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Ten Myths about the Victorians

Although not strictly confined to the literary sphere, the following ten ‘facts’ about the Victorians certainly touch upon literature many times, not least because our ideas about the Victorians are often misconceptions or misrepresentations which we’ve picked up from their literature. I am indebted to Matthew Sweet’s superb book Inventing the Victorians (2001) for a number of the debunkings which you’ll encounter below. If you’re interested in learning about who the Victorians really were, Sweet’s book is an excellent place to start.

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1. When it came to sex, the Victorians weren’t ‘repressed’. At least, not all of them were, and there is plenty of evidence that they were no more puritanical or prudish than we are. Many of them enjoyed reading explicit accounts of sex – one of the best-selling books of the late nineteenth century was a long and frank account of the exploits of a man named ‘Walter’, titled My Secret Life – and the ‘close your eyes and think of England’ idiom appears to have been a later idea.

2. Prince Albert didn’t have a ‘Prince Albert’. The genital piercing known as a Prince Albert is only found in print as recently as 1977, and there is no evidence that Albert ever sported such a piercing. Why, then, does the piercing bear the name of Victoria’s Prince Consort? It is probably more to do with the resemblance of the cock-ring to Albert’s gold watch-chain!

3. John Ruskin wasn’t shocked by his wife’s pubic hair on their wedding night. This story first appears in the 1960s, and we’re usually told that it’s because Ruskin had only ever seen nude women depicted in classical statues – where they were hairless – but, in fact, Ruskin was familiar with pornography from his time as an undergraduate. He may have disliked his wife for other reasons – Effie Gray was, by Edward Lear’s account, a rather irritating woman.

4. Oscar Wilde didn’t die of syphilis (nor did he have the kind of sex we bet you’re thinking of). In his biography of Wilde, Richard Ellmann points out that Wilde favoured ‘intercrural sex’ (sex between the thighs). And contrary to what is often claimed, Wilde didn’t die of syphilis – although he probably did have syphilis, a relic from his sexual activities as an undergraduate at Oxford. Instead, the cause of his death in 1900 was cerebral meningitis.

5. They didn’t cover their piano legs because they were sexually suggestive. This myth has a definite literary origin, because it was actually the Victorians who scoffed at the Americans for being so prudish. Captain Frederick Marryat, author of the classic The Children of the New Forest (1847), reported in his Diary in America (1839) that American women disapproved of the word ‘leg’ and insisted that ‘limb’ be used instead. He also ‘unearthed’ the story about the Americans covering piano legs because they were suggestive of naked human legs – but it seems that the American lady he spoke to was pulling his leg, seeing her opportunity to gull a naive English tourist. That hasn’t stopped the myth from being repeated time and time again ever since – not only about the Americans, but about the Victorians too!

6. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) wasn’t the first book to propose a theory of evolution. Far from it. There had been theories of evolution before – notably those of Lamarck (his idea being that small adaptations made by an individual in their lifetime would be inherited by their offspring) and Robert Chambers, whose Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation caused a stir when it was published anonymously in 1844 – but Darwin’s was the one which explained the process of evolution in a way that could be observed and tested. (Indeed, ‘theory’ of evolution is misleading, since in science ‘theory’ doesn’t mean ‘hypothesis’, but a statement which has been tested and tested and never disproved.) People weren’t shocked so much by the ‘evolution’ part of Darwin’s book, as by the ‘natural selection’ part – the idea that all life is reliant on, to quote Tennyson, ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’.

7. Queen Victoria probably didn’t cause the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Dirty water from her toilet leaked into his drinking water and caused the typhoid fever which killed him – at least so goes the myth. But recently, writers have questioned this diagnosis: Albert was ill for two years before he died (typhoid acts a lot faster than that), suggesting that Chrohn’s disease or renal failure may have been the actual cause of the Prince Consort’s death – possibly even cancer.

8. Victoria was amused. ‘We are not amused’: so runs the famous quotation from Victoria. Yet all of the evidence suggests she was most highly amused, and her diaries record her merriment, mirth, and sense of humour frequently. This quotation – the best-known thing she never said – doesn’t appear in print until 1919. Whether she ever said it remains a bone of contention, but the evidence, to put it mildly, isn’t good.

9. Victorian London wasn’t awash with opium dens. Matthew Sweet deals with this majestically in his book: there were two opium dens in London (Shadwell, to be specific) which spawned the myth that they were everywhere, and Victorians were forever indulging in the smoking of the drug in establishments up and down the Thames. It was largely literature that was responsible, and, in particular, the later work of Charles Dickens, such as his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), which opens with the title character’s uncle awakening from an opium-induced dream. Later literary works – such as The Mystery of Fu-Manchu (1913) – helped to propagate the myth of London as a city teeming with opium smog well into the twentieth century.

10. They mocked and patronised disabled people through the gruesome Victorian ‘freak show’? Hardly. This is largely a twentieth-century invention, with films like David Lynch’s 1982 classic The Elephant Man playing fast and loose with the facts and suggesting that people like Joseph (not John) Merrick were mistreated by their managers and agents. Many tended to be treated as celebrities, revered by their audiences as curiosities, yes, but also as performers – and many earned a fortune from their careers. Nor did the word ‘freak’ get used about them anywhere near as much as we think: one of the rare occasions when the Elephant Man is described using that word is in a book authored by none other than the Elephant Man himself!

If you enjoyed this post, check out our Charles Dickens facts and our interesting facts about Victorian novelist George Eliot. You might also like our pick of the best Victorian ghost stories and our facts about the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton.

We debunk more myths in our ten common misconceptions about Shakespeare.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on December 26, 2012, in History, Literature, Novels, Poetry, Sex, Victorians. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I really enjoyed your article. Very informative! Thank you!

