By Violet Fenn,

Pen and Sword Books. 120 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-52675-668-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The striking image on the front cover of this book is sure to attract attention. It’s a reproduction of the nineteenth-century painting, Lilith, by John Collier, and shows an amply-proportioned, naked female, provocatively posed with hair flowing down her back and snakes coiled around her body. It’s a picture I know well, having visited the Atkinson Art Gallery in Southport, where it’s displayed, more than once over the years. And I can’t deny that it does what it was clearly intended to do, i.e. its mythological connotation (Lilith was Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden, according to Jewish folk-lore, but refused to submit to his domination) allows one to be seen weighing up its painterly and philosophical qualities while admiring the attributes of the lady on view. 

Amply-proportioned naked women in classical or historical settings were fairly common in nineteenth-century art, and some would argue were simply a style of high-class pornography. It wasn’t all that long ago that a fuss ensued when a painting by J.M. Waterhouse was removed from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery. It purported to show Hylas being tempted by the water nymphs, and one of the reasons for it being taken down was said to be because the nymphs were quite clearly very young girls. Contemporary sensibilities object to pictures of naked young girls, but they didn’t seem to disturb many Victorians in the same way. But the age of consent was much lower then, and there was a dark side to the manner in which young girls, and boys too, were viewed and abused.

Violet Fenn takes a look at how the young of both sexes were exploited. In 1885, W.T. Stead, editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, disturbed by the stories of child prostitution he’d heard, concocted a scheme to appear to buy a twelve-year old girl from her alcoholic mother. He’d been pushing the government to amend various laws relating to the age of consent (he wanted it moved from thirteen to sixteen) and other concerns, so could claim a serious intention in his actions. But he was a journalist and also anxious to sell papers. He went ahead with his plan, making sure by various means that he couldn’t be accused of having any sexual purposes in mind when he “bought” the girl. He then wrote up his motives and actions under headlines such as “The Violations of Virgins” and “Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper”.

Stead succeeded all too well. Sales of his newspaper increased and there was renewed interest in government circles in overhauling the laws governing prostitution and such matters. However, rival journalists investigated his actions, and he was subsequently charged with assault and abduction when the girl’s mother denied knowing what Stead intended and was under the impression that her daughter was simply going into service as a domestic help. Stead served a three month sentence, and two women who had assisted him did six months. Reading Fenn’s account, and others, of the case, which is quite-well-known, I’ve never been able to cast off the feeling that Stead and his companions were prosecuted because he’d embarrassed the government. And it could have been that certain prominent people had no wish to see the subject of child prostitution thrown open to examination. There was no doubt that there was a thriving trade in it, and as it involved payments beyond the means of most people, it was those with cash to spare who could indulge in their perversions.

Fenn’s chronicle of sexual misbehaviour covers some other familiar areas of activity. Oscar Wilde inevitably puts in an appearance. There is a sadness about his fall from grace, and again it occurs to me that he was prosecuted because he had transgressed certain rules of class and culture as much as having been involved in banned sexual activities. There seemed a determination to make an example of him. Fenn says that even Edward Carson, who had acted for Lord Queensberry when Wilde sued him for libel, approached the Solicitor General and said, “Can we not let up on the fellow now?”, but was told that the case had become “overtly political and impossible to drop”. 

Any book dealing with Victorian sex and sexuality is almost sure to touch on pornography, which flourished, though perhaps only among certain groups of people. I’d guess that most pornographic material, whether in books or magazines, and in photographs, would have been too expensive for working-class men to buy. Which isn’t to say that they wouldn’t have bought it if they could. It was often printed in limited editions and sold clandestinely, with its producers sometimes facing prison if they were caught. Fenn points to Holywell Street, situated “close to what is now Aldwych in central London”, as a centre of the trade in pornography in late-Victorian London. It was an area of old, decaying property and had attracted publishers and booksellers, so that it was known as “Bookseller’s Row”, though The Times described it as “the most vile street in the civilised world”.

William Dugdale was a leading pornographers operating from Holywell Street. He was at one point in his life a publisher of “politically subversive pamphlets” but turned to “the more lucrative pornography trade”. Among his publications were, according to Fenn, The Pleasant Pastime of Frigging and The Fanciful Extremes of Fucksters, neither of which leaves much to the imagination if the contents were like the titles. I can’t claim any expertise in the subject, but what I have read persuades me that nineteenth-century pornography was much more imaginative and entertaining than most of what is around today. But we perhaps only know about some obvious examples of Victorian pornography, such as My Secret Life by “Walter” and The Sins of the Cities of the Plain; or The Recollections of a Mary-Ann by Jack Saul. A “Mary-Ann” was slang for a male prostitute, and Fenn asserts that the book was “one of the first exclusively homosexual books of erotica that was distributed in Britain”.

