Monday, November 12, 2012

guest post: winesburg, ohio and victorian sexuality

image source: S. R. Brady Blog 
Guest blog post by Scott, the Blogmistress's boy toy

Victorian sexuality is not a subject that will be unfamiliar to any of you.  We all have our own prejudices about how the stuffy Victorians handled sex.  My perception of it, from early on, was formed by a Mad magazine comic about sex through the ages.   It started off with the Victorian era and had a middle aged man and a young woman sitting on a swing.  The woman says that she thinks it is time they spoke about sex.  The man replies, shocked, that she is 19 and far too young for that kind of talk.  The woman replies that she might be young but she is also his wife.

As I've read more about it I've learned that these values were probably a product of the middle class, the poor certainly not being able to subscribe to them and the very rich being somewhat above them and, while still marrying to complete social standing, must have had to find love where they could. Nonetheless the idea existed in some form at least in the middle class.  As an adult it is difficult to imagine that, at any time, people were totally monogamous or that premarital sexuality was completely banned among any people.  Reading the novel Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson certainly made me see a Victorian middle class take on sexuality that was far different from what I had previously thought.

True, this is not English morality, nor is it the morality of even the big eastern cities of the burgeoning republic, but it is small town America and it is rural America.  The country is traditionally more conservative than the towns.

Winesburg, Ohio was written from 1915 to 1916 so it is not truly a Victorian book.  The events in the novel take place about 20 years earlier and are based on memories of the author’s life in Clyde, OH- where he lived from 1884-1896- making the setting of the novel firmly late Victorian.

Sex is prevalent throughout the stories that make up the novel.   One of the major themes of the work is the sexual maturation of the main character.  He loses his virginity in one story and there are two other women that he has near sexual encounters with.  The youth of the town are not often chaperoned while out on “walks” and find themselves in the woods, alone.   Even relatively supervised dates in someone’s house are described.  The pair are left in a sitting room to their own devices with no adults present; one of the stories finds one such couple with disheveled hair, panting from their libidinous exertions.  We are not led to believe that these two characters did more than have a jolly long make-out session but we find the youth of the town with plenty of opportunities to take advantage of their isolation and express their newly discovered sexuality.

The sexuality is not even something that is much of a secret, really.   It is as though the town expects the kids to do this as if this has always been done.   Some, like the preacher, express horror at their own sexual thoughts, but his horror is due more to his thoughts being adulterous than purely sexual.  While it is certainly not a theme in the work, there is no serious condemnation of premarital sex, . If someone gets pregnant then a wedding seems to be expected. It is a very “You pays your money and takes your chances” arrangement.

image source: Wikipedia

That the American heartland would produce such a lax sexual morality during this time period has increased my interest in the subject.  Certainly it could be debated that an author writing some 20 years after the fact might embellish things for the sake of the story.  The book, however, received acclaim from critics at the time of publication and was well received.  There were questions about the morality of the book but for it to be taken seriously at all it must have reflected some truth. The author was writing about events only 20 years past for an adult audience.  His audience would have remembered how society was at that time. It would be interesting to read some of those early criticisms to see if the sexuality in the work seems fantastic to the age, something I have not yet done.

Winesburg, OH has certainly led me to question my own view of middle-class Victorian morality. When I have a chance to break away from all the late 17th century reading I’m doing at present I will have to investigate the subject further.

1 comment:

  1. This is very interesting! I should take a look at this book. :)