THE BOURGEOIS EXPERIENCE: Victoria to Freud, Vol. I: Education of the Senses by Peter Gay
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THE BOURGEOIS EXPERIENCE: Victoria to Freud, Vol. I: Education of the Senses

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There's no way any scholar, even one with Gay's awesome Germanic range, and the further ""substantial volumes"" he promises us, could do justice to this monumental theme; but watching the attempt will be immensely instructive. Gay (Durfee Prof. of History at Yale) is attempting to trace the evolution of love, aggression, and conflict in the 19th century--roughly from 1820 to 1914--within a class of American and European (English-French-German) individuals that defies clear description, as Gay himself cheerfully admits. Nothing daunted, he begins with a ""symphonic"" evocation of the bourgeoisie's (or Mittelstand's or middling classes') Éducation sentimentale. With his customary learning and relaxed prose, Gay surveys such topics as the sexual responsiveness of American wives in the 1890s (he cites a remarkably contemporary study by a woman physician), the medical campaign against masturbation, public acceptance of nudes in painting and sculpture, the spread of birth control, feminism and anti-feminism, prudery and hypocrisy, etc. In treating these issUes Gay deftly combines social panoramas with personal vignettes, statistics with diary entries. One of his most illuminating chapters deals with the intensely erotic open marriage of David and Mabel Loomis Todd: apart from their flamboyant connubial passions, he womanized indiscriminately, while she counted on his complaisant support of her decade-long adultery with Austin Dickinson (Emily's older brother)--and all this without seriously damaging their reputation in late-Victorian Amherst, Massachusetts. Gay's point, here and elsewhere, is that despite the crippling effects of traditional sexism and religious bias, of gross ignorance (e.g. about ovulation and fertility), persistent dangers from puerperal fever and too many pregnancies--in a word, all the familiar nightmares haunting 19th-century bedrooms--many bourgeois husbands and their (mythically frigid or non-orgasmic) wives succeeded in having richly satisfying sexual relationships. It's an interesting revisionist, if not truly revolutionary, thesis; but Gay doesn't write thesis-history. The value of his gargantuan enterprise, if completed, will lie in its comprehensiveness and wit, its genial liberalism and psychological sophistication. So far, so good.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press