Archive Post: Catherine Booth and her Sermon on Sexual Morality

Despite being one of the most prominent Christian feminists in the Victorian era, Catherine Booth is not regarded as someone who challenged prevailing concerns on sexual morality. Yet through her sermons she delved into topics most of her audience would probably have balked at if they were discussed in any other context. The two excerpts I grouped together in my archive post do not propose queer alternatives to Victorian perceptions of sexual “deviancy.” Instead, they unveil Protestant fears about those susceptible to “wicked passions,” in this case (oddly enough) children and theologians. Booth’s words today might be as credible as William Rathbone Greg’s position on redundant women, but they also come from a female minister and Salvation Army co-founder whose presence in England outshone that of her husband. Implicitly, her lectures (as she calls them) complicate our current understanding of Victorian sexuality among ardent advocates for a chaste-until-marriage, heteronormative society.

I decided to focus on Booth’s second lecture, which deals with “mock salvation,” a hypocrisy that, according to her, afflicts many Christians. She states something that made me think of Oscar Wilde: “No mere intellectual beliefs can save men, because right opinions do not make right hearts. Alas, we all know the little practical effect opinions have on character” (Booth 38). While she applies this argument to good effect later on in the passage when talking about duplicitous people, by itself, it is more or less a comical absolutism. Notice the rhetorical move with “alas, we all know,” as well. Perhaps the strangest part of the lecture, however, is Booth’s unsubtle foray into children and sexuality:

“Hence wise parents universally recognise, whether they make any pretensions to Christianity or not, the necessity of family government and careful training in order to check, counteract, or eradicate, as the case may be, these tendencies to evil; and thus they acknowledge the necessity for a certain kind of salvation in their children, and they recognise also this fact, that if they do not attempt to work out this salvation, the children will bring them to wreck and ruin” (30).

She asserts that the institution of “family government” is the only thing protecting children from their malignant natures. It is a cynical perspective on kids, perhaps shared by many a Protestant during that time. Coming from a woman with multiple children, however, it is even more shocking. Is she suggesting that the only path to salvation requires “eradicating” our innate “tendencies to evil?”

Booth, Catherine. “Lecture II. A Mock Salvation and a Real Deliverance from Sin.” Popular Christianity. A Series of Lectures Delivered in Princes Hall, Piccadilly. 3rd ed., The Salvation Army, 1891, pp. 30; 38-39.

Wait, How Come Lizzie Gets Off (Scot-Free, Obviously, What Did You Think I Meant)?

Yikes. I never thought I’d have to look up fetish terms for educational purposes. Since the prof declared in class that BDSM is a legitimate topic of discussion, however, I retain my right to go there, as it were. Y’all have been forewarned.

If “Goblin Market” didn’t make you at least a little hot and bothered by the end, then you must have the libido of a [comment redacted]. Honestly, the poem has a little something for everyone. Do you fancy huge melons? Or, in case the vulgar connotation I’m suggesting didn’t exist in the mid 1800s, “fruit globes fair or red?” (Rossetti 4) There’s also the “ravish” fantasy, a kink to which Lizzie subscribes. The speaker mentions, in no fewer than two instances in the text, that being forced to consume forbidden fruit quite literally, uh, tickles her fancy (“laughed in heart” and “inward laughter”) (12-13). And who could forget the “juice that syrupped all her face, / And lodged in dimples of her chin, / And streaked her neck which quaked like curd?” (12) This juice, of course, originated from the goblins, who “squeezed their fruits / Against her mouth to make her eat” (12). In Japan, the sexual act in question is called bukkake: multiple men ejaculating onto someone’s face. Sounds like fun (as long as it’s consensual, obviously)!

Unlike Laura, Lizzie suffers no consequences from the ordeal because she refused to open her mouth and, essentially, ingest their cum (told you I’d go there). In fact, when the sisters reunite, Lizzie lets Laura drink from the “goblin pulp and goblin dew” in which she is covered (13). It turns out to be the antidote after all. Ostensibly, Lizzie’s brave interaction with the goblins showcases her dedicated love to her sister. Read the poem again and you notice how wrong the concluding stanza is about the whole situation. Lizzie, you see, derived pleasure from refusing to imbibe the fruit juices. This is known in BDSM circles as erotic sexual denial. While the short (and I think beautiful) stanza on page 13 goes on, through multiple similes, about how much of a stalwart paragon our hero is, neither she nor the speaker ever indicates that this was some onus. Au contraire. Whew! I could use a cold shower right about now…

Expectation and What We’ve Come to Expect

Illman Brothers. "Expectation." Trout Gallery,
Illman Brothers. “Expectation.” Trout Gallery,

In the Illman Brothers’ “Expectation,” the female subject’s clothing loses shape the further away from her face you go, making it clear that her visage is the main focus of the work. Looking expectant is hard to visualize, in my opinion. It’s a trait you see in domesticated pets or in children who are waiting for gifts or fun outings. Maybe the woman is waiting patiently for the artist illustrating her to be finished more than anything else. Though, it’s not hard to deduce that Victorian women lead less active lifestyles than their male counterparts, especially those belonging to a higher class. The background appears almost amorphous; I interpret a sun surrounding the top of her head, either sky or clouds going down to her shoulders, a muted horizon to the right of her, and reflecting water. She must be waiting for her significant other to return from somewhere, as she has her hands (or at least her left hand) placed over her chest.

