Were Victorians Really Prudish?

Updated on July 15, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Somehow, the image of Victorians as a class of prudish people has become received wisdom. Even whispering the word “sex” could make the person who uttered it a social outcast.

There were two standards. Men were permitted to cavort and cheat on their spouses as long as they were discreet about it. Women had to repress their sexuality and be suitably prim and proper.

The familiar image of Victoria is a grim-faced and censorious old lady.
The familiar image of Victoria is a grim-faced and censorious old lady. | Source

Queen Victoria

The British took their lead from their queen who, in later life, styled herself as a grief-stricken widow, severely critical of frivolity and sensuality.

The reality is that during her 21-year marriage to Prince Albert, Victoria had a lusty appetite for sex. In her diary, she wrote of her wedding night as something “beyond bliss,” adding “I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!”

The royal couple exchanged gifts of erotic paintings such as Florinda, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter that Victoria gave to Albert.
The royal couple exchanged gifts of erotic paintings such as Florinda, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter that Victoria gave to Albert. | Source

Julia Baird writes in The Daily Beast that “Historians have long acknowledged that Victoria had a high libido—some have implied she was some kind of sexual predator who devoured a tolerant but exhausted husband.”

After Albert died, Victoria became very close to her Scottish servant John Brown who she called her “heart’s best treasure.” Their friendship was profound and the queen wrote of Brown’s “strong and powerful arms.” Was it a friendship with benefits? The answer to that question is purely speculative.

Victoria with John Brown.
Victoria with John Brown. | Source

Middle Class Morality

While the queen and her husband were enjoying frequent bedroom romps, British middle class women were being told they should not enjoy lovemaking. It was a duty that needed to be performed, like running an efficient household.

Here’s Julia Baird again: “In the nineteenth century, it was assumed that women with strong libidos were pathological: female desire was considered dangerous and potentially explosive, and it was thought that women’s animal nature would overwhelm their weak will and they would lose control.”

In 1854, the poet Coventry Patmore published a verse entitled “The Angel in the House” in which he extolled the virtues of the perfect Victorian woman. She should be “passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all—pure” (City University of New York). By “pure” we are supposed to understand virginal.

Gynecologist William Acton added to the stereotype in 1857 when he wrote that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally.”

Others in the medical community advised against men indulging their passions. Here’s the Victoria and Albert Museum: “Thus it was seriously held, for example, that sexual appetite was incompatible with mental distinction and that procreation impaired artistic genius. Men were vigorously counselled to conserve vital health by avoiding fornication, masturbation, and nocturnal emissions (for which a variety of devices were invented) and by rationing sex within marriage.”

Modesty must be preserved.
Modesty must be preserved. | Source

The Double Standard

While Victorian women were supposed to be chaste, men, despite what some doctors dictated, were accorded the freedom to behave like Jack-the-lad.

In 1887, the Lancet Medical Journal estimated that in London alone there were about 80,000 prostitutes. The trade was legal and seen as necessary to satisfying the sexual urges of men that could not be expressed within the bounds of marriage. The city had more brothels than schools and some catered to kinky appetites.

Victorian gentlemen; oh so proper on the outside.
Victorian gentlemen; oh so proper on the outside. | Source

All too often, hubby would drag home a pernicious disease acquired while frolicking with what were referred to as “fallen women.” The U.K.’s Science Museum notes that syphilis was “carried by as many as 10 percent of men in some areas.” As Dr. Anne Hanley notes in The Guardian “… in the 19th century, infection among wives and children was common across all social classes.”

Famously, Lord Colin Campbell gave his wife Gertrude Blood what was often called a “loathsome disease.” The marriage fell apart and ended in a very messy divorce during which all the family’s sordid laundry was hung out for public examination. The people lapped up every salacious detail indicating that Victorians weren’t always as buttoned-down about sex as we suppose.

… in the minds of Victorian moralists, possessing knowledge of VD (venereal disease) debased a woman. Ignorance was equated with innocence and purity.

Dr. Anne Hanley

Victorian Expressions of Sexuality

“According to their own testimonies, many people born in the Victorian age were both factually uninformed and emotionally frigid about sexual matters” (Victoria and Albert Museum). While vicars thundered from pulpits about the evils of promiscuity plenty of others turned a deaf ear and indulged their animal instincts.

The aristocracy, as always, enjoyed many a romp. The romper-in-chief was the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII. Known to everyone as Bertie, and also as Edward the Caresser, the future king had scores of mistresses and made frequent visits to a Parisian brothel.

The upper crust could also be seen rubbing shoulders with the lower orders at the immensely popular music halls. There might be jugglers and comedians but it was the bawdy singers the audiences came to see.

The “Queen of the Musical Hall” was songstress Marie Lloyd. Her tunes were masterpieces of double-entendre, with such titles as “She’d Never Had her Ticket Punched Before,” and “A Little Bit of What You Fancy” that she performed with a saucy wink.

She was refused entry to the United States in 1913 because, horror of horrors, she had shared a cabin with her boyfriend while still married to husband number one.

Puritan morality lasted well past the old queen’s death.

Jessie Wallace Plays Marie Lloyd

Bonus Factoids

Author Virginia Woolf wrote in 1931 that “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” She aimed to wrestle to the mat the Victorian notion that women could not express their own sexuality.

Contrary to popular belief, Victorians did not cover the legs of pianos to prevent men from flying into a sexual frenzy at the sight of an unclad limb. The myth got started because of a prank played on Captain Frederick Marryat that appeared in his 1839 book A Diary in America.

Annie Besant was a journalist and campaigner for the rights of women. Along with reformer Charles Bradlaugh, she wrote a pamphlet about contraception. In 1877, they were hauled into court on obscenity charges for publishing what the solicitor general called “a dirty, filthy book.” They were found guilty but the verdict was overturned on appeal on a technicality.

Sources

  • “The Surprisingly Public Sex Life of Queen Victoria.” Julia Baird, The Daily Beast, April 13, 2017.
  • “New Diary Extracts Reveal Queen Victoria’s True Relationship with Loyal Scots Ghillie John Brown.” Toby McDonald, The Sunday Post, December 6, 2016.
  • “The Angel in the House.” City University of New York, March 2, 2011.
  • “Victorian Sexualities.” Holly Furneaux, The British Library, May 15, 2014.
  • “Victorian Ladies of The Night, Prostitution.” Victorian-era.org, undated.
  • “Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century.” Jan Marsh, Victoria and Albert Museum, undated.
  • “Marie Lloyd.” Victoria and Albert Museum, undated.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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