The Victorian Pornotopia
EROTIC BOOKS: A SURVEY
By ASA BRIGGS
ACCORDING to Geoffrey Gorer, the Kinsey Report was a success because it contained no disturbing ideas. Drawing heavily on the rich resources of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, Professor Marcus, a Dickens scholar and an editor of Freud, has produced a book about sexuality and pornography in mid-nine- teenth-century England which is full of disturb- ing ideas.* There is no reason, however, why the new book should not be a considerable success in its turn. Dealing as it does both with the Victorians and with sex, two current themes of widespread public interest (the former, doubt- less, for more distinctive and complicated reasons than the latter), it concentrates on what is now the fashionable dark side of Victorian England, 'a world part fantasy, part nightmare, part hallucination, and part madhouse.'
This is an austere, cheerless, brooding book, the product of concentration rather than enjoy- ment. While it includes a chapter on porno- graphic fiction from the romantic pre-Victorian The Lustful Turk (1828) to the contrived mis- cellany Randiana (1884), liberally interspersed with the most colourful and titillating passages, its main thesis is that the 'pomotopia' present in all pornography—a sexual utopia where it is always bed-time—is no more than a mirror- image of the 'official' Victorian world of con- tinence and reticence. Pornography must be `grim, grey and spiritless': For every warning (in Victorian times) against masturbation issued by the official voice of culture, another work of pornography was published; for every cautionary statement against the harmful effects of sexual excess uttered by medical men, pornography repre- sented copulation in excelsis, endless orgies, infinite daisy chains of inexhaustibility; for every assertion about the delicacy and frigidity of respectable women made by the official cul- ture, pornography represented legions of maenads, universes of palpitating females; for every effort made by the official culture to minimise the importance of sexuality, porno- graphy cried out—or whispered—that it was the only thing in the world of any importance at all.
In other words, the most interesting aspect of the survey for Professor Marcus is not the difference but the similarity between the two groups of attitudes and cultures. 'In both the same set of anxieties are at work; in both the same obsessive ideas can be made out; and in both sexuality is conceived of at precisely the same degree of consciousness.'
The book begins with the 'official' culture, and with the medical writings, a curious compound of fact and fantasy, of William Acton, who has been described by another recent writer, Dr Cominos, not referred to by Professor Marcus, as the Samuel Smiles of continence. Acton's Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (it had a longer, superbly comprehensive and very Victorian title) was first published in. 1857 and had run through six editions by 1875. There was much else in Acton besides the gospel, of continence and the underlying theory that intellectual appetites are usually in lin inverse ratio to the sexual appetites. It is possible, indeed, Asa Briggs is Vice-Chancellor of the University'of Sussex. to deduce from him, as Dr Cominos has done in most interesting fashion, a whole model of Victorian society, a society, of 'respectability,' where attitudes to sex were directly and func- tionally related to attitudes to education, work and enterprise. Professor Marcus is less sys- tematic and more impressionistic, very sensitive to 'the note of danger, doom and disaster' in Acton and recognising also that the little that Acton said about women (other writers ignored by Professor Marcus who believed .in a double standard of conduct for women and men had far more of a moralising kind to say) was as significant as what he had to say about men. 'As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him; and but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions. . .
Much else besides Victorian prostitution is ex- plicable within this framework of reference, and it is possible to relate the driving force of the late-Victorian revolt in many fields of life, in- cluding politics, to the strength of the earlier framework. Professor Marcus, who is less in- terested in Victorian chronology than in the `literary' expressions and styles of mainly mid- Victorian culture, does not do this. Instead he moves on quickly, but with little sense of relief, to Henry Spencer Ashbee, Pisanus Fraxi, Pornographer Royal, `the sovereign of an under- world,' who not only collected pornography but systematised its bibliography and defended its scholarly interest.
Undoubtedly the most illuminating and im- portant part of Professor Marcus's book consists of two long and fascinating chapters on the eleven-volume anonymous autobiography, My Secret Life, which according to one critic may have been written by Ashbee himself. After Acton's generalisations and a good dose of pornographic literature, it is the particularity of My Secret Life which is most refreshing, if that can be thought of as the right word. The eleven volumes, prepared over a long period of time and subject to a complex process of writing and rewriting, well described by Pro- fessor Marcus, memorialise the whole of a Victorian gentleman's sexual career, ending with a remarkably precise totting-up of the score. Rightly, Professor Marcus is concerned with the quality of the anonymous writer's sexual experi- ence rather than with its quantity, and with the changes, some of them subtle, some primitive, in the course of an active lifetime.
It is only when Victorian attitudes as ex- pressed in My Secret Life or in fiction are examined in historical perspective that the com- plexities of all relationships in any period between sex and society become apparent Pro- fessor Marcus, who follows Freud closely, is more convincing on the differences between Victorian society and our own than he is on the differences, largely unexplored, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He does not show, for example, how Victorian pornographic fiction differed from eighteenth-century porno- graphic fiction, given the elements of repetition in both. On the links between the Victorian * THE Oman VICTORIANS. By Stephen Marcus. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 45s.) period and our own there remains much else also to be said. Within the context of our own social system 'the modern, liberal and liberated con- ception of sexual morality' (how many people hold it consistently?) may involve as many con- tradictions and problems as Victorian concep- tions did, with some of the problems bearing the same kind of relationship to Victorian problems as 'official' Victorian attitudes did to the atti- tudes of• 'the other Victorians.' How, for ex- ample, does our modern market for pornography compare in volume and prospects with the mid- Victorian market?
As for the Victorians themselves, we may be in danger from our own shaky vantage-point of underestimating the extent of variety in their society and oversystematising our models, of playing a new version of what Professor Burn called 'selective Victorians,' this time concen- trating on the -dark or the black. Professor Marcus shows on several occasions that he is aware of the danger. Nor does the thoughtful austerity of what he has to say, even about the trivial, rob his book of a genuine and persisting fascination.