Promethean Desires: Historiography of Victorian Sexuality

Ashley Barnett

Ashley Barnett

Michel Foucault initially challenged popular conceptions of nineteenth-century sexuality by claiming that the Victorians were not repressing sexuality precisely because to force something to be hidden is to acknowledge its existence.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Victorian sexuality was viewed as restrained, much of this blame was placed upon the world of capitalism.

During Industrialization, capitalism flourished giving those who were not born into aristocratic families an opportunity to flourish economically. Because of this economic structure, the middle-class began to develop, which was comprised of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and other professionals.

While those who fell into this social ranking held many privileges from their acquired wealth, pressure also ensued because it could be lost. Unlike the safety the aristocracy had in their bloodline alone, the middle-class relied on the family unit along with wise economic decisions to secure the wealth for themselves and their offspring.

Consequently, men were encouraged to suppress sexual appetites, while women were expected not to have a sexual appetite at all. Those lower in the social order were often depicted as animals in their sexual desire and behaviour. More recently, historians have argued that Victorian sexuality was more complicated than a system of oppression in which men and women denied their biology to the best of their ability in order to ascribe to social norms.

One such challenging voice is Christopher Lane, who suggests that the materialist interpretation of Victorian sexuality so articulated by Foucault conceals psychological implications and realities of the sexual culture found during the period.

So much of Foucault’s argument is based on concrete evidence of things written and behaviours documented that an elusive psychological response to such a social order is reduced in significance almost completely.

He argues instead that a psychoanalytic approach “offers a subtle account of the fantasies and often troubled identifications that drive a wedge between couples, friends, groups, and even communities.”

Both means of interpreting Victorian sexuality ultimately need to be employed to attempt to fully understand the ways in which Victorians themselves experienced it, as well as larger implications it had for society and generations to follow.

While medical journals, pornography and the like reveal the extent to which Victorians obsessed over sexuality, the experience of living in such a society and the psychological impact that, as Lane argues, drove a wedge between individuals, is left silenced and unearthed if we only employ such documentation.

Sharon Marcus argues that the middle-class women, who are so often portrayed as asexual or angelic, actually experienced sexuality between one another. Because women were viewed as the object of sexual desire, women were constantly trained to view themselves and each other as erotic objects.

While the patriarchal schema of Victorian society may have refused to acknowledge this sexual experience, it was one felt by Victorian women and ought to be considered today when interpreting the Victorian sexual experience.

Though most history disregards earlier historical interpretations of the past, when dealing with such a subjective and elusive topic as human sexuality, it is important to consider the ways in which each society’s framework dictates how Victorian sexuality is remembered.

In his work ‘The Dark Angel: Aspects of Victorian Sexuality’, historian Harrison Fraser unabashedly argues against the evils of capitalism and the consequent desexualisation of the middle-class woman along with the simultaneous hyper-sexualisation of poor and working women.

The book discusses the ways in which middle-class brides had no knowledge of sexuality in marriage to the filthy living conditions of the poor and the prostitutes forced onto the streets in such conditions.

Centred ultimately on unveiling the evils capitalism brought to the nations, Harrison focuses on the dark aspects of Victorian sexuality with the dichotomisation of the angel and the whore. Although argument’s such as Marcus’s offers a new insight to a vastly complicated human experience, the aim to keep the wife virginal and the ways in which this moulded women’s lives cannot be muted simply because it fails to address all facets of her sexual experience.

Carol Zisowitz and Peter N. Stears challenge the idea that Victorian women were any less sexual than women of modern times. In ‘Victorian Sexuality: Can Historians Do it Better?’ they ask: “Could it really be true that for all our hype about the sexual revolution, and the undeniable improvements in middle-class birth control knowledge and technology, the female majority, at least, is less orgasmic that their Victorian great-grandmothers? The prospect is worth considering if only because of excessive brainwashing about our sexual prowess today.”

Modern culture can often be so consumed in the idea that the progression of history has led to a more perfect present that we remember societies of the past in a negative light for its perceived differences from our own society.

The Victorians were adjusting to a new economic structure and this undoubtedly had implications on their personal lives. However, our own belief in our sexual freedom may cause us to unjustly demonize their sexual experiences as more privately perverted or less pleasurable than our own. In accordance with this notion, it may also be true that in an attempt to undo past interpretations on Victorian pleasure, modern thinkers overemphasize the role sexuality played in their lives.

While the eroticism probably was not completely muted in middle-class women and it is important to grant them their sexual autonomy, historians such as Sharon Marcus might be overreaching in their desire to grant women sexuality such that we are sexualizing past lives to an extent that would have been unrecognizable to those experiencing it, which will be more fully addressed later in this article.

Victorian literature offers insights into Victorian sexuality. Literature may be able to reveal the subtle implications of power and sexuality between Victorians but, those who write literature can hardly be expected to reflect all sexual experiences held by those living during the period. Nonetheless, literature tells us at least what an author thought on a particular topic and what some Victorians read concerning sex.

This is important because not only because it does reflect some Victorians’ interpretations of sexuality, but it also offers insight to the psychological aspects of sexuality and power which advice pamphlets, magazines, pornography and medicine so frequently lack.

Nina Auerbach’s book ‘Woman and the Demon’ argues that the women who were thought to have been oppressed in their sexuality and relation to the body actually exemplified power which can be found in many literary works.

As we see later in the paper, fear of women does become a recurring theme in the historical literature. While Auerbach claims her goal is to reveal the ways in which these dark interpretations of “victim and queen, domestic angel and demonic outcast, old maid and fallen woman” actually “glorified the women it seemed to suppress,” it is difficult to say what a serpent woman in a nineteenth-century fables really reveals about interactions and power dynamics between living people.

Further, in Lane’s argument for the use of psychoanalysis in interpreting Victorian sexuality in ‘Burdens of Intimacy’, he cites literature as well. While psychoanalytic aspects of sex are significant in gaining a holistic image of sexuality, it is unclear how much psychoanalysis can be done on the average Victorian through literary works alone.

With that having been said, some novels from the period do give necessary supporting insight for modern thinkers and historians and can play a significant role in piecing together a realistic image of Victorian sexuality.

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