Illumination of how changing attitudes toward religion and sexuality transformed the arts and culture of Victorian England.
By now it has become widely accepted scholarly knowledge that the Victorian age wasn’t as repressed as is commonly caricatured. Lutz (Victorian Literature and Culture/Long Island Univ., C.W. Post; The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seductive Narrative, 2006) attempts to reach beyond an academic readership in her interwoven accounts of the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Richard Burton, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Oscar Wilde. Perhaps the greatest revelations lie in her exhumation of the painter Simeon Solomon, then notorious, now a “forgotten martyr, his art and life a disappearing act perpetuated by his intolerant times.” With Darwinism threatening Christianity and art asserting a value higher than conventional morality, poets, painters and pleasure seekers alike felt liberated to explore the “dark, secret places” and find ecstasy in the previously unspeakable. Though she offers plenty of reference to sodomy and sadomasochism, Lutz’s prose too often succumbs to cliché—“pains in the neck”; “spread like wildfire”—but generally avoids the overwrought opacity of much academic writing. The author credits the age with reviving the legacies of Blake, Shelley and Keats, and with anticipating the expectation “that it seems somehow ‘normal,’ that the artist (or, today, movie or rock star) must have a complicated, even scandalous, sexual life.” Her cultural criticism resists viewing the era through a contemporary lens, as she acknowledges that the term “homosexual” didn’t enter the parlance until the 1880s and that the changing roles of women resist modern feminist revisionism. Yet Lutz reinforces the cultural significance of an era in which “Art (with an unashamed capital A) was more worthy of worship than a stony, distant god.”
Neither as steamy as its title nor as impenetrable as the academic stereotype.