The Young and the Corseted

When we think of love in the age of Victoria, we think of repressed passions, proper formal marriages of convenience, with the occasional extreme decadence in the shadows. However, very few of us have any practical knowledge of what romance was really like in the period. Was it so very different then such things today?

Recently a trove of books in the Cambridge University library has been properly sorted and studied that may provide us with a better view of such fascinating matters. It seems, despite legends that they were filled with Victorian pornography, they were all books of advice for the smitten..not in the bedroom, but the parlor. They did not give advice on how to get your young lady into a compromising position, but into the matrimony chapel…and therefore gives us yet another insight into Victorian life.

The following is reposted from The Guardian

The secret love lives of the Victorians

by Kathryn Hughes

Protective parents, strict etiquette, an obsession with modesty: it wasn’t easy being a lover in Victorian times. No wonder there was a boom in self-help books such as Flirting Made Easy and Hints on Matrimony by a Practical Man.

For decades the Cambridge University Library Tower has been a source of excited mythmaking among undergraduates. No one quite knew what books were stored there, but that didn’t stop them speculating. And by far the most common rumour doing the fevered rounds was that the tower was chock-full of Victorian porn, so filthy that the powers-that-be had decreed that no one would ever be allowed to set eyes on it. For, if they did, everyone involved would be struck blind. Or turned to stone. Or, worse still, have their reader’s pass rescinded.

The truth turns out to be both gentler and more complex. Boosted by a $1m (£510,000) donation from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, librarians in the tower have been sorting through the putative porn and discovered something else entirely. Instead of unnameable desire, many of the 200,000 texts display a babbling eagerness to speak of romantic love in all its perplexing yet essentially social aspects. Books with titles such as The New Letter Writer for Lovers, Hints on Matrimony by a Practical Man, and Flirting Made Easy situate themselves in the drawing room rather than the boudoir and aim to guide young Victorians towards the altar rather than the brothel.

In doing so, many of these guides display that kind of dogged thoroughness with which the Victorians are popularly associated. The New Letter Writer for Lovers, for instance, provides scores of templates suited to every possible situation that a courting couple might encounter. Imagine, for example, that you are a chap who has met a lady just once but has decided, nonetheless, that she is the one for you. Here is how you should compose your request for more face-to-face time:

I scarcely can find courage to address you, and particularly as I cannot fl atter myself that you have noticed me in any way. But, at the risk of incurring your displeasure, I feel compelled to express, with all deference, the anxiety I feel to become better acquainted with you, and to confess that you have inspired feelings warmer than those a mere acquaintance might warrant.

Now imagine yourself as the unfortunate young woman on the receiving end of this serpentine missive from someone whose face you can barely place. Rather than making being-sick noises and resolving to avoid the creep in future, the New Letter Writer for Lovers suggests that you whip out the Basildon Bond and confront the situation head-on:

Miss — presents her compliments to Mr — and while she is unwilling to consider his letter an insult, she trusts that in future should she meet Mr _ he will see the necessity for abstaining from addressing her under any circumstances whatever.

Just say, though, that this interaction turns another way, and that you decide to give the poor sap some encouragement. The New Letter Writer will walk with you every step of the way. There are templates for young men writing to ask their sweetheart’s father for her hand in marriage. There are models for enraged fathers to use dismissively in reply. Mothers writing for the first time to their daughter’s fiance are provided with a few wellchosen sentences. Young women who have not heard from their fiance for an insultingly long fortnight are furnished with a dignified but curt ultimatum to present to the laggard. Finally, the young man who feels put out that his girl has been flirting with others is given permission, and the appropriate language, to sort the situation out once and for all. Truly, all human life, and love, is here.

Other books in the tower initially seem to conform more closely to the wistful belief that the Victorians were a filthy crew, who covered up the piano legs by day while leafing through erotica by night. The Lover’s Guide to Courtship and Marriage, for instance, is described as “illustrated” and promisingly subtitled a “Graphic Description of Love, Courting, Marriage”. In fact, the only illustrations consist of serious young men and women meeting chastely under trees or in the street. There is even a pretty drawing of a perfect country cottage, to show the kind of thing that the readers should be aiming for. The text, far from being a kind of Kama Sutra in crinolines, consists mainly of auntyish advice on what to do if you are not very pretty (answer: rest assured that, with a bit of effort, you can still be “the most fascinating” girl in the room.) Young women, meanwhile, are counselled against making the first move: “Do not, on any account, attempt to throw yourself in the way of gentlemen: your ends will never be gained that way, depend upon it.”

Other self-appointed relationship experts adopt a more oblique approach. Hints on Matrimony by a Practical Man (1882) displays the kind of wilful obfuscation that seems the opposite of practical. Each page of the waxy little text is studded with mottoes intended to act as a guide for anyone entering the romantic lists. But quite what “Many go out for wool, and come home short” or “Nothing comes out of the sack but what was in it” actually means, let alone how it could possibly be applied, remains baffling.

The surge in publication of these courtship manuals is testimony to the wider social and economic changes in play during the last third of Victoria’s reign. With the old middle class now vastly swollen by those who made their money from business or from one of the newer professions such as engineering, there was a keen appetite for learning how to bring one’s social behaviour into line with established norms. Now that you no longer married the boy next door, or even from the next village, a new set of procedures was necessary to regulate all those beating hearts and racing hormones. With the old ways of managing these things, based on custom and a life-long acquaintance with all the people involved, now crumbling, it made sense to turn to a new kind of authority, a textual one, to tell you how to do what used to come naturally.

