All my lifetime, until very recently, conventional wisdom has had it that there was something very peculiar about the ‘Victorian’ era. Since about 1910, its values and practices have been subjected to an increasing barrage of criticism denouncing them as alien to the modern world and about as comprehensible as the culture of a wholly different civilisation. The defining characteristics were, it was said, a moral rigidity about sex itself, and sexuality in general. A fanatical prudery, satirised in the figure of Mrs Grundy, reigned supreme. This moralism and hostility to sensuality were particularly evident in attitudes to language and art, which were purged and purged again of all hint of sexual content. Museums put fig leaves on Classical nude statuary, Wedgwood put drapery over the nude figures on his pottery, while Dr Bowdler cleaned up Roman and Greek classics, along with Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Bible.
There were, from the start, problems about this definition of the 19th century as ‘other’, squeezed in between the age of the Enlightenment, Revolution and Romanticism, and our own progressive, libertarian age, when freedom of speech and expression takes priority over control of content and action. One question was: when did all this prudery begin? Thanks to the work of E.K. Brown, M. Jaeger and M.J. Quinlan, historians since the Forties have accepted that the austere ideology of ‘Victorianism’ was already in place among the middle classes, as well as the poor, by 1800. There is no way around the fact that the novels of Jane Austen were free from the coarse sexual innuendoes of Aphra Behn, Defoe, Fielding or Smollett, while Dickens ignored the subject of sex altogether.
Michael Mason’s main problem is to determine how prudery affected behaviour. Was it merely a veneer of hypocrisy, covering up a very different sexual reality? Were there fewer, and less enjoyable, sexual acts inside and outside marriage? Wild figures once circulated about the gigantic numbers of prostitutes, especially in London, which suggested that middle-class males, dissatisfied by the quality and quantity of the sex available at home – a consequence of their wives’ anti-sensual ignorance – were seeking satisfaction elsewhere. But nobody really knew, or could suggest ways of finding out.
In 1981, Michel Foucault threw a time-bomb into this debate by claiming, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, that the 19th and 20th centuries had one quality in common which was far more important than any that set them apart. This was the desire to know all there is to be known, scientifically, physiologically, biologically, culturally and psychologically, about every aspect of sex. The process culminated in Havelock Ellis and Freud in the 19th century, and in Masters and Johnson and their imitators in the 20th. Foucault was a philosopher who knew little history, so he read scientific texts and paid scant attention to the enormous weight of evidence supporting the theory that a suffocating blanket of prudery had for nearly a century characterised ‘Victorian’ England – France, too, for that matter. Mason agrees that, as defined by Foucault, sex ‘was certainly not repressed in the English 19th century’. ‘In fact’, he adds, the point, ‘like much in Foucault, emerges as something of a platitude when expressed in a straightforward way’. Foucault, in short, was true but trite. Mason goes on to point out that he also ignored the linkage between beliefs about sex and sexual practices. As a result, ‘he leaves the field of bodies and pleasures perfectly intact as a subject of historical enquiry, with its linkages to belief, if one only chooses to investigate it.’
Shortly afterwards, in 1984, Peter Gay, in The Bourgeois Experience: Education of the Senses, published new evidence of sexual hedonism in practice, especially in the record of one joyously sensual upper-middle-class threesome living in the Connecticut Valley at the height of Victorian prudery. He claimed too much for his new data, but the accepted wisdom now is that perhaps the Victorians did not behave all that differently from ourselves, but were merely more hypocritical.
Michael Mason, rightly, will have none of this revisionism. He describes ‘Victorianism’ as ‘the moralism which characterises English sexual culture in, approximately, the period 1800 to 1860’ and, unlike Gay, makes no attempt to rescue the Victorians from the doghouse of obsessive prudery in which they have lived since 1910. Again and again, he argues that ‘19th-century anti-sensualism had a very broad base,’ that it consisted of ‘a set of widely held values which commanded wide assent’ and that it was ‘a widely and warmly embraced creed’. He accepts that prudery was ‘a real phenomenon’, notably among middle-class groups, where verbal and visual inhibitions ‘ran deep’. Finally, in exasperation, he defines ‘Victorianism’ as ‘a moral code which unless we understand its roots might strike us as one that only a monster or a madman could espouse’.
