The combination of these various fears — of sex, of excretion and of the body — caused the Victorians to carry prudery to fantastic extremes. Women, ‘ex definitione‘ sexless, hardly existed below the waist; or, if they did, they were not bifurcated. When advertisements of underclothing first began to appear in Victorian papers, the bifurcated garments were always shown folded, so that the bifurcation would not be remarked. Any complaint between the neck and the knees was referred to as “liver“, and when it was necessary for a doctor to examine a female patient, he was sometimes handed a doll upon which the location of the affected part might be pointed out — a delicacy recalling that of the virgin Gorgonia, who preferred to die in anguish rather than expose her nakedness to the physician.
So delicate did the sensibilities of the Victorians become, so easily were their thoughts turned to sexual matters, that the most innocent actions were taboo in case they might lead to lurid imaginings. It became indelicate to offer a lady a leg of chicken — hence the still surviving tradition that she is offered the breast; but even this was called the “bosom” in the nineteenth century. This — at least as applied to chickens — was an American refinement, as was the fitting of piano legs with crinolines — though not, it seems, chair-legs, which presumably were too thin to inspire lascivious thoughts. To conceal the piano leg is, of course, to sexualize it — no mean feat, as Glover has pointed out.(8) In the same way, Victorian clothing, at first genuinely modest, soon became employed as a stimulus to sex. The fact is, the Victorian era, so far from being aloof from sex, was obsessed with it; as all periods of repression must be. The extremes to which that obsession went, I shall shortly indicate, but I cannot leave the subject of verbal taboos without some reference to those richly comic figures, Bowdler and Plumptre.
While reformers condemned the theatre as inherently wicked, Bowdler and Plumptre defended it. It was a great art-form which only needed purging of the grossness of a more barbarous period in order to emerge in its true lustre. It was not in a spirit of fanatical intolerance that they amended Shakespeare and revised Robinson Crusoe; it was with the loving care of a jeweller polishing and cutting a jewel. Bowdler has become the type of Victorian expurgator, though he was actually neither a Victorian nor the most extreme of editors. Plumptre went much further. Where Bowdler confined himself to deletion, Plumptre did not hesitate to rewrite. It was not merely sexual irregularity which aroused his sensibilities: he deleted even references to romantic love. Since he ruthlessly excised all murders and indeed all reprehensible characters, he successfully removed the element of conflict upon which the drama depends. He was particularly exercised by any reference to pagan deities — such as the oath “By Jove” — on the other hand he felt a superstitious awe of earthquakes, and cut out Goldsmith’s feeble jokes about them on the score of impiety.
To give some idea of the grotesque extremes to which this ardent theatre-lover went, it is perhaps worth considering the immortal song from Cymbeline, “Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings, And Phoebus ‘gins arise.” Here the reference to Phoebus is clearly inadmissible, and this also excludes his steeds, which are mentioned in the next line. The conclusion “Arise, arise, I say, sweet maid, arise”, is also objectionable, since the singer is a man and his motive is probably reprehensible. Much better make the whole poem an eulogy of the benefits of early rising, and end “For shame, thou sluggard, rise!”