Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Victorians and Sex

                                            

Queen Victoria loved it. The morning after her wedding night she wrote ecstatically in her diary that sex was  ''a foretaste of heaven''. Unfortunately she did not enjoy what came after the nights of bliss with her beloved Albert as one pregnancy followed another. (Nineteenth century birth control was rudimentary and consisted of: abstinence, withdrawal, sheaths made of animal intestines - the advice was to wash them out between use, the introduction of a piece of sponge into the vagina to guard the mouth of the womb, or by squirting tepid water into the vagina after sex.)


Given these options, it is hardly surprising that Queen Victoria proceeded to give birth consecutively to nine children. Even if she had not enjoyed the procreative aspect, she'd have little say in the matter. After marriage, a woman's possessions, and this included her body, became her husband's. If he wanted sex, it was her duty to fulfil his needs.

Many well-brought up Victorian girls married with only the remotest idea of what awaited them sexually. The story in Diamonds & Dust of Lady Caroline Hartington, who ''tried to run away after the unspeakableness of the wedding night'' is actually based on a real event - my maternal grandmother, married at 16 to a much older man, supposedly ran back to her parents the day after the wedding. And was returned forthwith.

The same notion that girls arrived at their wedding night pure, sexless and ignorant, to be awakened (or not) by her husband can be seen in the forlorn comment of  Mary Sidgewick, married in 1859 at the age of 18 to a much older man. She later wrote in her diary: ' how I cried at Paris....the nights!'

It wasn't just young women who were in for a shock: John Ruskin allegedly was unable to consummate his marriage when he discovered on the wedding night that his bride had pubic hair. His idea of female beauty was derived from the classical Greek statues he'd seen on his travels and in the British Museum. His reaction and expectations differ little from many young men nowadays, who expect girls to be entirely hairless in all areas, as this is what they have seen on porn sites.

Of course, like their 21st century counterparts, men could always find their pleasure before or beyond the marital bed: ''London in 1860 is notorious for filth and obscenity. There are, as nearly as can be ascertained,five hundred and nine prostitutes, if you believe the Return of the Number of Brothels and Prostitutes within the Metropolitan Police Area.'' Diamonds & Dust. Sadly the same was not true for women, who were expected to remain pure and unsullied until their wedding. Or at least, not get caught....

The age of consent in 1860 was 12 and had been since the sixteenth century. Sex with a girl under 10 was a felony; with a girl between 10 and 12 was a misdemeanour. The age of consent was raised to 13 in 1875 and to 16 in 1885. There were however places where men could go for sex with very young children, who were known colloquially as ''green fruit''. The poor unfortunate victim would be taken to a room with well-padded walls, where nobody would hear the screams as they were raped. Sadly, little changes but technology: now such an event would be filmed, and shared on numerous websites. In the book, George Osborne also refers to the fictitious 'Mrs Frost's' where young girls who were virgins could be had.

We get the impression that the Victorians were all prudes and sexually repressed. Nothing could be further from the truth! This was the start of the ''info'' era, and there were manuals, pamphlets, and advice books aplenty, if you knew where to buy them. Not to mention saucy photographs. And if you were a well-brought up young person living in London in 1860, whose parents declined to tell you the facts of life, a quick stroll down Holywell Street off the Strand, the centre of the erotic and pornographic book trade couldn't fail to bring enlightenment - and a blush to your maidenly cheek.

If you would like to read a free sample of my new novel Diamonds & Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so here . US readers can do so here

29 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What fun they had! And think of all the foreplay as they took off all those clothes; by the time that lot was off they'd have been ready for some serions hanky-panky.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As I lie back here, reading this, whilst enjoying the coo of a post coital pigeon
    ...I am taken back to a tale that's told of my maternal grandmother ( born in Carlow Ireland 1890 )...and how she came to meet my grandfather.

    Apparently, she met him whilst in service at the rather well to do household where he lived, him being the son of the 'well to do' owners. He was considerably older than my grandmother and whilst this didn't prohibit their relationship, the attitude of his family did when grandfather spoke of his want to marry my grandmother.

    In essence, they disowned him and so, as a consequence, they were left to live out their lives in a humble two up two down Victorian terrace...where my grandmother was to give birth to 10 children, two of which died in infancy from consumption.

    Now whilst this reads like some kind of Victorian-esque love story, truth is, or so I am told, my grandfather was a stoic authoritarian figure, as befits his era...and my grandmother, despite being the fiery Irish girl that she was, remained the victim of his tyrannical rule on more than one occasion...hence the 10 kids no doubt.

