Victorian Sexuality

Since sexuality is so critical both thematically and historically to the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, it would be worthwhile to engage in a brief reflection of the predominant social attitudes towards sexuality in Victorian England. M. Jeanne Peterson writes about the myth of the Victorian “angel”—a popular conception of the role and disposition of the typical woman of an upper-class Victorian household. Whether regarded as an ideal or as evidence of blatant oppression, the Victorian angel is relegated to the confines of the house. She is completely submissive and obedient, deferring to her husband in all matters of significance. Her sole occupation is to maintain her household and provide unconditional support to her husband. This Victorian lady is the exemplification of temperance; she is expected never to deviate from her prescribed role and to exhibit absolute forbearance from passionate and impetuous behavior. Obviously, passionate behavior often connotes sexuality, and thus these respectable ladies of the Victorian age are considered asexual and unsusceptible to carnal desires. This notion of the proper Victorian lady is why Sarah provokes such widespread indignation in the town of Lyme. Sarah’s love affair with the French lieutenant and her frequent visits to the Undercliff, the forbidden forest that is automatically associated with licentious behavior, indicate a flagrant violation of her expected duties as a respectable female. Passion and sex are antagonistic to forbearance and temperance, and thus Sarah’s actions cannot be condoned by any self-respecting citizen of Lyme.

Charles’ excursion into the seedy, immoral streets of London presents an important contrast to his life as a proper gentleman. Judith R. Walkowitz explains that prostitution in Victorian England was an unexplored academic topic for many years because most scholars thought the sordid activity of England’s lesser denizens to be unworthy of study. Walkowitz counters that prostitution actually played an essential role in preserving the values and lifestyles of the upper-class. When Charles feels the need to release his repressed sexual energy, he goes to London and expels his baser cravings in anonymity. This way, the proper Victorian lady can still stand as a beacon of temperance and virtue. If Victorian gentlemen did not have these anonymous and pardoning cities of sin, their ladies would cease representing these esteemed qualities and begin representing sexual frustration and oppression. Since the men of Victorian England had certain desires that absolutely had to be appeased and social mores prevented their fulfillment within respectable society, the absence of prostitution would have caused the erosion of upper-class Victorian values.

The views of sexuality espoused by the Victorian upper-class can probably be understood through their relationship with Christianity. Trygve R. Tholfsen attempts to explain the pervading values of Victorian England by examining the beliefs that Sunday school inculcated in children. Children were taught to abstain from those desires which seemed alluring but actually defiled their souls and threatened their chances of attaining eternal bliss. Children were led to believe that the primary objective of this life was to ensure they had a designated spot in heaven to receive God’s infinite grace. Therefore, any temptation which offered sensory pleasure was seen as a test of people’s faith and of their strength of will to retain their purity and sanctity. Consequentially, those who bridled their desires came to be exalted as ideal figures of Christ, and those who indulged in them were condemned as heathens or agents of the devil. This is the kind of belief that spawned people like Mrs. Poulteney—the self-righteous, sanctimonious, hypocritical wretch who spends her sad, lonely life damning others for doing things that she lacks the courage and independence of thought to do. Furthermore, this is why people like Ernestina regard sex, a natural and essential act, with such revulsion and apprehension. Ernestina would love to be the chaste, innocent, coquettish girl hanging on Charles’ arm for the rest of her life without ever doing anything with him that would necessitate any privacy and true intimacy. The Victorians took something completely natural, externalized it, and labeled it as evil. This distortion caused people like Mrs. Poulteney to never even live life and engage in that which is truly organic and beautiful, and young girls like Ernestina to be so disconnected with their nature as to shudder with disgust at the mere thought of having sex with their betrothed.

M. Keith Booker writes about the importance of the infinite in regard to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Booker explains that the act of transgression is absolutely necessary in order to attain the infinite. Furthermore, since the infinite is obviously boundless, it follows that the boundaries that must be transgressed are entirely artificial. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, this idea of the infinite is glimpsed by Charles through his sexual liberation from the artificially imposed boundaries of Victorian society. The notion of sexual liberation and attaining the infinite is first vaguely apprehended by Charles when he is in the Undercliff. The Undercliff’s organic quality has not been diluted or concealed by the fallacious morality of humanity. Therefore, the Undercliff is an ideal place for a human to confront his or her own natural inclinations which have been muddled and obscured by society. The natural and pure environment of the Undercliff crystallizes the artifice which is human morality. Sex is realized to be something that is as natural as the sprouting of a plant, and can be practiced shamelessly in all its grandeur and sacredness. The Undercliff, or pristine nature in general, represents the transcendence of the whole abominable system of Victorian sexuality—the outward charade of piety and abstinence interspersed with anonymous debauchery under the veil of morally lax big cities.


© Copyright Richard Glennon 2007