Such is the unsatisfactory state in which matters stand today, a condition Mason has set out to change. Apparently, he presented his publisher with a huge, unwieldy manuscript. Rather than ask for massive cuts, Oxford agreed to publish two volumes instead of one. Since the titles (and dustcovers) of the two are almost identical, bibliographical confusion is virtually guaranteed. But the scholarly research behind them is extremely impressive. Mason has scoured the memoirs of every foreign visitor, he has read all the newspapers and magazines, he has studied the demographic data provided by the 1851 census, he has looked carefully at the spread of contraception, he has explored causal explanations deriving either from the influence of Rousseau’s Emile or from religious revivals and the sectarian theology of strange mid-Victorian sects, from Swedenborgians to Princites to Irvingites to Perfectionists and Southcottians, several of which were pro-sensualist. Moreover, his arguments are carefully formulated to include ambiguities and contradictions, which are inevitable when dealing with so slippery a subject as sexual behaviour and sexual attitudes.
His argument is that Victorian anti-sensualism is an undoubted fact, but that it emerged out of the egalitarian ideas of the French Revolution and the rational progressive ideas of the Enlightenment. He believes that these influences affected ideas about sex education for children, courtship procedures, marriage and separate spheres for the two sexes, the conflict of pleasure and procreation in the use of contraception, legal divorce and the cult of respectability. Enlightenment and Revolutionary utopianism led to Victorian anti-sensuality.
Mason first tackles sexual practice. Here, his main contribution is his stress on the significance of contraception, a practice which was well established among the middle classes by 1860, causing a rapid decline in the legitimate birth rate. He points out that whether the technique used was coitus interruptus or one of the many other forms of extra-vaginal ejaculation, it had to be negotiated between the two spouses, and must have involved a frank discussion of body parts. The use of the various barrier devices available, of which the condom was only one, also involved verbal negotiations between sex partners, so that on these occasions practical necessity must have overridden prudery. Mason argues that illegitimate births began to fall a decade before legitimate ones, which he believes proves that full sexual penetration was by now a common aspect of pre-marital courting, at least among the lower classes, within whose financial reach the newer barrier devices had now come.
Francis Place is the key witness for the early timing of the change among the artisan class and the upper levels of the poor, which he situated in the 1790-1820 period. After a halfhearted and unconvincing attempt to accuse Place of bias, Mason complains that his explanatory model for the spread of ‘radical gentility’ and sobriety among the labouring classes was no more than a shopping-list of very different factors, ranging from the invention of cotton cloth to better policing, to growing prosperity for the lower middle and upper working classes, to French Revolutionary ideas of egalitarianism and wider political participation, to the growth of reading clubs, Sunday schools, the Lancaster educational system and the work of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. It is difficult to see any objection to such an imaginative, multi-causal explanation for one of Europe’s most spectacular cultural revolutions. In the end, Mason abandons his objections, accepts Place’s evidence as reliable, and uses it extensively, making him the author most frequently referred to in both volumes.
In his own analysis, Mason admits of gender that ‘I generally treat it as being overridden by the influence of class.’ At the same time, he concedes that ‘the contemporary written record is in effect the production of men, with women making a vanishingly small contribution’ (can he really mean ‘vanishing’?). His less controversial conclusion is that ‘the agenda of late 19th-century sexual liberation was self-servingly devised by men, and spurious in its concern for women.’
Among Place’s contemporaries, only William Cobbett disagreed with him, believing that the change was no more than ‘modesty in the word and grossness in the thought’, as proven by the growing number of prostitutes who ‘now swarm in our towns’, and by a rise in illegitimate births. Mason sets out to test this theory that the all too visible prudery was only a hypocritical fig-leaf. Rashly, however, he uses as evidence the Mosher Report about the sexual response of some upper-middle-class American wives in the 1890s and beyond. But the Report’s date is too late for it to be used to refute ‘Victorianism’ in the bedroom, and if examined closely, it does not in any case provide very strong evidence that routinely orgasmic women were the norm.
