Struggling with what “Victorian” means?

Hi y’all, if you (like me) found it difficult to pinpoint exactly what the term ‘Victorian’ meant for a Victorian audience, fear not for I have found a source that gives a thorough explanation. If you go to the Dickinson College Library homepage and type “Understanding the Victorians” into the Jumpstart search bar, you should find an ebook with the same title by Susie L. Steinbach. I particularly found the chapter titled “Marriage, free love, and ‘unnatural crimes’: Sexuality” to be particularly helpful in clarifying what the Victorian societal norms regarding sexuality and gender roles were at the time. I would try to download it as a PDF and attach it here, but alas I am technologically incompetent. Hopefully this helps!

Archive Project: My Secret Life

For my Victorian Queer Archive project, I chose to include the second preface of My Secret Life. Privately published in 1888, this 4,000 page and originally eleven volume memoir features an incredibly detailed account of one man, “Walter”‘s, experiences with sex and sexuality, beginning when he but a small child. My Secret Life gained notoriety for both it’s unapologetically  detailed (and somewhat crude) descriptions of sexual encounters, sexual desire, masturbation, interactions with prostitutes, and obsessive nature of the text itself. Every single detail: every passing thought, every single time Walter is sexually aroused, every time Walter lets his “prick” make his decisions for him is carefully documented with a special attention to every single gory detail can be read in its entirety online on Project Gutenberg, which I will link down below.

Because it was published anonymously, it is difficult to discern how much of the text is fact and how much is fiction, and due it’s obsessive nature, it is easy to dismiss My Secret Life as nothing more than the world’s longest erotic novel. While we as readers will never be fully able to discern the fact from the fiction, that does not take away the text’s value as insight into a few aspects of Victorian Queerness, which Holly Furneaux defines as “that which differs from the life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction”. With this definition in mind, My Secret Life could perhaps be seen as an epic retelling of one man’s experience with queerness as it pertains to deviations from the typical heteronormative Victorian marriage plot. To put it simply: if Walter’s well-intended mother were to read about his experiences with masturbation, sexual awakening by his wet-nurse, experiences with prostitutes (which he refers to as “gay women”), it’s possible that she would have a heart attack.

Instead of choosing one of Walter’s sexual encounters as the excerpt to post to the archive, I instead chose to include the author’s second preface, in which he addresses the issue of whether or not his memoir should even be published. What I found particularly interesting about the preface was the author claims that “it would be a sin to burn all this, whatever society may say it is but a narrative of human life, perhaps the every day life of thousands, if the confession could be had” (Anonymous 21). That is, the author contends that his memoir is not so much about chronicling his own experiences with sexuality, but instead chronicling his experience with a side of society which he is not alone in interacting with. My Secret Life therefore serves a dual purpose: to tell the story of Walter’s queer sexuality and to shed light on an area of Victorian society that is oftentimes left unexplored because it is not consistent with heteronormative ideals.

Victorian Queer Archive

Citation: Anonymous. “Second Preface.” My Secret Life , 1st ed., vol. 1, Auguste Brancart, Amsterdam, 1888, pp. 21–22.


This Ain’t One for the Kids

Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market was originally published as a children’s poem. It tells the story of two sisters whose curiosity gets the the best of one of them. “Sweet-tooth Laura” (4) was enticed by the goblin’s “apples and quinces/lemons and oranges,/Plump unpecked cherries,/Melons and raspberries”, and exchanged a lock of her golden hair in order to, literally, taste the forbidden fruit (1). Laura falls dreadfully ill due to tasting the fruit, and it is up to her sister Lizzie to come to her rescue. While the story does have a neatly packaged moral at the end common in most children’s stories, this poem contains multiple sexually explicit descriptions that, upon further examination, make it much less suitable for children.

In the scene where Laura gives way to her temptation and tastes the exotic goblin fruit, one would think that the emphasis would be placed on how the fruit tastes. Instead, the action of Laura sucking the juice out of each fruit is described in great detail: “she sucked and sucked and sucked the more/Fruit which that unknown orchard bore;/She sucked until her lips were sore”(4). Perhaps my reading of this is tainted from my 21st century reading, but this description seems extremely sexually charged. If one accepts this description as sexual, the moral at the end of the story becomes even more disturbing. When looked at as the story of a woman who follows her sexual desires, the consequences she faces are rather drastic. After eating the fruit, the narrator implies that she had possibly “gone deaf and blind” and that “her tree of life drooped from the root”(8). The fact that she is a woman following her sexual impulses and is severally punished for doing so perpetuates the Victorian ideals and norms regarding female sexuality: that it should be be acknowledged or acted upon. Similarly, the idea that this poem was something that was made for children reiterates how early these sexual stereotypes were ingrained in Victorian youth, even if they were unaware of the poem’s sexual innuendos. The poem’s ending moral can have many different interpretations, but one of them is undeniably this: women should not follow their desires, or there will be dire consequences.

Sex-ploration in the Victorian Era

The Victorian era is often characterized by sexual prudishness, however, what many do not understand that it was actually an age of sexual exploration, or sex-ploration. In her article Victorian Sexualities, Holly Furneaux disembowels this stereotype by explaining that Victorians explored sex “in a wide range of contexts including the law, medicine, religion, education”(Furneaux). However, it is important to keep in mind that this sexual exploration was only to a certain extent: there were no circulating copes of Fifty Shades of Grey to read or raunchy Nicki Minaj songs to listen to, and that overtly discussing sex and sexuality was still taboo.

