Who Is Really a Sex Rebel?
Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.
I haven't had sex since starting Deborah Lutz's book, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism. Now that I've finished, I'm still in recovery. It's only fair, you say, to look for other causes, but, I'm sorry, the correlation is too strong. These interwoven tales of Victorian high jinks include some piquant stories: Dante Gabriel Rossetti digging up his poems from his wife's grave, Algernon Swinburne scurrying off to be "birched" by prostitutes near Regent's Park, Richard Burton (the explorer) trying to wake the British out of their sexless sleep. But there's a problem. Here's a representative passage.
Wilde took the sexual radicalism of the Aesthetes and Cannibals and propelled it even further, making it more perilous, more blatantly illegal, and more—as it would be called in the twentieth century—gay. The movement had always flirted with male-male sexuality. There were Burton's writings on sodomy (and sapphism). Morris and Rossetti loved their collaborations with men. Swinburne, throughout the 1860s, seemed to have sodomy always on his mind.
It's sex in summary, cast in amber. That's the problem, and I blame Norton & Co. more than Lutz, a professor of English at Long Island University, who specializes in literature and sex. Signs abound that the author has been moved by the scenes of Victorian desire, by the way a culture of respectability was also a universe of pleasure, a theater of tease and compulsion. But somewhere along the line a decision was made to frame the erotic transgression for a trade readership.
That's where the book lost the lure of desire and acquired the reek of a publishing opportunity. The mistake wasn't to sexualize an academic subject, or to intellectualize pleasure; both of these can be done, and done well. The problem is that both sides, sex and scholarship, were snipped and straightened to fit the trade protocols. Lutz scarcely nods at eminent academic precedents, such as Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality or Steven Marcus' The Other Victorians. She has a chapter titled "Erotic Faith" that makes no reference to a major book on the 19th-century sexual imagination called, funnily enough, Erotic Faith (by Robert Polhemus). At the same time, there's no juice to justify the high gloss of the production: the title, the color reproductions, the steamy blurb ("stunning exposé"), and the cover design with a sleeping classical maiden in hiked-up toga. What's on TV?
Pleasure Bound follows Foucault in claiming that respectable Victorianism had sex leaking out of every decorous pore. Its special claim is that two subcultures—one around Rossetti, one around Burton—were sites of an erotic bohemianism that rose to challenge and finally to defeat the upright followers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The Rossetti circle—a network of family members, fellow painters, critics, and poets as well as female models, plucked from lives that were meager or worse—not only generated a London avant-garde, a precursor to the confrontational modernisms of the coming decades, but also risky experiments in living. The first half of the book is a speedy tour through familiar scenes of indulgence, Rossetti among the prostitutes and models, Swinburne in theatrical intoxicated revelry.
At one point Lutz quotes a disappointed Swinburne on the Marquis de Sade: "I looked for some sharp and subtle analysis of lust—some keen dissection of pain and pleasure," but he found instead that Sade took "bulk and number for greatness." Lutz is like Sade (and I'm like the disappointed Swinburne) at least in this respect. She collects anecdotes from the standard biographies and correspondence, threading them on a string that loops without knotting. Alongside her principals come flocks of cameo pornographers, itchy writers, and louche painters—and those models. Yet all the protagonists are male, with the women reduced to mere quickly potted biographies. The book leaves the "new eroticism" as a masculine invention. It's one tryst after another, one flagellation after the next. Tales that have been told many times are condensed here, and we have to ask, Why? Why tell them again, and why offer them as a reader's digest of short hot flings? And then why assume that transgression is rebellion?
Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.