So far as we know, there are extant only two detailed sexual diaries kept by males in the 19th century; unfortunately, neither was at all typical. One was kept by a lifelong virgin, the other by a sexual athlete who claimed to have ejaculated several times a day for decades. No generalisation can be made from either of these two prodigies of nature. Mason therefore falls back on demographic statistics in the hope of clarifying sexual behaviour. His most powerful set of data concerns the proportion of brides who were pregnant on marriage, which amounted to 40-50 per cent. This proves that full sexual intercourse was a regular prelude to marriage. He also examines the wildly contradictory data about the number of prostitutes. Police figures suggest a modest and stable number, in an expanding population. The evidence, such as it is, therefore indicates a decline of numbers per capita and a slow improvement in behaviour. Street prostitutes, like their married sisters, were said to have become more orderly, more respectable, more moral – indeed, more prudish – while some two to seven thousand are estimated to have been courtesans in London, serving as agreeable companions/mistresses for upper-class males. Mason concludes from all this that there was a ‘huge improvement in morality’ in the first two-thirds of the 19th century, the lead being taken by the middle class. He admits, however, that contemporaries believed that throughout the period few men had ‘not dealt in mercenary sex’.
As for marital sex, Mason confesses himself baffled, since his data are so poor. He wisely declines to commit himself any further than that the middle class was probably the most prudish group. Nor can he relate verbal prudery to sexual action, which leads him into a maze of contradictions. For example, at one point he argues that many parents concealed the facts of life from their adolescent children; at another, he says that ‘sexual knowledge was taught early.’ As for the poor, he relies on Place for evidence of rising respectability before the 1820s, supported by Mayhew’s more detailed investigation for the 1860s. He makes the point that not all housing for the poor consisted of squalid slums, and that overcrowding didn’t necessarily lead to incest and promiscuity. Mayhew found a third of London slum houses ‘decent’ and only another third ‘terrible’. The same wide difference applies also to housing in the countryside, and to factories.
On the whole Mason thinks he sees evidence everywhere of an improvement in working-class behaviour and morals. I have my doubts. The most frustrating thing about these two volumes is that, of necessity, the conclusions are the product of hopelessly biased, contradictory or inadequate data. As a result Mason constantly twists and turns, backs and fills, and tries to have it both ways. At times, scholarly caution is taken to the point of incoherence. Much of his patchy evidence for the sexual practices of the poor is virtually worthless, which he has the honesty to confess. What is one to make, for example, of girls described as having ‘a species of saucy prudery’? Were they saucy or were they prudish? Is the glass to be described as half-full or half-empty? And where Engels ranted about ‘unbridled sexual intercourse’ in the factory, Mason dismisses the idea as pure fantasy: on what grounds we do not know.
Perhaps in despair at the inconclusiveness of his findings, Mason next takes a look at the relations of doctors and patients, only to find, as usual, that the evidence is conflicting – a ragtag of quotations and counter-quotations about how doctors and patients thought about women’s bodies. He points out that the fact that ovulation is spontaneous, and not the result of female orgasm, was discovered in the 1820s, but took thirty years or more to spread through the medical profession, and longer still to get through to patients. This ancient fallacy presumably encouraged men who wanted children to attend to their wives’ sexual needs. But what about couples who wanted to stop having children, who may well have been in the majority? Many GPs were also propagandists about the terrible dangers of masturbation – an idea that had taken root at the beginning of the 18th century, and which doctors were still spreading right up to the end of the 19th century and beyond. Instead, bachelors were advised to abstain, take a mistress or visit a prostitute, for GPs also warned that lengthy abstention was damaging to the health. As for advice on birth control, the very practice was deplored by many doctors as late as the 1880s. Mason mentions Dr William Acton’s famous remark in 1857 that ‘the majority of women ... are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.’ But although Acton’s Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs was a bestseller (six editions in twenty years), Mason can find no parallel for it in contemporary literature, and therefore dismisses it as the aberration of a man who elsewhere referred approvingly to the ‘efficiency’ of the penis.
Mason concludes his first volume with a long disquisition on the new science of Malthusianism, as a factor leading to a theory of environmental moralism which held that changing living conditions could change behaviour and morals. Thus the first secretary of the Social Science Association likened the ideal society to ‘a well-run reformatory school’, where would be found ‘moral and religious discipline, combined with good sanitary arrangements, and a proper union of industrial and intellectual education’ – just what we are groping for today. It is an idea based on the contested conviction that, as James Mill believed, ‘the formation of all human character’ is ‘by circumstances, and so can be ameliorated by education’. But the question arises whether there was any automatic connection between the advance of humanity and its desensualisation. To most progressive thinkers in the late 19th century, the answer was an unequivocal ‘yes’. Environmental moralism thus demanded support for the doctrine of a libido open to change, and therefore to repression. But in the end Malthusian ‘moral restraint’ required a renunciation of sensuality which proved unacceptable to the public.