    I'll leave this tale there now and apologise for rambling, but your words reminded me of the beauty and indeed the brutality of their union in a time still wearing the strait jacket of Victorian values. Oh yeah...and your incredibly interesting piece and my spewing unto your couch a snippet of my family history reminded me of this too.....the fact that, by heritage, I am soddin; class!!...*wipes nose on pigeon*.........LOVED reading this Hedges...you're a little cracker..x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am rendered speechless. Mind, there were people who gave birth to 20 + children.most of whom died before the age of 5, which must have been heartbreaking...always amazed by people saying they'd have LOVED to have lived in the Victorian era.... no birth control, sex on demand (if you were a man) and bad drains.

      Delete
  4. Ahh, patriarchy! What a life, at least if you're a guy! :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not sure an awful lot has changed ..in some areas!

      Delete
  5. What an interesting post! I can imagine there were quite a few surprises for brides and grooms back in the day. I feel sorry for the women who had no idea what they were getting in to, especially if their husband was a tyrant.

    Diamonds and Dust sounds like a great read! Best of luck!
    Jess

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jess..the same happens today, doesn't it: women marry, ansd then discover the man they love is not the man they thought he was (violent, drinks etc)....tho prob not sexually any more...

      Delete
  6. The bad drains…yes, that would finish me after the corsets, thirteen inch cinches, fourteen pounds of underwear, sex on demand and above all that, no birth control! What on earth did they do about the 13 inch waists when pregnancy started? No, I would never have wanted to be a Victorian. Edwardian? Maybe, but frankly I'm pretty glad I was born when I was! Fascinating post, Ms Hedges…thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The past is a fascinating place - wouldn't want to live there though.

      Delete
  7. Interesting stuff, Carol. Congrats on your release. :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. I hate it that women ad to obey their husbands. It seems we haven't moved on any where child abuse is concerned I just can't understand why that is. Great post Carol.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ..nor in the realm of domestic violence..... I thin it is allied to human nature....

      Delete
  9. I always say that people who want to live in the past don't know enough about it. I used to transcribe gravestones for a local genealogy society and I still remember one row of little graves . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely. I have just written a blog post on corsets for an American site..another of the miscarriage inducing ways women were subjected to.....

      Delete
  10. Fascinating blog, Garol. Did you know that Victorians covered up the legs on their pianos? It was actually to keep them clean... and that's true!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I now..the exciting you men thing is a complete myth!

      Delete
  11. Fabulous, very informative! Just glad I wasn't born in Victorian times (I wasn't, honestly, I just look old for my height).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha. By now you and I would have has 22 kids and be dead. At least.

      Delete
  12. Humankind is pretty depraved really. Child sex is so abhorrent and, as you say, nothing changes. I shouldn't think Queen Victoria ever questioned the confinements and I think I remember reading that she missed Albert in many ways after his death!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She had a memorial plaque attached to the foot of the bed...his side...

      Delete
  13. Yes how fascinating. I love the way society or an era is are depicted as less violent or less sexual than our own times. The human race is what it is no matter the time or place. Sex and violence goes on.
    Great post

    ReplyDelete
  14. Fascinating stuff! I find it endlessy amusing how the past tends to become more rose tinted and romanticised as the decades pass. A few years ago I attended a few festivals where girls were dressed up in all the Victorian finery they could get their hands on. They went on about how they wished they had lived in the Victorian era.... until they had to go to the bathroom halfway through the day. By mid afternoon they had thrown all the petticoats back into their modern day carriages and corset laces were loosening left right and centre. My remarks that they wouldn't have been able to do that back in the day without being referred to as prostitutes were met with sullen silence.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The problems of women in public were legendary. Prostitutes characteristically raised the front of their dresses, displaying their legs to indicate their ''profession'', women crossing a muddy street, raised the front of their dresses to protect the trimmings...and got propositioned!!

      Delete
  15. I remember my mother being very open about sex EXCEPT when I was engaged she added if my husband respected me, he wouldn't ask me to do it very often. Fortunately he didn't respect me. She was raised by a Victorianish lady who asked me after I'd been dating my future for husband if he ever kissed me. I nodded. Then she asked "On the mouth`?" I still hope she took my horrified expression that he wouldn't have kissed me on the mouth rather than reality of him doing it. So glad we've made progress.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Men were actually advised in several manuals that ''fortunately, women were not very interested in intercourse'' .... though actually, many were! However, the mishaps on wedding nights were legendary!! As one young bride wrote ''Oh, Paris - how I wept. The nights...the nights...''

      Delete
  16. Good to read this again and be reminded that although abuse is rife now, it isn't new. I only wish things had improved more rather than stayed much the same, especially when it comes to children being exploited.

    ReplyDelete

So here's your chance! Talk to me. Comments will be visible after moderation.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.