Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

In conclusion, it must be emphasized again that the Evangelical and Victorian ideal — just like the medieval ideal — was never fully accepted by the bulk of society, was often contravened even by those who paid it lip-service, and was rejected outright by a minority.

There were those, like Bradlaugh and Amberley, who put up with vilification to support specific programmes of which they approved; there were those, like Vizetelly, who continued, even after conviction, to translate the works of Zola, who insisted that art must be judged on its own plane. In some quarters moreover, eighteenth-century freedom persisted well into the nineteenth century: Lord Melbourne delighted to “talk broad” at table, and did not hesitate to entertain George Eliot to dinner.(39) But what makes the story confusing is the coincidence of the Romantic movement with the peak of the Evangelical movement. In Lady Melbourne’s amours we see eighteenth-century licence; but when her daughter-in-law, Caroline Lamb, gashes herself at a society ball because of her hopeless love for Byron, it is a very different phenomenon, and one which Lady Melbourne found deeply shocking.(39) The reaction from the Napoleonic wars intensified the Romantic revolt. Young women drank vinegar or stayed up all night in order to appear pale and interesting. Empire clothing was exiguous and practically transparent; in Paris, the “espoitrinement” was revived, and a country visitor observed that he had never seen such a sight since he was weaned.

So, in the 1820’s, which we think of as a time of repression, we can find a young lady writing to the editress of a ladies’ magazine, complaining angrily about its moralistic tone, and adding that she is obviously a person who has “sinned until she can sin no more” and now wishes to prevent anyone else enjoying themselves.(50)

The story is still further complicated by such economic and political factors as the Industrial Revolution, but there is no space to discuss that aspect here.

Yet it is not the fact that certain individuals openly rejected certain tenets of the code (while respecting the others) which is significant, so much as the extent to which a hidden sexual life, of a brutal and perverted character, was carried on beneath the veneer of respectability, and very often by those who in public maintained the most respectable front. It was the age of the locked room, the discreet brothel, and the expensive limited edition of erotic works. The simile of Grand Central Station was perhaps not so inappropriate after all.