Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

11. Sex Denied

IN imagination, the Victorian era appears to me in the guise displayed in the paintings of Frith: a world of top-hatted men and parasoled women moving like dolls beneath the traceries of the new cast-iron architecture. But it is a world like Grand Central Station. Ornate at ground level, the dirt and fumes are tucked out of sight in caverns below. Somewhere beneath the level on which paterfamilias moves with assured dignity, followed by his brood, is a second and more sombre plane, peopled by a race whose duty is to emerge occasionally to provide variegated crowds, such as those which fill “Derby Day“. Only by applying the microscope of Dickens does one discover that each of the units in these crowds is a living individual, each with its own hopes, its own sensibility, its own armour of attitude and its own despair.

With this picture, as vivid and unreal as a magic-lantern slide, goes a stereotype of Victorian rectitude, harshness and prudery in the civilized overworld, and of carnivorous exploitation, serpentine deception and bovine suffering in the shades beneath.

The reality, of course, is far more complicated. I cannot hope, in a single chapter, to bring out more than a few points. To begin with, the period with which we are concerned is not the England of the Great Exhibition and the rising population pressures, but something a good deal earlier. The patrist reaction started about 1760; by 1860 the swing-back was already under way. Furthermore it was a reaction led, not by the orthodox Church, but by the Wesleyans who were outside it, and the orthodox Church frequently protested against the extremes which they advocated. Clearly an increasing number of persons was becoming sympathetic to these reformist ideas, for the Wesleyans worked largely through reform societies; but it is also true that they succeeded in imposing their views on people to a considerable extent, for we find frequent protests, constant complaint that the young ignore the rules of behaviour, and even adults who do not hesitate to ignore the taboos, up to a point. As early as 1814 a writer complains,

“I observe with grief and astonishment that marriage has dwindled into a state of temporary convenience to be continued or dissolved at pleasure.” (50)