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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Purity and Prurience

Sweetness is to woman what sugar is to fruit. It is her first busines to be happy - a sunbeam in the house, making others happy. True, she will often have "a tear in her eye", but, like the bride of young Lochinvar, it must be accompanied with "a smile on her lips."
  Girls and women are willing enough to be agreeable to men if they do not happen to stand to them in the relation of father, brother, or husband; but it is not every woman who remembers that her raison d'être is to give out pleasure to all as a fire gives out heat.
Rev. E.J.Hardy, Manners Makyth Man, 1887

The Victorian era, usually considered to be 1837-1901, carries the connotation of repression and prudishness.  On the other hand, it was also a time of scientific advancement, and the development of political and philosophical thought.  Darwin wrote his theory of evolution.  Freud planted the seeds of modern  psychology.  Marx and Engels formed radical new ideas about economics.  The era is sometimes referred to as a second renaissance.

The Brontë sisters, 1834
by Patrick Branwell Brontë

Certainly for authors it was an engaging time.  The Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and my favorite guy, Lewis Carroll, were among the prominent and popular writers.  In the fine arts arena, the Pre-Raphaelites, a distinctly British art movement, thrived, as well as the Impressionists and the Fauves.

Queen Victoria by Alexander Bassano, 1887
National Portrait Gallery, London

Although socially people had a strict sense of propriety, I‘m not sure how much can be attributed to Queen Victoria herself (1819-1901), whose name the era retains.  The bearer of nine children she was obviously not shy of intercourse.  Recent biographical evidence reveals that she and Prince Albert were fond of erotic art.  But the social norms were quite rigid, and every lady had at least one reference book for etiquette.  A lady definitely knew the rules of courtship, as did all her prospective beaus.  No room for monkey business here, unless a woman found a rare man who wanted more than a Stepford wife.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, and their nine children
1858, photographer unknown

But people, ever human, found their way around all the restrictions.  Erotica flourished, most significantly The Pearl, A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading, a monthly magazine that ran for eighteen months in London.  Published by William Lazenby from July 1879 to December 1880, it was condemned by the authorities and shut down.  (All eighteen issues available online here.)  Lazenby went on to produce other erotic publications such as The Oyster in 1883.  A book by “Walter”, My Secret Life, was the sexual memoirs of a gentleman spanning eleven volumes and 4,000 pages, printed beginning in 1888.

Detail of After the Bath
by William Powell Frith, 1897

Letters were a way that women could express themselves.  Common were cryptograms, which were literally read “between the lines”.  A famous example is this one, entitled Female Ingenuity:

"I cannot be satisfied, my dearest friend;
blest as I am in the matrimonial state,
unless I pour into your friendly bosom,
which has ever been in unison with mine,
the various sensations which swell
with the liveliest emotions of pleasure,
my almost bursting heart. I tell you my dear
husband is the most amiable of men.
I have now been married seven weeks, and
have found the least reason to
repent the day that joined us.

My husband is
in person and manners far from resembling
ugly, cross, old, disagreeable and jealous
monsters, who think by confining to secure a wife;
it is his maxim to treat,
as a bosom friend and confidant, and not
as a plaything or menial slave, the woman
chosen to be his companion. Neither party,
he says should always obey implicitly;
but each yield to the other by turns."

But this is what was intended:

"I cannot be satisfied, my dearest friend,
unless I pour into your friendly bosom,
the various sensations which swell
my almost bursting heart. I tell you my dear
I have now been married seven weeks, and
repent the day that joined us.

My husband is
ugly, cross, old, disagreeable and jealous.
It is his maxim to treat
as a plaything or menial slave; the woman
he says, should always obey implicitly."

However, the erotica and the secret letters were the exception to the sexual and behavioral norms that society in general held standard.  There were lots and lots of rules.  Most of these rules made sense.  Some seem to dreamily refer to the romantic notions of knights and their ladies.  But some were outright funny and ridiculous.  The rules we know of were for the upper class, although I suppose other classes held them as evidence of good breeding.

Some general rules:

Never wantonly frighten others.  (I guess deliberately frightening others was okay?)

When dining never make noises with the mouth or throat.  Never permit yourself to use gestures, nor illustrations made with a knife or fork on the tablecloth.

Gentlemen should never scratch their heads, pick their teeth, clean their nails, or worst of all, pick their nose in front of company.  They should spit as little as possible and never upon the floor.  The cracking of the finger-joints should be avoided. 

To be a gentleman one must walk like a gentleman.  A shallow or impudent brain will show in his heel.

Do not speak in conversations if you have nothing of interest to say to someone.  Do not discuss the weather.

Never ask a lady a question about anything. In a lady intelligence was not encouraged, nor was she to show any interest in politics.

The following actions were considered very rude for a lady to commit:  crossing the legs; adjusting the hair; winking or laughing immoderately; beating time with feet and/or hands; rubbing the face or hands;  and shrugging the shoulders.

A gentleman may walk between two ladies, but a lady must never walk between two gentlemen.

No gentleman should use his bare hand to press the waist of a lady in the waltz.  If without gloves, he should carry a handkerchief in his hand.  Likewise, a lady did not touch a person without gloves on.  Ladies were to wear gloves in public places and not take them off to shake hands.

Okay, now for some zanier ones:

It was considered indecent for a lady to sit on the same seat where a man recently sat.  (In that case I am a total slut, as I will sit in any seat, even if a man, woman, dog, cat, or other furry creature has sat there.)

Swinging the arms when walking, eating on the street, sucking parasol handles, pushing roughly through a crowd, talking and laughing very loudly and boisterously on the streets, and whispering in public conveyances are all evidences of ill-breeding in ladies.  (Well, I guess at some time or another I’ve been guilty of everything except sucking on parasol handles.  I don’t get that – am I missing something here?)

A lady could not show her legs or even say the word “leg”.  They were properly referred to as “limbs”.  (There are references to the idea that even furniture legs were covered with cloth, especially pianos, but there is no historical evidence this is true.)  Anyone out there get excited when you hear the word “leg”?  Forget it, I don’t even want to know….

Since the only way one could properly engage in intercourse was to marry, it was important to find the right partner.  Here are some rules for selection:

*A tall man could be paired with a shorter woman.
*People with eyes of blue, gray, black, or hazel should not marry people with the same eye color.
*People with thin, wiry features and "cold blood" should marry those with round features and "warm blood."
*Those with bright red hair and a florid complexion have an excitable temper and should marry a person with very dark black hair or possibly a brunette.
*Soft, fine haired people should not marry people like themselves.
*People with curly hair should marry those with straight hair.
*Irritable, nervous people should marry sympathetic, quiet types.
*Quick-speaking people should marry someone calm and deliberate.
*People who do not fit into one specific category (ie not blonde or brunette) or are average (not tall or short) should marry someone similar to themselves.

A Private View at the Royal Academy
by William Powell Frith, 1883

Either balance was important or they subscribed to the notion that opposites attract.  Balance is something we need to keep in mind when thinking about the Victorian era.  Yes, there were the elements of prudery and constraint, but also great strides in knowledge and the arts.  This era is the worthy precursor to modern times.  And thank the moon and stars that as a woman I missed it!
All images courtesy of Wikipedia except as noted.


  1. So then, with those "marry your opposite" rules in mind, it ought to have been perfectly okay for a white person to marry a black person! After all, ppl with straight hair should marry those with curly hair, right?

  2. Unfortunately, no. There was a lot of racism then. Read the post "Racism & Sexism at its Most Outrageous" about Saartjie Baartman. She was paraded around England just prior to the Victorian era.