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Sex and Literature: Erotica in the 19th Century

by Beth Divine 4 jul 2018

The Victorian age is reputed to be one of the most repressed periods in history. This is partly because there was a queen on the throne: despite Victoria being rumoured to be something of a saucy minx, as a female monarch, there was a heavy expectation of good moral behaviour – at least in public.

Whatever she and Albert got up to in the privacy of the royal bedchamber (and they must have got up to quite a lot to have had nine children together!) the queen in public was reputed to be a stickler for modesty and restraint, with sexuality tightly bound and unacknowledged.

However, just a quick look at typical Victorian costume shows that while sexuality was unacknowledged, it was by no means hidden away. Dresses of the time boasted bust enhancing and waist nipping corsets and bootie boosting bustles and skirts. While even table legs had to be covered up, it wasn’t necessarily to disguise shapely curves – rather, it was more to tantalisingly reveal said curves.

Of course, part of the game was not letting anyone see your attraction or desire for the chosen one, but behind closed doors… Well.

Homosexuality – at last given a name of its own, to distinguish it from a number of sexual proclivities – was relatively widespread and mostly ignored, as long as it was subtle and out of the spotlight. Oscar Wilde’s affair with Boysie, the son of the Marquis of Queensbury (he of the pugilistic rules) became a very public and very shaming scandal, mainly for Wilde who was utterly undone by his fall from high Society’s graces, but also for those who had entertained him, called him friend, sponsored his plays and writings and generally hobnobbed with him.

But under the viciously civilised veneer, there was a thriving world of sex, erotica and lasciviousness – Audrey Beardsley, a contemporary of Wilde’s, wrote and drew erotica of all sorts, heavily influenced by Japanese Shunga and French works.

There was an enormous double-standard with women being expected to be pure angels, while men were meant to be devil-may-care sexually experienced heroes. It was never explained who, precisely, these men were meant to be getting their rocks off with! The death of Victoria, and the end of the 1800s brought home the realisation that there was only a century to the turn of the millennium – along with the usual fin de siècle (end of century) shift in thoughts and ideas.

This culminated, eventually, in the First World War, but changes and rebellions were not only political. Women began to demand fair treatment: the right to own property, vote and choose their own husbands, colonies rejected their label as lesser than their colonisers, demanding independence and a return to sovereignty and autonomy.

The sexual revolution was occurring too – the belief that sexual desire was sinful was being swept away, and erotic artworks and literature began to be more acceptable – although some works were still classified as obscene and were banned from publication.

As ever, when people are pushed too far, there is revolt. And the sexual revolution was on its way!