224 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465089918
When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians by Patricia Anderson is an enthusiastic revelation of the healthy and passionate sex lives of the Victorians and a revision of the long-held view that the Victorians were prudish, repressed, ignorant and miserable in matters of sex. Drawing upon sources from the Victorian era, she looks for, and finds, a public preoccupation with sex in the period’s popular romance novels and magazines; poetry by clergymen and clergymen’s daughters (the hot-blooded Reverend Kingsley, John Henry Newman’s famous opponent, pouring out his passion whilst looking for scriptural justification for the details being one of the more extensive examples); manuals of advice for married men and women; advertisements for women’s underwear, contraceptive devices, and patent medicines; the pulp fiction serialized in magazines for adults; and so on, while also avoiding the “great literature” of the day. Not lacking in extensive historical references, this book is also amply illustrated with authentic items from the era, while the text is thoroughly and delightfully slanted in favor of romance, innuendo, and other treasures that are all too lacking today – when, as the author aptly shows, sex can be reduced to the medical and social sciences realms.
Deploring the 20th Century’s separation of sex from passion and the control of sexual knowledge by medical professionals, Anderson praises the Victorians for their skill at coy flirtation, erotic euphemism, and sustained marital happiness. She acknowledges that changes in conventions governing the discussion of sexuality make it difficult for modern readers to recognize the valuable aspects of Victorian sexuality, but remains baffled by the persistence of the idea that the Victorians were prudish and repressed. On that point the author is unfair to the many turn-of-the-century critics of sexual repression whose cries of pain about the Victorians’ guilt, hypocrisy, and sexual ignorance created the image Anderson deplores. These critics may have oversimplified, but they directly experienced negative aspects of Victorian sexuality that the author glosses over; striving to be fair to the Victorians, Anderson draws up a largely positive balance sheet, but she tends to lose sight of the unhappy, helpless, and isolated victims of the period’s sexual fears. Anderson’s wit and cleverness are a treat, and her thesis – that the “purity societies” and “muscular Christian” emphasis on sports were means of conserving sperm to produce a strong generation to build the empire – is refreshing and very well tied to the “production” ideas of the era. She also gives fascinating side glimpses into the wisdom behind the early feminism, such as opposed the Contagious Disease Act and pornography. Victorian eroticism was rife and at the heart of fashion and underclothing, the driving force in courtship rituals, and even the central attraction of the ever-present parlor piano.