It may be, of course, that there were many pornographic tracts which were cheaply produced and have faded from sIght, other than in special collections. There were certainly some that catered for specialised tastes, such as The Whippingham Papers, to which the famous poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne, contributed. He claimed to be a devotee of the pleasures of flagellation, though some people, including Oscar Wilde, thought he talked about it more than he indulged in it.

I think the point to be stressed about pornography is that it was designed for male consumption, and that in it women were often portrayed as little more than objects to satisfy male lust. In this it probably reflected the attitudes of the wider society where women had few rights. If they strayed beyond the boundaries limiting their behaviour they were roundly condemned, whereas a man was seen as just doing what came naturally and not faulted for it. Fenn has a brief examination of the plot of Ellen Wood’s 1861 novel, East Lynne, and says that at the end, “it’s too late for Isabel, who made the mistake of being a woman with sexual urges, and for that she must pay”.

Sex when men of all classes were often frequenting brothels, and using the services of prostitutes, helped to spread venereal diseases of which syphilis was the most dangerous. Untreated, it could lead to madness, deformity, and death. Fenn has some moving stories to tell, and uses several shocking photographs, to illustrate the shattering effects of syphilis among families high and low, and affecting men and women and their children. The blame for the virulence of syphilis was usually placed on women but, as Fenn asks, who passed it to them in the first place? She refers to the Contagious Diseases Act, rightly challenged by the reformer Josephine Butler, which before it was repealed allowed the police to arrest any woman they suspected of prostitution and subject her to an intrusive bodily examination. Many innocent women, often just in the wrong place at the wrong time, came up against the Act and suffered from it. A respectable woman’s reputation could be permanently affected if she was arrested under the terms of the Contagious Diseases Act, with the old “No smoke without fire” argument brought into play.

In a chapter entitled, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Sexual Subtexts in Art and Literature”, Fenn considers the painting on the cover of her book and, speaking favourably of Lilith, concludes : “In this one painting, Collier comments on religion, equality and sexuality In a way that would never have been possible verbally”. I’m not too sure about this and there were authors who, though they weren’t applauded for it, did attempt to tackle subjects that were frowned on by the respectable. It’s a personal choice, admittedly, but the bitter little stories written by the ill-fated Hubert Crackanthorpe might well point to a willingness to deal directly with controversial topics.

In “Dissolving View”, a well-to-do man receives a letter from a lower-class girl he has seduced and abandoned. She has had his child, is ill, and needs help. He’s about to marry someone from his own class, goes to see the girl to somehow make her stop bothering him, and finds that both she and the child have died. Relieved, he returns to his rooms and a hearty breakfast. In another story, “Profiles”, a girl is seduced by her husband-to-be’s friend, but he quickly tires of her and she sinks into what Crackanthorpe describes as “the irretrievable morass of impersonal prostitution” and its milieu. She soon disappears: “What had become of her, no one knew and no one cared”. A third bleak story, “The Struggle for Life”, concerns a working-class girl and her baby abandoned by her husband or partner (it’s not made clear) and starving, and turning to prostitution to get money for food: “Half a crown then, and I can go home in an hour”.

To be fair, Fenn is writing about “Sexual subtexts”, so it may have seemed more appropriate for her to deal with East Lynne, and with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which oozes with sexual suggestion,  and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a vampire story with heavy lesbian inferences. And then there is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s involvement with Lizzie Siddal to be considered with all its ramifications. Did she accidentally overdose on laudanum, or was it a case of suicide? And what sort of meaning can be read into Rossetti’s recovery of the poems he had placed in her coffin when he was supposedly grief-stricken?

Another nineteenth-century “mystery” that contemporary readers seem to find endlessly fascinating is Charles Dodgson’s relationship with Alice Liddell, for who, under the name of Lewis Carroll, he wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Did he have a “thing” about young girls? Most accounts I’ve come across seem to suggest that he did, though without ever doing anything practical about it. Fenn is of the opinion that it could have been Alice’s older sister, Lorina, who may have been the object of his interest. She was fourteen and the legal age of consent was then thirteen. But, says Fenn, there is evidence that he was “something of a would-be lothario, his amorous inclinations almost entirely focusing on adult women”.

Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain is not an academic work, with an in-depth analysis of attitudes towards sex, and the ways in which it manifested itself. It is, perhaps, difficult to know exactly what most people thought and did about it. They didn’t exchange partners, read pornography, use prostitutes, fancy little girls and boys, and generally indulge in anything beyond the accepted norms. Or is that true? We don’t know what they got up to in their bedrooms. That they had plenty of sex seems obvious from the number of births, though child mortality rates could be dreadfully high in certain areas. Contraception was not generally in use, and was often unreliable. Fenn does have a quick survey of it, along with notes on dildos and other sex aids.

She has written a lively book which, if it doesn’t come up with anything new or startling to engage the reader, at least provides a fair amount of informative  entertainment.  While it does, it also usefully reminds us that the nineteenth-century was often not a favourable time for most women. There are moments when the ignorance and indifference of supposedly well-educated, intelligent men is enough to make one despair.