In his second volume, Mason shifts his focus from the facts – such as they are – to the causes. He emphasises once again his separation from those who don’t accept the ‘anti-sensualism’ popularly attributed to the Victorians. So powerful was this anti-sensualism, he believes, that it cannot be explained by ‘the fairly puny forces’ of ‘the lip-service puritanism of the bourgeoisie, nor by the asceticism of the Evangelicals’. He claims to be seeking a solution in more general beliefs about religion, morality and politics. In fact, however, he ignores not only politics, but also economic growth, social reform, better housing, better clothing, better sanitation and better policing: that is, all the factors listed by Francis Place. His explanation is confined to shifts in religious and free-thought ideas about sexuality.
Mason argues that anti-sensualism grew directly out of older secular and progressive ideas and groups, such as Benthamites, feminists and Liberals, with only passive support from Church and Chapel. He sees the 19th century as a period of extreme instability of sexual codes in a largely secular society. But his evidence is, as usual, contradictory. Joseph Priestley was very hostile to any form of sex before marriage; James Mill had ‘a neurotic aversion to sex’; John Stuart Mill was ambivalent, but an early supporter of contraception; Bentham defended sexual pleasure while advocating abstention, and expressed himself in favour of both concubinage and – uniquely – of tolerance for homosexuality; Harriet Taylor looked forward to the end of marriage as an institution, ‘all the pleasures, such as they are, being men’s and all the disagreeables and pains being women’s’. Marriage, she concluded, was ‘made by sensualists for sensualists’. Shelley denounced chastity as ‘a monkish and evangelical superstition’ but advocated natural temperance, since sensuality becomes less important as civilisation develops; Rousseau in Emile demanded extreme sexual restraint, what Mason calls ‘a positive orgy of abstinence’, softened only by later ideas about ‘the erotic satisfactions of marital love’, themselves enhanced by abstinence before marriage and restraint within it. Both Rousseau and Shelley are prime examples of the argument that anti-sensualism grew out of Enlightenment theories.
From the discordant din of these conflicting voices, Mason tries, without much success, to create a coherent pattern. Most Protestant English, he believes, followed Paley’s Principles of 1785, in rejecting chastity as a chosen condition, supporting erotic gratification within marriage and opposing, at least in principle, extra-marital sex. But he points out that the Church of England was not a very zealous community, as proved by the low turnout at service on Sunday, and the even lower one at Holy Communion at Easter. On his way, he rescues the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 from the feminists by declaring its objective to have been purely medical, to protect the health of garrison troops, which is what the Government always claimed it was. It is a striking example of a piece of legislation largely driven by material, rather than moral, concerns.
He then turns to the Evangelicals, who have long been prime suspects in the hunt for those responsible for the astonishing edifice of Victorian prudery. Mason again sees in them a religious morality which grew out of the first, modest wave of utopian anti-sensuality of the 1790s. It was the second, in the 1830s, which was described in 1961 by F.K. Brown as ‘rigid, hard, mannerless pedantry’, ‘Puritanical strictness and senseless rigour ... defying humaneness and good thinking’. Mason, following Brown, identifies this second wave as the key to the anti-sensualism of the Victorian middle class. It was applied to clothes, speech, behaviour and the use of money and alcohol. Place, who was referring to the first wave as it affected the artisans, summed it up as ‘orderliness, rationality, temperance, decorum, and prudence’, which were the key attributes that Mayhew later used to distinguish the respectable poor from the rough.
This leads Mason into lengthy investigations of the wilder seas of sectarianism, plied by Owenites, Swedenborgians and Princites, before coming ashore again with the link of Free Thinking to Free Love. Along the way, Mason pokes into many inlets. We are introduced to such oddities, for example, as George Drysdale, author of Elements of Social Science (1855) and representative of late 19th-century scientific libertarianism. He strongly opposed sexual abstinence as a breach of ‘the law of exercise’ of all body parts at least twice a week (were he alive today he would presumably be a passionate advocate of jogging). It was Drysdale’s vision which in the end created ‘Victorian’ anti-sensuality as an object of amazement, horror and disdain by the passionately pro-sensual late 20th century. Despite the repetitions, contradictions and ambiguities, these two learned and remarkable volumes reveal a wealth of 19th-century thought and behaviour. Mason has cleared the undergrowth and provided some of the materials needed for someone else to build a synthesis. In future, anyone interested in the theory and practice of ‘Victorianism’ will have to read them very carefully.