  2. This was really Quite Interesting! I never believed most of these memes (Vic not being amused, naked piano legs, the Darwinian origin of ideas about evolution) but rarely went into their background, so thanks! A couple of thoughts on a couple of your points:
    3. John Ruskin’s supposed prurience was played up in the recentish BBC drama series about the Pre-Raphaelites, but as the films played fast and loose with facts and chronology, I never took it seriously.
    4. Stephen Fry acted intercrural sex (under bedclothes you understand) when playing Wilde in the film of the same name, so I kind of guessed this anyway.
    9. One of Phillip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart novels, ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’, set in Victorian London, has probably contributed even more to the idea that London was awash with opium dens. But then it’s fiction, anyway.

    Great to have discovered your site! Long may it continue.

    • Good to hear you haven’t fallen into the bear-pit of these misconceptions – and thanks once again for the insightful comments!

      I’d forgotten about Fry under the sheets with Jude Law and Michael Sheen in Wilde, but now you say that, I remember it – I know that they followed Ellmann’s biography quite closely. As for Ruskin, he does appear to have been disgusted by some aspect of Effie Gray’s body, and since he had looked at pornography as a student it’s even more of a mystery as to what he might have taken a dislike to. The pubic hair thing, Sweet argues in his book, is a post-Victorian story we like to trot out to support our notion that the tale is emblematic of the Victorians as a whole – whereas we moderns, by comparison, are far less naive and disgusted when it comes to sex. Poor Ruskin’s become a bit of a whipping-boy, it would seem…

      • Interesting to see moderns ridiculing Victorians for being shocked by the idea of pubic hair, when for many of us our social mores seem to be directed at eradicating it. At least for women.

  3. Yes, Matthew Sweet’s book is fantastic and busts the myth of the Victorian era being a dull, dull time. The Victorians, like us, were preoccupied with sex, addicted to technology and always searching for entertainment. It was such an exciting, turbulent time that it’s a real challenge for historians and historical novelists to grapple with all the material. This is something I touched on when reviewing Clare Clark’s Beautiful Lies, which is based on Victorian historical figures, including William Thomas Stead (featured in Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians).

    • Many thanks for the heads-up about Clare Clark’s book, which I didn’t know about – I’ll have to seek it out! Remarkable fellow, Stead – his journalistic methods may have been questionable, but he undoubtedly did a fair bit of good. Probably the most famous person to die on the Titanic, too…

  4. I can’t say that I have fallen prey to many of these myths. I have always believed that the Victorians were very sexual & somewhat indiscretionary. Now, I will say that this “intercrural sex” is something I’ve not heard of before, so will have to learn more about this part of the era.
    Also, I always felt opium dens were out of place in what I’ve read/movies I’ve seen, so that eases my mind! I would love to pick your brain further sometime.

    • Nice to hear so many people have seen through these misconceptions – especially the ‘Victorian prudes’ one. Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Wilde, talks about Wilde’s intercrural sex, and I can recommend that book highly – it’s a fantastic read.

      And pick away – any time!

      • Thank you for the recommendation, I will add it to my TBR list. What I would like to pick at you with is the opinion re: married couples having a mutual home, as well as each having a place of their own for such sexual endeavors. Is this factual? That is one of I’m sure many other questions I have. Thank you for your time & let me know if it would be easier via email to discuss my questions!

  5. Regarding Darwin, it’s worth noting that Darwinian evolution differs from Lamarckian evolution (and other pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories) in a great deal more than its emphasis on natural selection as a mechanism. A few differences:

    •Lamarck developed his theory of evolution in part to explain away apparent extinctions, to show that they weren’t cases of extinction after all. Darwin’s evolutionary theory, on the other hand, attempted to explain why there were extinctions.
    •Darwin rejected the assumption that species are perfectly adapted, an assumption that was shared (in different forms) by both teleologists and morphologists.
    •Darwin’s theory took a branching structure; Lamarck’s a linear structure. (Darwin owed this aspect of his theory to the morphologists, even though they were often not evolutionists.)

    Darwin’s evolutionary theory involved many new ideas that did not turn on his advocacy of natural selection. And I would so much say that his was the first that could be tested—it’s more that it’s the first that stood up to testing (though it took quite a long time for the natural selection aspect to prove its worth).

    An excellent read in this regard is Dov Ospovat’s The Development of Darwin’s Theory, which is a critical study of Darwin’s notebooks, showing how Darwin’s theory changed in response to other ideas available at the time.

    • Superb, thanks for this – of course, the discovery and founding of the science of genetics (inspired, with Mendel, by Darwin’s own work) and the subsequent discovery of DNA have helped immeasurably in bearing out Darwin’s ‘theory’. But these other aspects of Darwin’s work which you highlight here are very illuminating: I hadn’t considered the more nuanced differences between his and Lamarck’s theories. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Thanks, genevabetweenthecovers – and yes, feel free to email me at O.M.Tearle@lboro.ac.uk and you can pick my brains on that marital home question and any others you have :)

  7. Ha, great stuff! I have also recently heard the theory that Albert died from what was likely to be Chrone’s Disease. It’s interesting how speculation and off-hand comments can quickly become passed down as ‘historical fact’!

    • Thanks! Agreed, it’s an odd phenomenon – a form of meme, I suppose – and the arrival of the internet has only propagated such misconceptions (the language ‘fact’ that there are only four words in English ending in ‘-dous’ is a good example; I find that repeated on websites everywhere!). I feel another blog post coming on…

  8. Just did a Victorian era post, and ran across some of this info. Glad I found your blog, or you found mine…or whatever. Read through several pieces…too many comments to be leaving any more – overkill. I’ll just like stuff until I see something like this post that’s no so heavily commented.
    Later…

  9. You have to love the Victorians!

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