Monday, June 15, 2015

6 Victorian Realities (We Never See in the Movies)

Queen Victoria's reign, the longest in British history (1837-1901), was a particularly dynamic and complex period and it's one that is frequently portrayed in historical fiction and period films, but, even though many of these films are adaptations of Victorian literature, certain aspects of Victorian life remain obscured and quite astonishing for us moderns. Certain assumptions about life in Victorian England, particularly regarding sex, are rarely challenged in new works set in that era; here are six realities of Victorian life that definitely surprised me:

Etching by W.H. Shelton
6. Children were dosed with laudanum to keep them quiet.
Laudanum, derived from opium, was something of a cure-all drug and many, many Victorians were addicted to it. The common injunction that children should be seen and not heard was taken rather literally, and while opium addicts, particularly men rather than women, are fairly common in films set in the Victorian era, child addicts were quite common because the drug was administered to them to keep them from fussing. Laudanum, aside from being highly addictive and the cause of constipation and respiratory problems, varied significantly in terms of potency, leading many to overdose and contributing to high mortality rates.

5. Proto-feminist groups were at the vanguard of the abolitionist movement.
Early political agitation by women and women's groups was based upon the then-unquestioned idea that women were morally superior to men. Throughout the nineteenth century, women campaigned to redress social wrongs and they were key to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, after which they turned their attention to the plight of the poor and the significant population of prostitutes. Though it would be entirely incorrect to deny the importance of such men as John Locke and William Wilberforce, abolitionism had its roots in an eminently feminine and proto-feminist political sphere of action.

4. Women were led to believe conception was impossible without orgasm.
Contrary to the common belief that the Victorians were prudish and repressed, the centrality of motherhood to female identity rendered her sexual and reproductive roles paramount. Though there were some who disagreed, most Victorian doctors encouraged husbands to attend to their wives' sexual pleasure in order to maximize the chances of conception, while telling women that orgasm was an absolute necessity. Ironically, this led many women to feel afraid of sexual pleasure, especially if circumstances - whether financial or marital - did not favor a new baby, and all the more so given the absurdly high mortality rates for both women in childbed and their infants.

Photo-etching from drawing by Frederick Dielman

3. 500,000 "redundant women" were a surplus on the marriage market.
In 1851, the census found that there were 500,000 more women than men in Britain, sparking debates about what to do with the female surplus. Among the solutions proposed was shipping these so-called redundant women to the colonies, swelling the British-extracted populations and preventing the population of prostitutes from ballooning. If an unmarried woman had an independent income, she could live fairly well, though she would face myriad social hurdles and be considered a failure, in that a woman's larger purpose in the Victorian era was above all motherhood, but for women without an income, remaining single was a severe disadvantage, leaving them at the mercies of abusive and exploitative employers and also forcing them to hold themselves to even stricter standards of conduct, lest they be mistaken for prostitutes or become one. Even today, the stereotype of the woman desperate to get married is an object of ridicule, but before we laugh, perhaps it's worth remembering that these "redundant" women had few decent options and many were compelled to remain single - literally because there weren't enough men to go round.

2. Mass-produced condoms were available by the second half of the century.
Though today there's a general assumption that there was no birth control during the nineteenth century, in fact, a number of methods of birth control, of varying utility, were available, including primitive diaphragms, sponges, douches, and, most surprisingly, affordable, mass-produced condoms, which were publicly advertised. Birth control was particularly imperative for working class women, for whom each child was a significant financial burden and health risk. Even for bourgeois and aristocratic women, the physical hardships of pregnancy and labor led many to seek means of preventing conception.

Photo-etching from drawing by F. Childe Hassam

1. Half of Victorian marriages were preceded by a pregnancy.
Using parish registers, scholars have discovered that perhaps a full half of Victorian brides were already pregnant at their weddings. Though a girl's virginity was highly valued and lauded, it seems to have been quite common for couples to engage in pre-marital sex and only get married once the girl was pregnant. There are examples in Victorian literature of women seduced and abandoned (Hetty in Adam Bede, Oliver Twist's mother, Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the Colonel's ward in Sense and Sensibility), but the social imperative to condemn extra-marital sex meant that tragedy was imposed upon these characters. However, with so many pregnant brides, it's safe to assume that many of these "ruined" women simply got married and carried on with their lives. Pregnancy was a taboo subject, despite the cult of motherhood, but I imagine that a good many speedily married characters, like Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, were, at least by implication, possibly pregnant. Class was also a major factor; pre- and extra-marital sex was progressively less taboo as one descended the class hierarchy.

Further reading:
Reading the Pre-Raphaelites - Tim Barringer
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais - Suzanne Fagence Cooper
The Victorian Woman - Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Victorian and Edwardian Fashion - Alison Gernsheim
At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England - Walter Dean Myers
Table Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult - Ronald Pearsall
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age - Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

The above illustrations are from an Edition de Luxe of George Eliot's Felix Holt: The Radical, published in Boston in 1886, hand-numbered 143 of 500.

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