Saturday, May 8, 2010

MC Halliday: Women and Sex in the Victorian Era




Queen Victoria defined the role of women in the 19th century by proclaiming their place was at hearth and home. She cared not that there were many classes in British society that could not, or would not, fulfill her desire, from the workhouse poor to the privileged aristocracy. Her belief was that women should tend the home and obey their husband, seeing to his needs and wishes. Sex was something to be endured as the well known saying goes, “Lie back and think of England.” Even though marital relations were not to be enjoyed by women, childbearing was considered a patriotic obligation.


In this stern society, in the upper class there continued the subterfuge of engaging in relations with other married persons (in the event of conception). The single exception to this was sexual relations with a woman chosen without pretense for a man’s bed: the courtesan. She was known in society circles and unquestionably accepted, particularly if she was favored by a prince or duke.


At this point, it would be failing Victorian women of the lower classes, particularly domestics, not to mention the men of most wealthy households believed servants could be taken at their pleasure. Sometimes, the girls and young women were willing, as the association might bring favor from their employer. But too often, the desire of the men resulted in rape. No recourse could be taken; these females were considered property, as were wives in any class of Victorian society.  (None of this should be surprising, as it has only been in the last few decades that women were recognized as having ownership of their own bodies, and married or not, could deny a man sexual relations.)


In the Victorian era, aristocratic women were to be virgins upon marriage and only engage in relations with their husband until the first born son arrived, to ensure the family blood line. Then the wife was allowed to discretely take lovers, as the husband had done since before marriage. Typically this arrangement was accepted by both parties as marriage was a means of ensuring ‘blue blood’ and increasing the husband’s coffers. There was very rarely romantic love in upper class wedlock, unless it was a lucky happenstance.

The hypocrisy of the Queen’s directive for women is that she enjoyed sexual relations with her beloved consort, Prince Albert and paid no attention to hearth and home. It can be argued, she was queen and therefore had many demands upon her. In truth, she was a figurehead and the government of Britain made the decisions concerning the British Empire. She would meet with the Prime Minister of the day, be informed of the politics and add her opinion. Victoria was incensed that her husband and consort, Albert, was refused by government the title of King. In addition, the Queen made no attempt to know her subjects nor did she make public appearances after the death of her husband. She ignored her children and blamed her oldest son, the future king, for causing the early demise of her beloved Albert.


In my book, I Came Up Stairs: A Victorian Courtesan’s Memoirs 1867~1871, I reveal a woman making her way in the world, the best she knew with the constrictions of women in that time. Taking to the stage was one means of creating an occupation that paid decently, for a woman could not wed above her station in those years or seek education. The advantageous position of courtesan came to a woman; she was selected by a member of the peerage or royalty, and the stage provided the opportunity to been seen and propositioned.  

When I wrote the central character, Mae, it was her lack of a proper upbringing that created her naivety and so ensured her willingness to believe whatever she was told. To her, life was about sexual relations because she was instructed so by her mentor. Men continued to expect sex from her and Mae sought intimacy with both men and women. Because she was naive, she associated sex with love/affection and believed professions of love when actions from a loved one proved otherwise. She also did not consider sex with her maids and gardeners an abuse by authority; she engaged with them as willing participants and did not force their sexual engagements. She sought pleasure but not at the expense of respect for her servants. This is revealed in her considered acceptance of a negative response from her butler in her overture to him.

I did not write Mae as a woman of low morals (indicated by her trust established for the poor and her plea made to a prince to provide public education), simply a woman who enjoyed her life without restraint...which is a marvelous notion. But in reality, there is always a price to pay on the path to self-awareness, as Mae illustrates in her memoirs. “It was this period of weakness and self-doubt that I believe set the stage for what occurred in the coming weeks and months. It was my need for assurance and comfort that caused me to crave love so desperately.” And that sums up her written reflections of the truth of her past.

