Victorian sexualities

How repressed were the Victorians? Dr Holly Furneaux challenges assumptions about Victorian attitudes towards sex, considering how theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have provided new ways of understanding sex and sexuality in the period.

Prudish Victorians?

Not so long ago it might have come as a surprise to see Queen Victoria described as ‘Britain’s sexiest Royal’ (Empire review of The Young Victoria) . It seems we no longer only think of ‘straitlaced patriarchs making their wives and children miserable [...], whaleboned women shrouding the piano legs for decency’s sake, then lying back and thinking of England’ (Matthew Sweet, ix). These stereotypes of high prudery were famously critiqued by Michel Foucault as the ‘repressive hypothesis’: the idea that the Victorians could not mention sex. Foucault pointed out that, far from being silenced, sex was spoken everywhere in the 19th century in a wide range of contexts including the law, medicine, religion, education. Much academic and popular work since has considered the many ways in which Victorians did experience and speak of desire.

Queen Victoria herself reflected on ‘dearest Albert’s’ physical perfections in her journal:

Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist. (11 October 1839, Esher vol. 2:263–4).

Victoria’s frank expression of her desire cuts across another received view of the period; that the enjoyment of sex was an exclusively male prerogative. Gynaecological doctor William Acton, whose extreme views cannot be taken as representative, stated in his The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857) that ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind’.[1] A form of this belief is certainly discernible in the virginal ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’, a term inaugurated by Coventry Patmore in his 1854 poem of that name, which laid out a model of the domestic goddess, who apparently retained her chastity even as wife and mother. In her purity and capacity for ‘sweet ordering’, as the influential Victorian critic and essayist John Ruskin memorably put it, the angel in the house was to sanctify the home as a refuge for her menfolk from the trouble of public life.[2]

Gendered ideals of the sexual purity of the respectable woman, though never unchallenged, helped to enshrine a sexual double-standard. This double-standard is apparent in legislation such as the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857: women could be divorced on the grounds of their adultery alone, while it had to be proved that men had exacerbated adultery with other offences. Similarly unequal were the notorious Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s which aimed to deal with rife sexually transmitted disease in the armed forces by the forcible medical examination of women prostitutes in garrison towns. An ideal of the ‘angel in the house’, though, was counter-balanced by a cultural fascination with her opposite, the ‘fallen woman’ (a broad definition encompassing any women who had, or appeared to have, sexual experience outside of marriage, including adulteresses and prostitutes) who appears in so much Victorian literature and art. Advice literature presented a woman’s ‘moral influence’ as a result of her ‘natural and instinctive habits’, but then was forced to lay out these supposedly innate characteristics, as in this typical example written by Peter Gaskell in 1833: ‘Her love, her tenderness, her affectionate solicitude for his [her husband’s] comfort and enjoyment, her devotedness, her unwearying care’.[3] All the energy that went into writing conduct books telling women how to behave shows the concern that ‘proper’ feminine behaviour was far from natural, and had to be taught.

While recent work has done a lot to complicate overly simple ideas of Victorian prudery, the idea of Victorian sexual repression lingers. It has powerful roots in the prominent anti-Victorianist stance of modernist authors, notably Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf . In Eminent Victorians (1918) Strachey sought to liberate his generation from the perceived reticence and ignorance, especially in sexual matters, of their pre-Freudian fathers and grandfathers. In 1966 Steven Marcus elaborated on such views in his long and influential The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England, which presented the Victorians as sexual hypocrites, maintaining a veneer of respectable society over an underbelly of prostitution and pornography. Michel Foucault mounted an important challenge to this approach in The History of Sexuality (1976). As we have briefly seen, Foucault argued that, far from silencing sex as a taboo subject, the Victorians inaugurated many of the discourses – legal, medical and sexological (the scientific study of sex) – that allowed sex to become a legitimate subject for investigation and discussion.

Report on prostitution

Report on prostitution [page: 4-5]

William Acton’s introduction to the first major 19th century study of prostitution states the need for discussion about the sex trade, 1857.

