Monday, December 3, 2012

guest post: more on repression and victorian sexuality


Guest blog post by Scott, the Blogmistress's boy toy

The blood was so soaked into my hands that two days and three showers after being plastered with the substance there are still hints of red around my finger nails and in the folds of skin on my knuckles and the cracks forced into my hands by the winter weather. The Gwar concert was a pretty spectacular show. It is not normally the thing that one would think would inspire much thought about Victorian literature. In my case it did.

It is a little over 100 years since the Victorian period came to an end. On stage Monday night I saw a band perform a song and talk about having sex with babies, or at best toddlers. From the oppressive anti-sexual attitude that the Victorians are somewhat famous for, we have moved very far.

My last post here was about Victorian sexual norms and the novel Winesburg, OH. I’d like to continue that theme and discuss the subject in relation to another novel, written during Victorian time but published after them.

image source: The Christian Monist

The novel I’d like to talk about is The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Unlike Winesburg, OH, The Way of All Flesh takes place in Victorian England. This time we have a more direct view of what the view of sexuality was not only at the time but also the place where the schwerepunkt of the moral force in this period was located.

Butler’s novel is a criticism of Victorian hypocrisy. In many ways there are sexually charged subjects within the novel. They are more hinted at than directly related. Our first exposure to sexuality in the novel is the pregnancy of the maid of the main character’s family. The maid is an unmarried 18 year old and is found to be with child. The pater familias,and father of the main character, is a minister. As it would be improper to keep her in the house, the pregnant girl is sent away.

In the continuing story of the main character he is ordained in the Anglican Church. As his faith is worn down by various means he reaches a point where he lashes out against his moral beliefs. He has been told indirectly by one of the other women in his building that two of the single girls in the building are prostitutes. He goes to convert them to the ways of the Lord- that is, until a college chum comes in for his appointment with one of them. With this incident the protagonist's anger with the world implodes.  He kicks his Bible away from him and storms upstairs to proposition the other girl for sex. She, it turns out, is not a prostitute and he is reported to the police for his effrontery.

They arrest him and he is sentenced to six months in jail with hard labor for his offence. When he gets out he has abandoned the ministry and any idea of organized religion as something worthwhile. He then opens a shop after running into the very maid who had once worked for his family- the same one who had been kicked out for becoming pregnant. He marries her and they have two children together. But she turns to drink, which is something the naive young man did not realize was a problem. Try as he might he cannot keep her away from her alcohol. She is always sneaking it in behind his back and it makes her hysterical. She takes money from him to buy it and the shop they run comes close to ruin.

Only by chance does he run into his dad’s former coachman, the man who drove her away from their house when she was kicked out. He reveals that he married this woman before the main character did, showing her to be a bigamist and their two children to be bastards. He feels comfortable now packing her off. She agrees that she is not good enough for him because of her drinking and does not make much of a fuss. The two children are sent to live with a family out of town.

The woman will write later to say that she is marrying another man and moving to the United States. A bigamist twice now, she leaves the story.

So in this book we have prostitutes; illegitimate children; bigamy; premarital sex; and a turning away from, and condemning of, the Church of England. So much for Victorian morality.

Still there is something that is amiss. The book contains more criticism of Victorian hypocrisy, but in this post I have only highlighted the parts pertaining to sexuality. Although the book was written mostly in the 1870s, the author would not have it published until after his death. Butler was afraid to have it published in his lifetime.

It is also noteworthy that, while the poor are the source of much of this immorality in this story, they are also openly critical of it. The poor woman upstairs from the main character is very critical of the two other women living in the building. The landlady,  having a rather morally hazy past herself is more forgiving.

The book was published soon after the author’s death in 1903. Despite being known as an iconoclast during his lifetime, this send-up of Victorian ideals was too much for him to face up. The author himself was certainly no role model for moral behavior. He visited a prostitute weekly and may have been bisexual- although there is no confirmatory evidence of the latter.

The Way of All Flesh shows us that while Victorian morality was not absolute, it was powerful. In both the crushing of the main character for merely propositioning a woman and the fact that the book was not published until after the Victorian Era, we see the power of this moral superstructure on the lives of the people at the time.

The same thing is shown in the book from my earlier post, Winesburg, OH. While there is quite a bit of sex going on it that in the 1890s, the book itself is not published until about 20 years later- showing the author's own hesitation to own up to his own observations of morality in the Victorian period.

1 comment:

  1. A song about sex with children is definitely stepping over the border. Wouldn't pay to hear someone sing shit like that.
    I beleive that the moral in the victorian era was aimed to prevent accidental pregnancies. But the reality was propably more loose than we think today.

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