This, then, is the tame truth about how most Victorians ran their romantic and sexual lives. They wanted desperately to do things right, yet at the same time were sensible enough to realise that there was no magic formula to ensure a happy ending. Manuals such as A Golden Guide to Matrimony offer the kind of eminently sensible advice that would not be out of place today. Again and again readers are urged not to expect too much, to moderate their expectations of the relationship, to continue “courting” right through marriage and, most poignantly, to be prepared to be disappointed in one another on an almost daily basis.

So why did generations of Cambridge students assume that the phrase “unread Victorian books” automatically translates as “pure porn”? Presumably, they were only reflecting the widely held attitude that just below the surface of Victorian respectability lay a teeming cesspit of perverted desire and practices. In this popular reading of Victorian sexuality the emblematic figure is the bourgeois burgher who by day runs his public and domestic life like clockwork while spending the night in a chaotic debauch. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in fact.

This perception owes much to the revisionist scholarship of the 1960s and 70s . In 1964, Steven Marcus published his hugely influential The Other Victorians, in which he introduced scholarly readers to hitherto obscure texts such as My Secret Life by “Walter”, which is essentially a large loop of pornographic adventuring by a young man through the sex haunts of 1870s London. In addition to recovering previously unknown pornographic works, Marcus proved skilled at finding sexual subtexts in otherwise respectable Victorian publications. He was one of the first people to bring to public view the scandal surrounding the Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine, in which a previously buttoned-up women’s magazine started including flagellatory erotica disguised as readers’ letters.

Marcus’s model for understanding what was happening in Victorian Britain was loosely Freudian, in the sense that he took it for granted that we all have an unconscious (the id) which is imperfectly policed by our social, moral self (the ego). The more the ego tries to consign unmanageable and unacceptable ideas to the unconscious, the more likely they are to burst through. Hence the popularly held idea of the Victorian gentleman making vanilla, Bible-based love to his wife before sneaking off to luxuriate in a secret stash of porn. From here it is a short hop to misconceiving of the tower (surely a neat symbol for an erect penis) at Cambridge University Library as a filthy lock-up for the kinds of books that have no place in a hallowed academic institution.

Since the 70s, however, other scholars, including Marcus himself, have added textures and tones to that initial model of Victorian society as being in the grip of a collective repression. Work by Peter Gay – another academic whose work leans on Freud – has revealed bourgeois Victorians as altogether less hindered in their romantic dealings with one another than was initially suspected. Capable of being tender and unguarded, as well as worried and wound tight, they muddled through the maze of desire and protocol, hoping not to look too foolish in the process. In other words, they aimed for the romantic best but prepared for the worst. And, to help them on their way, they were not too proud to buy a book to tell them what to do.

Never marry a rotter

Advice from Victorian relationship experts

“A love-letter never loses by being couched in grammatical terms, and with due regard to style and diction.”

“Courtship, as it is generally conducted, is a game of ‘blind man’s buff’, only both parties are blinded.”

“Every wife must avoid all thoughts of what is too often called ‘managing him’.”

“Never part with him in the morning with an unkind word. He may never return alive; he may be brought home a corpse.”

“Never consent to marry a bad man in the hope of reforming him.”

“Never marry anyone in whom you have ever seen anything to which you naturally object – such as ill temper, ugliness, or the slightest vulgarity – which you may in the first days of happiness tolerate, but which will inevitably become more observed as time goes on, and will be calculated to fan the flame of disagreement.”

“It should be the young man’s duty to make the first overtures towards a closer relationship than that of mere friendship. Young women cannot be too reserved in this respect.”

“If there should be the slightest suspicion on either side that the love of the other is of a sordid kind, it should be tested to the utmost. A man or a woman who marries for money or beauty is like an ignorant person who buys a painting for the sake of the gilded frame.”

“The best adornments of a modest female are not expensive dresses and cheap jewellery, but chastity, devotion, simplicity, neatness and elegance.”

“What is a companion? A congenial spirit, one possessed of an interior constitution of soul similar to our own, or similar age, opinions, tastes, habits, models of thought, and feeling.”

“The moral and physical dangers of marriage before the age of 21 are so great that all who enter upon it before that time run vital risks.”

“Remember, you must not expect to begin where your father and mother are leaving off. They had to be satisfied, when they started, with a moderate amount of furniture, and perhaps even a scanty supply of what some people would imagine ought to be had in abundance.”

“Beware of the Last Word.”



  1. “Beware of the Last Word.”

    So very true–because if one is trying to gain the Last Word, it very well might be.

    Laying aside the prurient angles–which were there, but which were, as you pointed out, very rarely spoken of in print–I do believe discoveries like this are what draws us back to Victorian mores. Robert Heinlein said in Friday that one of the two large indicators of any civilization’s collapse is the lack of civility. When we as a group stop behaving courteously to each other…we are on the downhill slide as a culture.

    I see this daily in America. Basic politeness, simple courtesy, they’ve gone the way of the coelocanth–seen so extravagantly rarely that they almost bring us up short, and unable to respond; we’re very nearly shocked when addressed so. And it’s a tragedy. The culture that forgets to treat itself with care, will not treat any other culture with even a modicum of grace.

    As, sadly, we’ve seen of late, in many damaging ways.

  2. ““The best adornments of a modest female are not expensive dresses and cheap jewellery, but chastity, devotion, simplicity, neatness and elegance.””


    The little woman does not have to be
    A raving beauty; she can win your love,
    Without the help of any gods, without
    The darts of Cupids or of Venuses,
    Simply by being decent, neat and clean,
    A pleasant person to be living with.
    That’s about all it takes, and love depends
    On habit quite as much as the wild ways
    Of passion. Gently does it, as the rain
    in time wears through the hardest stone.

    — Lucretius, End of Book IV

    lovely article, and sentiments well spoken here, quite an Epicurean one ;)

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