Review (in part) at national examiner.com: MC Halliday will pull you in from the first page and hold you hostage. Even if you’ve found sexual stories distasteful, this one, written as a memoir, allows you to peek into someone’s diary and you won’t want to miss a page.  This book comes with a highest recommendation and an expression of surprise that a big-name publisher hasn’t snapped up this awesome author.” Ginger Simpson - Examiner.com


Review in part from Erotic Readers and Writers Association: "This big, juicy historical novel resembles the underground fiction of the time. It is the first-person story of a woman who was born into such squalor that she had nowhere to go but up. The author begins by quoting a passage from a play which explains the novel's title: 'I came up stairs into the world, for I was born in a cellar.' - Love for Love by William Congreve (1670-1729)...For lovers of literary erotica and historical fiction, this book is a treat." Jean Roberta - Erotica Readers.com


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11 comments:

Diane Scott Lewis said...

Interesting post on Victorian society. Some say Albert may have been the one that put all those restrictions into the Queen's head, thus into society.
Your book sounds fascinating, MC.

Lorrie said...

What is that old saying? "We've come a long way, baby."

And thank goodness.

Great post, M.C.

Lin said...

Well not that long. Back in the early 80's it was still okay for men to abuse their wives and children. I definitely would not want to have lived back in Victorian England. Not only was she hypocritical about sex with hubby, but she had a very scandalous affair with her horseman after Albert's death.

Jannine said...

Hi M.C.
Your post is perfect timing as I'm about to delve into Victorian research.

I still haven't bought your book, but I do intend to. It sounds fascinating.

Much luck with sales!

Craig Gehring said...

I just watched "The Young Victoria". It's great getting a behind the curtains look at that time period. Amazing how far women rights have progressed in such a short span of time. Thank you for the article.

-Craig Gehring

Heather Haven said...

I remember reading that acting was one of the few ways for lowly born women to move around in that society, even thought they would probably be destined to become someone's mistress. At least as an actress, they had some choice in the man! Sounds like a great read, M.C.

Sloane Taylor said...

Excellent post, MC. I had no idea Victoria was such a two-faced queen.

I Came Up Stairs: A Victorian Courtesan’s Memoirs 1867~1871 is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

Terri said...

I remember when studying Dickens, that at one time in Victorian London, one in four women were prostitutes. Sort of points out the hypocrisy (and mythology) of Victorian prurience.

Katie Hines said...

I didn't think you could say "Victorian" and "sex" in the same sentence! I didn't realize that after the first heir was born that women were also able to have extramarital relationships. Interesting article.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi M.C.
Wonderful informative blog. Sounds like you have done a lot of research.
Regards

Margaret

MC Halliday said...

I would to thank everyone for their comments and extend my gratitude to Ginger for my guest post this weekend.

If it were not for my swollen face that limited my vision to the corner of my left eyes, I would have responded to every one yesterday. Today, both eyes are partially open and I can see what is directly in front me...the screen.

Diane, I am not at all certain that Albert instilled the 'home and hearth' notion in the Queen. I believe she wanted more patriotic subjects to increase the population of her Empire.

Lorrie, we have come a long way over the last 20 years.

Lin, it has actually not been proven that she had a physical relationship with Mr Brown but it is evident, she enjoyed his company and appreciated his Scottish no nonsense attitude.

Janine, thank you on both counts!!

Craig, I source 5 references for each 'fact' when researching. I never watch a film; as you know they are never reliable for accuracy.

Heather, much different than the theatre with actors, my heroine is an act on the entertainment stage, similar in many ways to the American vaudeville shows, except the performers in a London music hall did not travel to bookings.
And thank you!

Sloane, thank you for your recommendation!!! And I was going to title this article with a mention of the hypocrisy of HRH Victoria but once written, it seemed more about the women of the era.

Terri, perhaps half of the Queen's subjects could follow her decree. The other half did whatever they could to survive or simply ignored her ideology as didn't suit their aristocratic pleasures. It might interest you to know that I wrote Mae as greatly influenced by Dickens and set up a trust for the poor of Whitechapel.

Katie, it is surprising but a great deal of erotic literature was written in the Victorian era, and those buying it were the educated, wealthy upper class. And regarding married women engaging in affairs, not all husbands allowed it (there are always exceptions) unless the lover was a royal. Then he would consider the affair an honour.

Margaret, thank you! I have always been a huge history buff and adore research, documentaries and 19th/early 20th century literature. Some of my favourite authors are from that time.

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