Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexuality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. pp.[x] + 338. £17-95. ISBN 0-19-812247-0
One approaches books on Victorian sexuality with some trepidation: is this really something new, a fresh perspective, or the same old story? Michael Mason presents original material, and his approach to Victorian sexuality, if not entirely new, is nonetheless saying things that need to be heard. Given the continuing (and depressing) prevalence of tired clichés, it has to be said loud and repeatedly that Victorian sexual culture was the very reverse of monolithic, and that the popular myth of Victorian hypocrisy is a chimerical composite, conflating behaviours and attitudes of quite distinct groups and individuals. Mason is excellent on the nuances of class and subculture and the intricate relationship between localised community codes of 'respectability' and wider societal norms concerning premarital sex, legality of marriage, acceptability of adultery, etc. He also deconstructs the blanket usage of 'Victorianism' as particularly descriptive of the phenomena of the complex period from 1837 to 1901.
His treatment of the Victorian woman, however, raises a number of issues which are not all fully dealt with. True, it still probably needs reiterating that not all Victorian wives were exhorted by their mothers to 'close their eyes and think of England', nor informed by their husbands that 'ladies don't move', but there are complications and ambivalences in Victorian notions of female sexuality which Mason has not perhaps completely grappled with.
While the importance and widespread acceptance of an ideal of a marriage in which mutual sexual pleasure was a significant element must be conceded, how far, with the increasing prudery around talking about sex, was this likely to happen between any given couple (see, for example, John Tosh's fine essay on the Benson household in Manful Assertions)? Mason indicates the high levels of sexual anxiety prevailing among many Victorian men (his appendix on Spermatorrhoea is excellent), but does not go the extra mile to consider how this nervous and inhibited specimen might have conducted himself in the marriage bed. Was he likely to have been the sort of partner to generate warm response from his bride? (This may of course be treated in the second volume of Mason's study still to come, discussing specific Victorians.) The notion that female desire arises as a result of intercourse with the male is problematic--the model seems to have little place for the mechanics of the arousal of female desire, in an era when the clitoris had, as it were, been excised even from Aristotle's Masterpiece (however much contumely Baker Brown's literal excisions brought upon him). If it is assumed that female pleasure is contingent upon the male's, it is hardly necessary for women consciously to fake orgasm--the need only arises when men start doubting that their embraces automatically produce swooning ecstasy in their partner. This formulation of the nature of female desire also led, of course, to the notion of women, and even young girls, being irrevocably 'contaminated' and sexualized by rape or incest. And what of the phenomenon which undermines Mason's conception of almost pantingly eager Victorian brides, mentioned from the bench by a judge, and thus presumably somewhat more than a folk-myth: 'a common post-connubial insanity'? Was the terror of the wedding-night only a late nineteenth century construct? Are there no earlier tales of traumatic nuptials, or accounts of gothic fears about them?
One could take issue with the weight Mason gives some of his sources: while 'Walter' (of My Secret Life) is probably to be trusted about his own views on sexuality and his personal sex-life, but how far can we rely on his opinions and speculations about other individuals, let alone entire groups? However, there is nowhere in The Making of Victorian Sexuality where Mason's conclusions rest upon one single or dubious source: one of the most impressive aspects of this book is its meticulous accumulation of evidence to undermine myths about the Victorians (and of their own).
The concluding essay on Malthusian thought--rescuing what Malthus said from 'Malthusianism' (which he abhorred)--and the response to his arguments, is fascinating: the neglect of this debate on questions of population by the medical profession parallels their later lack of interest in the rise of sexology. However, coming where it does, and being followed by appendices discussing questions of class analysis, evidence for the state of working-class housing, and the status of spermatorrhoea as a disease entity, it ends this volume on a (dare it be said) anti-climactic note. But it must be admitted that one awaits Mason's next volume with considerable impatience.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine