of prostitutes, not all of whom will be voluntary career professionals. Coming to “know” the secret sex-lives of the Victorians may thus become a means of “un-knowing” our own.

In figuring the great unknown predominantly through the sexscape of the female body, the Neo-Victorian novel replicates the methods of Victorians themselves. In 1845, for instance, the American gynaecologist Marion Sims described himself as “a colonizing and conquering hero” for advancing boldly into unexplored territory: “I saw everything as no man had seen it before.”

Not all Victorians, however, shared his excitement of discovery. Some clearly preferred ignorance. An apocryphal account of the life of the Victorian author and art critic John Ruskin recounts the disaster of his wedding night with Effie Gray. So unlike was his wife’s materiality from Ruskin’s idealised notions of angelic femininity and from the smooth female forms familiar to him from Greek statuary and paintings that he “suffered a traumatic shock […] when he discovered that Effie had pubic hair.” His disgust rendered him incapable of consummating their union; nor did he do so in the remaining six years of their marriage prior to its annulment.

In 1973, ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’, J. G. Farrell stages what I take to be a comical re-enactment of this scene. In a fictional British outpost during the Indian Mutiny, the besieged imperialists seek to uphold standards through rituals such as the tea party held by the (already) fallen Lucy Hughes for two of her favourite admirers and heroic defenders of the Residency, George Fleury and Harry Dunstaple.

Before the ritual can properly commence, a swarm of resonantly named cockchafers engulfs the participants. Feeling the flying black beetles “pullulating beneath her chemise,” Lucy hysterically tears off her clothes: “Her muslin dress, her petticoats, chemise and underlinen were all discarded in a trice and there she stood, stark naked but as black and glistening as an African slave-girl.”

Paradoxically, it is only once Lucy has stripped naked that the narrative striptease properly begins. The insects fasten onto Lucy’s white flesh but repeatedly fall off due to their own weight, leaving the female form simultaneously veiled and exposed in a sort of “flickering,” erotic black-and-white silent film that inspires George with the idea of “a series of daguerreotypes which would give the impression of movement.”

As Lucy swoons, the men dither whether or not it is “permissible” to assist the naked woman, but finally, “clearing their minds from any impure notions”, they proceed to remove the insects, using the torn-off boards of a conveniently handy Bible to “shave” Lucy. This is the point at which Farrell invokes the Ruskin episode: “Her body, both young men were interested to discover, was remarkably like the statues of young women they had seen […] like, for instance, the Collector’s plaster cast of Andromeda Exposed to the Monster, though, of course, without any chains. Indeed, Fleury felt quite like a sculptor as he worked away and he thought that it must feel something like this to carve an object of beauty out of the primeval rock. He became quite carried away as with dextrous strokes he carved a particularly exquisite right breast and set to work on the delicate fluting of the ribs. The only significant difference between Lucy and a statue was that Lucy had pubic hair; this caused them a bit of a surprise at first. It was not something that had ever occurred to them as possible, likely, or even, desirable.”

“‘D’you think this is supposed to be here?’ asked Harry, who had spent a moment or two scraping at it ineffectually with his board. Because the hair, too, was black it was hard to be sure that it was not simply matted and dried insects.”

“‘That’s odd,’ said Fleury, peering at it with interest; he had never seen anything like it on a statue. ‘Better leave it, anyway, for the time being. We can always come back to it later when we’ve done the rest.’”

The scene of Lucy as a slave girl in moving daguerreotype is clearly voyeuristic and plays to modern readers’ titillation, mediated by her mesmerised Victorian male observers. The passage invites desire, even as it delays erotic gratification — quite literally sublimating Fleury’s sexual energy into art — and then short-circuits desire altogether by the shift to comic parody in the Ruskinesque episode.

Having enticed his modern-day audience into the sexual tableau of the prone and naked female body, helplessly available to the manipulations of male desire, Farrell checks our delectation by inscribing an insurmountable difference in sexual knowledge and competence between the Victorian participants — “them” — and us. Lucy’s pubic hair ejects us from the fictional illusion of the nineteenth-century into our own supposedly more sexually aware historical context.

This movement from seduction to erotic disappointment and/or self-conscious farce constitutes a recurrent motif in the neo-Victorian novel. It satirises readers’ over-investment in sex as the hallowed gateway to true, because of uncensored, knowledge of our Victorian predecessors and comments on our own cultural obsession with sex.

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