The weather in the UK recently has surpassed itself. As I look out of my window today it is pouring with rain and there is a chilly wind blowing, so I thought I would write something to make my readers a little warmer under the collar.
Just before Christmas I thoroughly enjoyed two marvellous series: Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooders and At Home with the Georgians both aired on BBC2. As someone with a keen interest in womens’ issues both current and historical, I was fascinated with the way these two history shows discussed late 18th and 19th Century views on gender. So I thought I would risk a post about sex. Not just any old sex of course; this blog does have pretensions to seriousness on occasion. These programmes highlighted for me how easy it is to misunderstand relationships enjoyed (or otherwise) by our forebears and how guilty we can be of judging them by the standards of the 21st century.
We know now that there was drunkenness, domestic abuse and prostitution on an apparently grand scale; that sexually transmitted diseases were rife; that men ‘kept women’ that weren’t their wives and exploited both (or all) women just the same. My own Great Grandfather had children with both his wife (who suffered serious mental health issues) and his domestic servant alternately in the 1880’s. There were campaigners in those centuries who tried to highlight these problems of course, but it took years of frustration and disappointment before the political landscape shifted towards women’s rights. For many the image of the Georgians as either dissolute Hogarthians or women lifted from a Jane Austen novel contrasts sharply with their heirs, the strait-laced Victorian prudes. As an amateur historian, the challenge to these ideas is what made these two programmes so interesting for me.
Ian Hislop, in his enjoyably jolly style rightly suggested that the Victorians were at least as fascinated about, and as obsessed with sex as we are now and frequently more so. Then, by contrast I found the final part of At Home with the Georgians particularly moving, as Amanda Vickery searched the archives for diary entries which revealed how far the lives of many women were from Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, restricted as they were by cruel husbands who behaved more like obsessively jealous gaolers than lovers.
Some in the 18th and 19th centuries may have been genuinely God-fearing and chaste, but many others struggled with inner demons and sought to find excuses for their behaviour. Many too gave free rein to their passions, openly or as a guilty pleasure. The premise of Hislop’s examination of the culture of ‘do-gooding’ made it clear though that there were those who sought to hold back the populace from this road to salaciousness and degradation; and it is perhaps those ‘do-gooders’ that have been at the root of the later view of Victorians as prudes. Hislop found, however, that some of those very same people were saying one thing, and behaving in quite a different way.
I have found some words from eminent persons of the 18th and 19th century that I hope illustrate just how seriously some of our forbears took (or didn’t take) sex:
The first quote I found is from William Thomas Stead (1849 – 1912), one of Ian Hislop’s Do -Gooders and frequently credited with being one of the first pioneers of modern investigative journalism (in that he was guilty of creating news rather than just reporting it.) On sex:
” It is monstrously indecent. One wonders how two self-respecting people could face each other after performing it.”
I can’t decide whether this comment is ‘tongue in cheek’, as I have no context for it. I’d like to think it is..
A similarly disparaging comment is made by Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1872) in his Journals.
“Pray, what was nature thinking of when she made this? (sex) She almost puts herself on a level with those who draw in privies”.
It is interesting that the emphasis here is on human nature as a ‘she’……
“The perfect hostess will see to it that the works of male and female authors be properly separated on her bookshelves. Their proximity, unless they happen to be married, should not be tolerated”
I for one quite enjoy the thought of the liaison between Christina Rossetti and Wilfred Owen that I am currently encouraging on the shelf next to me, although I fear it would be one fraught with difficulties.
A more enthusiastic note is struck by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
“If your morals make you dreary, depend on it , they are wrong.”
But we soon become serious again, with more Victorian restraint offered this time by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892).
“The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.”
I would recommend whatever remedies poor Tennyson adopted to keep his ‘passions’ in check to that great American hero and first President, George Washington (1732 – 1799) who wrote:
“When once the woman has tempted us, and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetites, whatever the consequences may be.”
Clearly Bill Clinton knew he was on safe legal ground when he was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky scandal by the US House of Representatives in 1998. There was a precedent, President.
Lastly there was an English Act of Parliament apparently enacted in the late 18th century that stated:
“Any woman who shall impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by virtue of scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, iron stays, hoops, high heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty against witchcraft, and the marriage..shall be null and void.”
Oh dear, with men so clearly unable to defend themselves who would escape the full force of this law? There is the hope that no-one was actually tried for an offence under it. Is there an expert out there who can reassure me on this point?
The perfectly serious moral tone of some of the pamphlets and works of ‘improvement’ produced 150 years ago can seem rather amusing as we sit apparently comfortable in our sexuality in the 21st century. However, there is a vein of darker material that evidences sexual hypocrisy, especially in relation to lesbian and gay relationships and sex with those we now regard rightly (and partly thanks to the Victorian image of them) as children. There are, as is illustrated above, disturbing attitudes expressed towards women and their role as witting or unwitting temptresses. We should not judge history by the standards of our own time, but there are certain behaviours it is hard to accept in relations only three or four generations before us.
Writing as I do as co-editor of Womens Views on News it is useful to remind myself occasionally that we have in fact come a long way in 200 years. But with single parents, most of whom are women, now seemingly villified as the source of all society’s ills, it seems the powers that be may just have shifted their emphasis. There is still much to do.