Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Victorian prudery

My sister Bernice was in town last week. We had opportunity for long talks and one of the things that came up was whether the Victorians were really so repressed as we've long been told.

There's a post up at Grumpy Old Bookman on the topic. Among other things GOB says, "In 1857, the medical journal The Lancet estimated that the capital could offer over 6,000 brothels and about 80,000 prostitutes: one woman in every sixteen -- of all ages -- was a whore."

So what makes us think they were prudes? The two men most known for the morals crusade, GOB says, were also "proprietors of the two most successful commercial lending libraries; and the libraries were huge buyers of fiction."

Now and then we hear about how evolution (or some other Christian-right opposed fact) has been reduced to a few mealy-mouthings in school textbooks. The publishers of textbooks know they won't be able to sell anything truthful (which would be controversial) to the biggest buyers of textbooks, which would be Texas and, despite its reputation for liberalism, California, and suchlike. Would a reader of U.S. textbooks take away an accurate view of science (or anything much else?)

The publishers of the Victorian era had to look out for two things -- the law (they could be -- and some were -- imprisoned for publishing sexually explicit works) and their biggest customers (who scoured new books for improprieties). The Victorian literature we have to read today, does it really reflect Victorian society?


Unknown said...

word up homie!

David Lee Ingersoll said...

That's always the trouble isn't it? One can only know about what a society is willing to talk about, what they're willing to leave behind. You've heard the stories of how folks in other countries expect Americans to be armed when they walk down the street, expect to see a shooting or a robbery or a murder every other day. And during the sixties, wasn't everyone on acid? And everyone repressed in the fifties? And everyone patriotic in the forties?

I remember being surprised when James Bond used the bathroom in the novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Until then all the fictional characters I'd encountered seemed have no need of such a place. Bond squeezes a blackhead and "made the appropriate noises". James Bond had blackheads? What? And farted? Shocking!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

There's a rather strange theory running around: if there's no word for it in your language it's unknown in your culture and can't be thought about. Most of us seem to get along with, "Get that there. Do the thing." Record most spoken language and it's awfully vague.