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The ‘invention’ of sexuality

The Victorian period is a key moment in the history of sexuality; it is the era in which the modern terminologies we use to structure the ways we think and talk about sexuality were invented. From the 1880s sexologists such as Richard von Kraft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis pioneered a science in which sexual preferences were analysed and categorised; they created terms including homosexuality, heterosexuality and nymphomaniac. Significantly, this began a new opposition of homo- and heterosexuality, categories which did not simply denote sexual behaviour but were perceived as central to each individual’s identity. Path-breaking queer theorist Eve Sedgwick describes the extent of this conceptual shift:

It is a rather amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity of one person can be differentiated from that of another (dimensions that include preference for certain acts, certain zones or sensations, certain physical types, a certain frequency, certain symbolic investments, certain relations of age or power, a certain species, a certain number of participants, etc. etc. etc.), precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged from the turn of the century, and has remained, as the dimension denoted by the now ubiquitous category of ‘sexual orientation’.[4]

By attending to the history of terms we now take for granted we can recognise the social construction, rather than naturality, of our emphasis on sexual identity. Jonathan Katz has argued particularly eloquently that heterosexuality be recognised as an invention, and one enabled by the earlier category of homosexuality. This approach has also been valuable to historians of female homosexuality. Terry Castle, has taken issue with the ‘no lesbians before 1900 theory’, and Emma Donoghue has shown that the term ‘lesbian’ was used ‘both as an adjective and a noun to describe women who desired and pleasured each other more than a century and a half before the OED’s first entry for that meaning’.[5] Others, especially in literary studies, have taken the different approach of looking at alternative languages and imageries through which same-sex desire is expressed, and even at the eloquence of forms of silence (see William Cohen’s work for good examples of this).

Queer Victorians

The work of gender and queer theorists, notably Sedgwick, Judith Butler and Sharon Marcus, has opened up rich interpretative possibilities. Queer theory works to question the idea that our understanding of ourselves and the world should depend on the opposition of heterosexuality and homosexuality; it scrutinises the naturalisation of these cultural terms, and looks at the diverse, messy, overlapping nature of desire. Marcus’s inspiring Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England examines the comfortable continuities between female bonds (erotic and otherwise) and Victorian marital and familial relations. As such work shows, the Victorian period - in which the terms by which we now understand and live sexuality had not yet been invented - offers a critically liberating terrain with other ways of thinking about and understanding desire.

In my work on the 19th century I have found the most useful definition of queer to be that which differs from the life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction. For me, this has been a more helpful approach than any based on a definition of queer as transgressive or deviant, as it allows us to recognise the queerness at the centre of Victorian sociality, within families, businesses and even marriages. These spaces, as I argue in Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities, accommodate a range of same-sex desires, and non-marital and non-reproductive impulses, which were often acceptable and welcomed.

Of course, there are limits to the accommodation of queer desire in this period, shown most famously in the trials and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde (following an accusation of sodomy, illegal in Britain throughout the century under a law not fully repealed until 1967). It is just as important, though, that the surprising tolerances of this period are recognised. Explorations of the diversity of Victorian sexuality thrive in academic and popular work, notably in the industries of neo-Victorian novels, and screen adaptations of Victorian works. Fictions by authors such as Sarah Waters and Wesley Stace, and adaptations like Andrew Davies’s BBC serials Bleak House and Little Dorrit, are helping to shift popular perceptions of erotic experience in the 19th century. Apocryphal images of piano legs modestly covered are being replaced with an appreciation of the surprising varieties of Victorian sexuality.

'Closing scene at the Old Bailey': newspaper coverage of the Oscar Wilde trial

'Closing scene at the Old Bailey': newspaper coverage of the Oscar Wilde trial

Newspaper coverage of the trial of Oscar Wilde for 'acts of gross indecency' with another man, from the Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895.

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[1] William Acton, Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (London: John Churchill, 1865 [1857]), p.235.

[2] John Ruskin, ‘Of Queens’ Gardens.’ Sesame and Lilies, Unto This Last and the Political Economy of Art (London: Cassell, 1909 [1865]), pp.73-4.

[3] Peter Gaskell, The Manufacturing Population of England. Its Moral, Social and Physical Conditions (New York: Arno, 1972 [1833]), pp.144-5.

[4] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p.8.

[5] Emma Donoghue, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801 (London: Scarlet Press, 1993), p.3.

Further reading

William Acton, Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (London: John Churchill, 1865 [1857]).

Emma Donoghue, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801 (London: Scarlet Press, 1993).

The Girlhood of Queen Victoria: A Selection from her Majesty’s Diaries Between the Years 1832 and 1840, ed. by Viscount Esher (London: John Murray, 1912).

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, trans. By Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998) (1976, rpt.)

Peter Gaskell, The Manufacturing Population of England. Its Moral, Social and Physical Conditions (New York: Amo, 1972 [1833]).

John Ruskin, ‘Of Queens’ Gardens.’ Sesame and Lilies, Unto This Last and the Political Economy of Art (London: Cassell, 1909, [1865]), pp.72-4. 

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkely: University of California Press, 1990).

Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians (London: Faber, 2001).

  • Holly Furneaux
  • Holly Furneaux is a Reader in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. She is author of Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities and co-editor, with Sally Ledger, of Dickens in Context. She is now working on a book called Military Men of Feeling, focused on the Crimean war.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.