Uptight and Repressed Victorians?

Every generation seems to want to scorn the previous generation. It’s like making fun of your parents and their entire crowd. You do that all the time, right?

That’s what we’ve done to the long-suffering Victorians. By “long-suffering,” I mean that the myths and misconceptions about them have been around a long time and are damned hard to kill.

Almost everything we think about the Victorians is wrong, and by “almost everything” I mean 90%.

Queen Victoria came to the British throne in 1837 and reigned until she died in 1901, 64 years. So there was plenty of time for all kinds things to happen, especially modernization during the industrial revolution. It’s as if “the Victorians” are too big to grasp. So it’s easier to mythologize them than to try to understand them.

Victorian myths come from many different sources. But the whole idea of Victorians being more repressed, humorless, and stuffy than other generations was intensified by Lytton Strachey, an English intellectual and a founder of the influential Bloomsbury Group of writers and critics.

Strachey published Eminent Victorians in 1918, as a reaction against the overly praising biographies that had been popular for some time. Strachey highlighted what he saw as unjustified Victorian feelings of moral superiority, and blamed them for everything from religious bigotry to the horrors of modern warfare.

Strachey’s assessments have held sway in intellectual circles ever since and few people have bothered to challenge them. There are also secondary myths that have been equally tenacious.

One of the most persistent myths is that Victorians were so stuffy, so moralistic, and such buzzkillers that they covered curvaceous piano legs (and other furniture legs) with little skirts so they didn’t excite sexual passions.

This is ridiculous, of course. It probably originated as a joke, but it eventually reached mythological heights.

Here’s where it comes from. While he was visiting the United States in the late 1830s, Captain Frederick Marryat (naval officer, novelist, and acquaintance of Charles Dickens) took note of his encounters with Americans. He discussed their manners, their habits, and even their use of English vocabulary, all eventually published in his Diary in America (1839). For instance, he wrote, American women disapproved of the word “leg,” thinking it crude. They preferred “limb.”

Marryat also claimed a lady told him that Americans covered up suggestive piano legs and other furniture legs. It’s probable that she was joking or pulling his leg. Marryat reported the story as fact, however, and somehow it entered the popular consciousness. But this is the only direct reference of covered piano or furniture legs from the 19th century. Marryat’s book wasn’t a bestseller or anything, but the piano legs yarn somehow took off, as not only a 19th century hang-up but one that took place in Victorian Britain rather than America.

Like many of historical myths, it’s too bad it isn’t true. If we can’t have Hoover as a cross-dresser, can we at least have Victorian prudery? Well, not if you believe in a little thing called evidence. In every depiction of piano legs during the Victorian era, they are naked as they day they were carved. A typical example is shown on this blog. Ho hum.

Well, ok, they didn’t cover up sexy piano legs, but they were a little bit uptight when it came to sex, right? Nope, not really.

Let’s start with the Queen herself. Leaving aside the fact that Victoria had nine children––so she must have spent some time “doing it”––there is plenty of evidence that she wasn’t a prude. She described herself as having a “warm, passionate nature.” She gave her husband many nude female portraits as birthday presents. She flirted with Lord Melbourne, who advised her when she was a young queen and he was prime minister. She also flirted with other men when she felt like it. After the death of her husband, Prince Albert, she may have been romantically attached to her personal attendant, John Brown, as well as Abdul Karim, her Hindi language tutor.

She never advised her daughters to forego sexual pleasure on their wedding nights, and just to “lie back and think of England.” One source claims that this was from the diary of Lady Hillingdon in 1912 (eleven years after Victoria died). But even this is highly unlikely since the diary has never been found and may not have existed in the first place.

Everyday Victorians weren’t prudes either. One of the most popular books of the day was the multi-volume My Secret Life by a man named “Walter.” “Walter” detailed his vigorous sex life, stretching credulity at times, but ended up with a best-seller nonetheless. Also, with the development of photography came the development of pornography and semi-pornographical photographic material. It too was very popular.

And when it comes to laughs, Queen V wasn’t Victoria of the Dour Portrait. Sure, in the pictures we have of her, she certainly looks like a buzzkill. But all formal painted portraits were, frankly, formal. And the early cameras of the time had slow shutter speeds. Subjects often had to place their heads into metal brackets to keep them still enough for the long exposure. (These brackets were placed on top of metal poles and clamped the subject from behind, so they were concealed by the hair on the subject’s head.) It was also difficult to keep a smile long enough for the exposure, and smiling had never been part of the style of portraiture. Smiling automatically in pictures is a relatively recent practice. And there are a good many photographs of her laughing uproariously (even in old age) but they are rarely seen because a laughing Queen doesn’t fit in with the Victorian myth. Granted, they are a little blurry because of the movement, but there’s no other reason why they remain generally unknown.

So get down off your high horse and chill-ax, Buzzkillers. Victorians did it all the time.

The Victorians Professor Buzzkill

Lie back and think of England.