At the Trout Gallery, we briefly discussed the intricate ornamentation framing the portrait. The ovular shape of the frame suggests a mirror, highlighting the motif of the “woman as object” aesthetic that male artists go gaga for. And this one in particular is a sensual plaything, a fantasy. Grapes and cherubs (or whatever those angel babies are called) holding what looks like martini glasses only enhance the mood. I am of course reminded of Walter falling in love with Laura while making her his muse in the beginning of The Woman in White, as well as a more fragile Laura hoping for him to return from his errands when she loses her memory. The image also reminds me of a couple of lines from Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio”: “We found her hidden just behind those screens, / That mirror gave back all her loveliness” (3-4). The man who gazes at this etching is meant to siphon that loveliness (longing, yet perfectly poised) to feed his desire, to spurn him on.

Walter Hartright’s Hart-On: Unpacking his Conception of Love

My sad-sap romantic sensibilities have gotten the better of me once again! Initially, I thought about close reading part of the conversation between Mr. Fairlie and the inimitable Count Fosco because the former’s account of his involvement in Laura and Percy’s marital feud was just so bloody entertaining. But, really, now that my precious Walt’s returned to his rightful position as the narrator of the novel, he has crept his way back into my heart. I can’t shake him; he’s just so cute when under duress (which is, fortunately, pretty often). Of the main trio, Walt appears the most committed to salvaging some kind of family out of the wreckage that is, well, Laura’s life and social status. I was sort of right in my earlier assumption that he’s not really in love with his current ward, but I suppose he still loves her. Or, more likely, the idea of her.

The long paragraph on pages 413 and 414 all but confirms my belief that the other two women in his life, Marian and Anne, appeal to Walt as well. As expected, not only is Laura morphing into Anne and goes under her alias, she becomes even more endearing to him in the process. He really lays it on thick in a fit of devotion with his repetitive rhetoric, including this gem of a rather possessive tricolon: “Mine to support, to protect, to cherish, to restore. Mine to love and honour as father and brother both. Mine to vindicate through all risks and all sacrifices…” (414). Walt further implies, with phrases like “hopeless struggle against Rank and Power” and “the long fight with armed deceit and fortified Success,” that the reason for his existence is to make Laura well again. Yet his dedication, while no doubt genuine and noble and all that shite, unnerves me quite a lot. He has never really known how to love this girl properly. Though I bet he’d treat me right. I love being smothered!

This whole section is no doubt invoking some kind of heroic trope specific to Victorian literature and probably before that, as well. This is pure, refined melodrama at its best, designed to instill some, uh, sensations in the reader before she is forced to return to her drab, miserable existence. Though I wouldn’t call this heartfelt declaration of protection sexy, especially since Walt’s impression of her these days no longer screams lust: “Forlorn and disowned, sorely tried and sadly changed; her beauty faded, her mind clouded” (414). He and Marian desire to be family figures to Laura until she is brought back to full health…and then what? Is he going to marry her afterwards, and have Marian stick with them as a part of their family? Now, I’m not suggesting polyamory…but then again, this name of this class is “Victorian Sexualities,” so…And the idea of “living with” Marian and Walt does seem more than a little enticing to me. You know, because they’re loyal and stuff?

Of course, I need to address that Walt’s possessiveness of Laura might not be much different from that of Percy. And now he is in a position of power he might secretly learn to crave if he doesn’t get off from it already. Good intentions or not, he could very well groom her to become like her old self (i.e. the version of Laura Walt idolized). What makes him different from Fosco in that sense?

Laura has Stolen Walter’s Hart, Right?

“There’s a man who spoke wonders, though I never met him.

He said, ‘He who seeks finds, and who knocks will be let in.’

I think of you in motion and just how close you are getting

and how every little thing anticipates you.

All down my veins, my heartstrings call:

Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for?

Are you the one that I’ve been waiting for?”

– Nick Cave

Walter Hartright’s testimony, or whatever the narrative conceit Collins is employing here, in The Woman in White leaves out crucial details in the formation of his, er, improper relationship with Laura Fairlie. In fact, there are only two times in the course of the first 120 pages where she actually speaks. I doubt it is a coincidence that they occur when Walt introduces himself and when she tells him to sod off in their (allegedly) final interaction. The steamy montage of the master “teaching” his pupil never bothers to get specific; it portrays their courtship as a voyeuristic tango with brief moments of semi-contact (bending over bosoms and grazing ribbons and rubbish like that).

Yet Walt insists, even before he goes into those vague descriptions, that he loved Laura. He loved her! “Feel for me, or despise me [clever invocation of the audience here], I confess it with the same immovable resolution to own the truth” (64). We understand that she possesses the qualities he looks for in a girl. Bro, is she hot? Hell yeah. Seriously, bro, how hot is she? “A fair, delicate girl, in a pretty light dress…with truthful, innocent blue eyes” (52). I guess, for no reason whatsoever, we can check “submissive” off the list, too. Could she maybe be a ghost? Oh, she certainly has potential. So far, so good. Shouldn’t Laura be the one our peerless protagonist has been waiting for?

Well, if you consider her absence from large chunks of the story up until this point and her conspicuous lack of a voice, perhaps not. In my opinion, the conventional “falling in love” process between the artist and his perfect muse is a feint to conceal Walt’s more shameful admiration for a masculine (in both her visage and comportment) matron and/or an insane commoner. He reminds me greatly of David Faux in his capacity to prattle on while saying very little. Though what ultimately endears me to the fellow is that he associates with Marian Halcombe and Anne Catherick without any noticeable shame. They both intrigue him, instead. I suppose that this sensation novel has little to do with Walt’s love life, but I figure I’d refer to it anyway. Just for fun, I wonder what to make of him staring at Marian’s lips and “penetrating eyes” (68).