One of the things I love about my research is that, at times, it gives me legitimate reasons to be a massive perv, normally when I’m looking for the most innocent thing. Currently, I’m researching how ideas of virtuous sexuality (domestic life, marriage, childhood, courtship) were shown on the music hall stage by songs and performance. It forms part of a larger work on the relationship between text (music hall songs) and audience, as I try to understand and navigate the millions of narratives and sub-narratives that helped to create ideas of vice and virtue.
Recently, I’ve been spending time in an archive of one of London’s greatest Museums and a few days ago I came across a collection that totally surprised me. Now, I’m not a novice when it comes to Victorian depictions of sexuality. Researching the Music Halls means that a large proportion of my time is spent looking at the way vice, prostitution and homosexuality were treated by the entertainment industry on postcards, erotic literature, art and on stage. I also subscribed to the stereotypical view that the Victorians were either massively repressed or totally deviant. There was no middle ground. From everything I had read and been taught, sexual knowledge was never encouraged or shared. Studies on the working classes either paint them as having vulgar, coarse sexually material attitudes or such limiting self-awareness that children who grew up in the overly crowded slums or rural villages would reach adulthood with a non-existent knowledge of sex. The middle classes were the social reformers; prudes who used God or medicine to enforce the belief that sex was for procreation, never pleasure. Leaving only the upper classes, who occupied a space above official rhetoric full of bohemian libertines and private sexual deviants. Sex and sexual knowledge belonged to the underworld, to collectors of heavily explicit material like Henry Spencer Ashbee, who is the supposed author of My Secret Life (c.1880) and from everything I’ve seen these collections were never gentle, they always became systematic deceptions of every sexual pervasion going. From whipping, spanking, BDSM, to nuns and serving girls, the Victorian erotomaniacs have been painted as the only section of society to have a non-medical interest in sexual desire. It was as if the Victorians had decided that either you were virtuous or you were vice-ridden. Nobody was allowed to sit on the fence.
Which is why a tiny pamphlet, a little smaller than a postcard and pasted into a scrapbook, caught me totally off guard. ‘The Art of Begetting Handsome Children’ dates itself to 1860, the same period as the word ‘pornography’ makes its first appearance in the English language and around the time that legislation on sexuality and sexual congress was pushing ‘forbidden knowledge’ underground and into the back alleys and side streets of the metropolis. The tagline for The Art is ‘to be given at marriage instead of gloves’ which after having read it, I totally support. Did you think the Victorians believed sex was just for procreation? That true love meant a marriage of souls not bodies? That young brides were just supposed to lie back and think of England? Yes? Well you were wrong!
‘When the husband cometh into his wife’s chamber, he must entertain her with all kinds of dalliance, wanton behaviour, and allurements to venery. But if he perceive her to be slow, and more cold, he must cherish, embrace and tickle her; and shall not abruptly (the nerves being suddenly distended) break into the field of nature, but rather shall creep in by little and little, intermixing more wanton kisses with wanton words and speeches, mauling her secret parts…so that at length the womb will strive and wax fervent with a desire of casting forth its own seed. When the woman shall perceive the efflux of seed to approach, by reason of the tinkling pleasure, she must advertise her husband thereof that at the very same instant or moment he may also yield forth his seed, that by collision, or meeting of the seeds, conception may be made.’’
Soo…what does this teach us? Anyone else slightly reeling from the fact that even the Victorians knew that woman could orgasm, a fact that still seems to be questioned today? This reads just like a modern day sex manual, giving the same sage advice; sex must be loving, considerate, and honest. It is not for the benefit of one partner over the other. Yes, the advice may come from a slightly crazy angle – if you have sex when you’re drunk the children will be lazy and foolish, if you’re overly passionate and it’s all over to quickly the same thing will happen – it’s still solid grounded modern advice. The most important message of the book is that under no circumstance should children come from a marriage where there is no love, or if the father is polluted by sex outside of the marriage, for ‘if they are not united in love, how should their seed unite to bring about comely offspring, if any at all?’. This attitude, and offering of sexual knowledge, the fact that it was printed for the purpose of sharing, just shows how wrong we are to see the Victorians as either sexual deviants or moral purists. There is an awful lot more to them than that.