What I found particularly interesting was the mentioning of the sexual exploration pertaining to the field of science and medicine. After reading her article, I am convinced that these ‘scientific’ discoveries involving sexuality at first glance seem progressive, given the inherent prudishness of the Victorian era, but instead only work to reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, Victorian gynecologist William Acton claimed that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind” (Furneaux), thus reinforcing the stereotype and common-held belief at the time  that women are not sexual beings in the way that men are. Aside from the field of medicine, Furneaux also mentions that legislation, such as the Matrimonial Act of 1857 also reinforced these stereotypes, by making it much more difficult for women to divorce their adulterous husbands than it was for men to divorce their adulterous wives.

Aside from science and legislation, I did not find an adequate discussion of the topic literature in the article. From what we have read in class, I have found that literature, such as The Woman in White, have pushed the boundaries of sexuality much more than the scientific discoveries or new legislation. Much of The Woman in White is written in sort of a coded language, due to social norms preventing an overt discussion of sexuality or publishing a smutty novel, which allows for a more discreet yet honest exploration of sexuality. The novel features a multitude of characters that challenge the polarizing gender stereotypes of the Victorian era: such as the masculine, mustache-bearing Marian Halcombe and the possibly homosexual Mr. Fairlie. While there were ‘scientific’ discoveries regarding sex, I still believe that much of the conversation regarding sexuality remained repressed; and that this repression manifested itself in works of literature. These latent explorations of sexuality present in literature such as The Woman in White demonstrate that despite new discoveries on the topic of sex and sexuality in the fields of science and legislation, literature allowed for a more honest and in-depth discussion of sexuality and perhaps even questioned the polarizing gender stereotypes of the time.

Not as STRAIGHTforward as it Seems…

A grand assumption that many readers of Victorian literature seem to make is that every character in the novel is straight. While this assumption is not so far-fetched, given that sex of any kind was considered taboo to speak about, this does not mean that it is always true. Victorian novels are often written in a kind of coded language that allows for the author to talk about sex and sex scandal in a way that would not offend the public. This is the case in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White, for example when Marian describes how Count Fosco controls his wife using a “rod of iron” that “never appears in company – it is a private rod, and is always kept up-stairs” (Collins 222). This, rather phallic, description of Count Fosco’s control over his wife implies that he is a dominant sexual being.

Many other character’s sexuality is also indirectly talked about throughout the novel, such as the implied homosexuality of Mr. Fairlie. When speaking to Laura’s handmaid Fanny(a name that can sometimes be used to refer to a vagina or a butt), he notes that her name is “a remarkably vulgar one” and becomes incredibly upset at the mentioning of her bosom (Collins 339). The more Mr. Fairlie is forced to think about the female body, the more upset he becomes perhaps because he knows that he does not react in the way that he feels that he should: he feels repulsion where he should (according to heterosexual Victorian societal norms) attraction. Mr. Fairlie is not married and is not a desirable bachelor by any means, and other character in the novel recognize this as well. When Count Fosco asks Sir Percival if Mr. Fairlie is married, he replies by saying “Of course not”, implying that he too is aware of Fairlie’s homosexuality (Collins 326).

Despite restrictive societal norms preventing Victorian literature from openly discussing sexuality, this does not mean it was something that was not acknowledged. Authors, such as Wilkie Collins, were able to use this coded language to explore sexuality that varied from heterosexuality, which was what considered to be normal/acceptable during the time. While an open discussion of sex or sexuality would be much too profane for a Victorian audience, it does not mean that it was not present: just because it was not openly discussed does not mean it was not present.

Badass Lady With a ‘Stache

Wilkie Collins’ Victorian sensation novel opens with several, for lack of a better word, strange events: the near-drowning of a small Italian man, an eerie encounter with an escapee from an asylum, and (in my opinion, most shockingly) a woman with a mustache. The protagonist, Walter is immediately taken aback by this mustache woman, Marian Halcombe, internally exclaiming “the lady is ugly!”(Collins 34). Walter also notes that, while she does possess a beautiful figure, she also “ha[s] a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead”(Collins 35). She, juxtaposed with the beautiful and demure Laura Fairlie, is a complete contradiction to the typical Victorian standards of beauty. Laura is the embodiment of beauty in the eyes of Walter (and a presumably Victorian audience): she is demure, submissive, and fair.

Marian and Laura are polar opposites not only in appearance, but in personality as well. While Laura is submissive and reserved, Marian is outspoken and dominant. Mr. Fairlie, the supposed master of the house, much prefers polishing his coin collection to taking care of his family, thus the responsibility falls to Marian. Throughout the novel, she is constantly critiquing and refusing to conform to gender norms, at one point even claiming that she “[doesn’t] think much of [her] own sex”(Collins 36). Despite being presented as such a stark contrast to the ideal Victorian woman she is still, I think, one of the most likable characters in the novel. Unlike the lovesick Walter; the daft Laura, the weak Mr.Fairlie; and the incredibly passive Mrs. Vesey; Marian is smart, capable, determined, and takes care of everyone else in the house. She has informed, intelligent opinions on various matters, such as Laura’s upcoming marriage to Sir Percvial Glyde, and is not afraid to share them.

Perhaps this is just my modern perspective on the novel and could completely contradict the author’s message, however, I believe that the character of Marian Halcombe serves as a critique of Victorian ideals. She is a complete contrast to Victorian ideals, however, is still the character that (at least so far in the novel) is in the most control of her own destiny and seems to be much better off than everyone else. Because she is not afraid to speak her mind and pursue her goals, something that Victorian women were not necessarily encouraged to do, she is one of the most well-liked characters in the novel (at least to me). Her refusal to conform to the pressures of her surrounding society, and her ability to thrive doing so, could suggest that a deviance from Victorian social norms is not necessarily detrimental.