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.
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.