Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism

Deborah Rogers finds 'fictionish' flair in tales of the erotic lives of 19th-century radicals

May 26, 2011

Cue the whip! For the Aesthetes and the Cannibal Club, two overlapping groups of politically radical men including Algernon Charles Swinburne, Richard Burton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, it was all sex, all the time.

Historicising the works of these flamboyant sexual prodigies, Deborah Lutz demonstrates the ways in which such figures - along with later aficionados of rough trade such as Oscar Wilde - helped define our modern notions of sexuality. The influential writers, artists and thinkers Lutz calls "Victorian sex rebels" promoted women's rights and erotic freedom, even as they doubted religion and challenged Victorian propriety in their lives and in their art. If they saw sexual identity and gender roles as fluid and flirted with everything from flagellation to sodomy, they influenced most sexually themed art of the later 19th century.

Lutz's highly readable account of (male) sexuality during the 1860s in London details the outre sexual escapades of a self-mythologising, self-indulgent male subculture. (It was no coincidence that the 1860s also witnessed stirrings of feminism.) To guard against presentism, she follows an informal historical chronology, structured around themes such as erotic melancholia, aestheticised death and erotic faith.

Deep anxieties about sexual transgression, the place of women and the temptation of forbidden fruit are revealed through vivid biographical anecdotes concerning sexual prowess and kinkiness. Here Walter, the pseudonymous diarist of My Secret Life, stands "under streams of urine in raptures", and Burton demonstrates his power over his wife by hypnotising her. Rossetti exhumes his wife's body to retrieve a manuscript and cruises for the beautiful prostitutes he calls "stunners".

If Burton and Rossetti were known for sexual showboating, Swinburne was a handful all on his own. Not only did he identify with lesbians, he fervently desired, upon his death, to go to "Lesbian Hades". When he wasn't attempting suicide, he was subjecting himself to the whip during his infamous flagellation parties. A devotee of erotic discipline, he revelled in the dominance and submission inherent in what came to be known on the Continent as le vice anglais. Inverting power relationships in his work and in his life and sexualising punishment, the uberswishy author frequented "fladge" brothels, where he was birched by prostitutes dressed as governesses and abbesses.

As you may sense, Lutz's style is so elaborately narrative that it may be what I like to think of as "fictionish". Many passages appear with no indication that they are (at least partially) invented. Consider, for example, this description: "Rossetti, with his grave, dark, Italian eyes, unruly hair hanging down past his collar, plum-colored frock coat with books stuffed in its capacious pockets, and lounging ways, found it easy to draw others to him." And then there are the gentlemen who "prowled the night streets of London for young grenadiers to bend them over in a public toilet". Unfortunately, these descriptions appear sans citation.

Some of the racier passages are admittedly imagined: "it's possible (Swinburne) had the luck of a little play with Burton and the birch...the scene does spring to life in the imagination". Or take the day we find Simeon Solomon slumming: "Perhaps Solomon wanted (given his absorption in flagellation) to be roughed up a bit...and penetrated - possessed - while others watched. He could thus shed the accessories of self for a moment, become an object to be used, wanted only for his meat." Really?

While such accounts smack of truthiness, they are indisputably fun. Full of "nasty backsides" and "the smell of heated quims", many of these anecdotes are hilarious.

Amusing though it may be, Lutz's study is an intellectual tease. Practically ignored are key works by Steven Marcus, Peter Gay, Michael Mason and Ellen Rosenman, who all discredited the myth of Victorian sexual prudishness. Foucault and Freud are mentioned only in passing. Never considered are Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, George Haggerty or Judith Butler. And theoretical analysis of gender relations, sexual role-playing and performativity? Not happening!

Even so, Lutz provides a compelling exploration of the centrality of sexuality in defining identity and of the importance of Victorian art in shaping the social norms that would lead to our more sexually progressive society. Her work may help to pave the way for more historical approaches informed by gender, gay and queer studies.

Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism

By Deborah Lutz

W. W. Norton & Company

320pp, £19.99

ISBN 9780393068320

Published 10 March 2011

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