A topic such as this one requires little intro, and it is our pleasure to host the wonderful Amalie Howard today, who will discuss a topic that is very familiar to readers of romance, and that is Victorian morality, or as she herself says in her subheading: A lady in the streets but a fiend in the sheets. Leave whatever you thought was true outside the door. There’s a lesson to be learned here.
When most people think about the Victorians, they might think of a very prudish, prim group of people living in a time of very strict morality, and while that may be true in some sense, I’m here to challenge that what’s visible on the outside might not always be what’s on the inside.
As a diverse writer in this genre, balancing historical authenticity with relatability through a modern lens as well as challenging non-canon concepts like diversity and sexuality are important to me. Again, just because something has been said or written about in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. People of color existed, LGBTQ+ people existed, and certainly, pleasure and agency were not anachronistic concepts.
Though many things have been penned about the Victorians in both non-fiction and fiction, sexuality is not canon. In a time when etiquette handbooks in magazines were propagated with the notion of anti-sensuality and the ideals of being a devoted, passionless wife and mother, one cannot assume that every single woman was observing this hard, and frankly unnatural, code of feminine respectability. There was a distinct gap between the ideology put forward and what was actually performed in practice by both women and men, regardless of class.
In my latest novel, THE DUKE IN QUESTION, set in the Victorian Era (1837-1901), I have a very sex-forward heroine who has her own strong sense of internal agency, knows what she wants and where she fits in the world. Her ideas toward sex might seem untoward especially when juxtaposed with these preconceived notions of Victorian society, but as I’ve always said, women have been subverting the patriarchy all over the world throughout history. I wrote my Bachelor of Arts thesis in French on the sexual agency, female desire, feminism, and eroticism of sixteenth-century French poet, Louise Labé. Sixteenth century! Even 300 years later, it’s disingenuous to believe that everyone in the Victorian era subscribed to a puritanical existence, simply because they were expected to do so. That is patently false.
The study of sex itself in this era bloomed, especially from medical, academic, and scientific perspectives. Books by authors like Sigmund Freud came on the scene, writing about “hysteria” in women to describe emotional outbursts and illogical, deviant behavior, and publicizing that female desire (all viewed within the male gaze) was dangerous. Hot on the heels of this academic discussion, dozens of cure-alls, sexual aids, handbooks, and illicit guides sprung up in magazines and periodicals, as well as the explosion of sex work along with erotic art, theater, and literature proliferating sensual themes. This was a huge paradox in itself.
As a lover of research, one of the interesting things I discovered when reading about Victorian sexuality to better craft my own heroine, the plucky Lady Bronwyn, was the work of Dr. Clelia Mosher who did an unpublished sex survey of women in the 1800s. This study, discovered by Carl Degler in 1973, was eye-opening! It asked questions about Victorian women’s sexual habits, proclivities, appetites, pleasure, and partners, and what it showed was that Victorian women knew what they wanted and how they wanted it…and were vexed when they didn’t get it!
In this survey, a woman born in 1844 said sex was “a normal desire” and “a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier.” Another claimed that if she didn’t orgasm, it was “bad, even disastrous” along with “nerve-wracking-unbalancing if such conditions continue for any length of time.” Preach, sister! One of the women surveyed claimed “when no orgasm, took days to recover” while another attested, “men have not been properly trained.” I mean…these ladies have valid points. And perhaps most eloquently, one woman said, “the highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us.” Despite conjecture, Victorian women enjoyed sex, felt desire, and sought personal pleasure.
Queen Victoria herself had a very healthy relationship with her own husband, and with nine children during a twenty-one-year marriage, one would hope this meant that it was a healthy sexual partnership as well. But don’t take my word for it, take hers. In a letter she wrote about her wedding night, the queen said, “it was a gratifying and bewildering experience. I never, never spent such an evening. His excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness.” I mean, they could have been cuddling, but I’m of the opinion that “excessive” cuddling might be a euphemism for being well-pleasured.
Their eldest son Edward was nicknamed “Dirty Bertie” for his obsession with sex. He even had a sex chair commissioned in Paris so he could entertain multiple women at once. One of his lovers, socialite Daisy Warwick, used to have lavish tea parties at her home in Essex, which were simply a guise for adulterous sexual activity, perhaps similar to modern “key parties.” According to her biographer, Victoria Fishburn, “The crunch time was tea when the men would come in from sport and the women would be dolled up in specially made ‘tea gowns’ which were loosely fastened at the waist. These would be worn without a corset solely to allow ‘ease of passage.’ The guests would then pair up and retire to their rooms for their assignations.” How very scandalous! One last example was the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, who was nicknamed “Lord Cupid” in his seventies because he was such a notorious womanizer. Rumor has it he died from a heart attack while in the middle of sex with a parlor maid.
Despite all of this evidence to the contrary, the specious perception of the prudish Victorians continues. Sex, pleasure, and desire in the Victorian era were proliferate concepts, whether in academic theory, cultural and artistic expression, sex work, or personal practice. Anti-sex attitudes does not translate into a sex-less culture. Scientific discourse about any subject, including sex, is always going to lead to broader exploration, so the idea of the Victorians being repressed sexually doesn’t actually translate into a complete absence of sexuality. In fact, it’s the opposite. Human beings are by nature curious, thirsting for new information and experiences, and driven by an impulse of cognitive learning. The Victorians were hardly different.
Amelie Howard’s The Duke is Question is available now wherever books are sold.