Of the many books since the 1960s that claim to overturn the clichÇ of Victorian prudery, this is surely the least interesting, persuasive, and readable. Mason (English/Univ. College, London) broadly defines the Victorian era as starting with the 1790s—the Romantic, Regency, or Georgian period—and petering out well before 1900, his cut-off date. He's certainly done resourceful and intensive research (check out the mammoth bibliography); his text considers such varied sources as working-class papers, medical reports, popular culture, and religious writing. Missing, however, is analysis of the major cultural landmarks that Peter Gay illuminates so brilliantly in his still uncompleted series on ``the bourgeois experience.'' Using imperfectly assimilated sociological jargon, Mason argues that a crisis in confidence in courtship and marriage for the first two or three decades of the 19th century encouraged prostitution and casual sex; that interest in marriage and concubinage was renewed at mid-century; and that the introduction of artificial contraception revived sexuality after 1860. The moral ``recalibration'' that began in the lower classes with a rise in sexual ``moralism,'' he asserts, became a sign of political progress throughout the period, touching the middle classes as well. Considering popular entertainments, housing, class orientation, and medical attitudes, he finds a discrepancy between sexual attitudes and behavior—in brief, Victorian hypocrisy—a discrepancy he criticizes Foucault for overlooking, but one that he claims anthropologists find in many societies. While the material is interesting, Mason's focus is so narrow, his writing so gnarled, his syntax so confusing, his structure so uncertain, that it is difficult to follow his argument or ascertain the direction in which he is moving (toward the end he proposes a second volume). Hard to imagine why anyone would prefer this volume to Gay's, or even read it afterward.
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