WHEN PASSION REIGNED: Sex and the Victorians by Patricia Anderson

WHEN PASSION REIGNED: Sex and the Victorians

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An enthusiastic endorsement of the healthy and passionate sex lives of the Victorians. In recent years, academic historians and literary critics have revised the long-held view that the Victorians were prudish, repressed, ignorant, and miserable in matters of sex. Canadian historian Anderson (The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, not reviewed) popularizes that scholarship and adds her own breezy survey of Victorian sexual habits. She looks for and finds a public preoccupation with sex in the period's popular romance novels and magazines; poetry by clergymen and clergymen's daughters; manuals of advice for married men and women; advertisements for women's underwear, contraceptive devices, and patent medicines. Deploring the 20th century's separation of sex from passion and the control of sexual knowledge by medical professionals, Anderson praises the Victorians for their skill at coy flirtation, erotic euphemism, and sustained marital happiness. She acknowledges that changes in conventions governing the discussion of sexuality make it difficult for modern readers to recognize the valuable aspects of Victorian sexuality, but remains baffled by the persistence of the idea that the Victorians were prudish and repressed. On that point the author is unfair to the many turn-of-the-century critics of sexual repression whose cries of pain about the Victorians' guilt, hypocrisy, and sexual ignorance created the image Anderson deplores. These critics may have oversimplified, but they directly experienced negative aspects of Victorian sexuality that the author glosses over, such as the lack of ready access to contraception, guilt over masturbation and pornography, and the targeting of prostitutes and gay men by ""social purity campaigns."" Striving to be fair to the Victorians, Anderson draws up a largely positive balance sheet, but she tends to lose sight of the unhappy, helpless, and isolated victims of the period's sexual fears.

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 1995
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Basic