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Victorian attitudes towards sex and matrimony were paradoxical. Discuss.
A lot is known about the rate at which men and women married and their tendencies to have children, inside and outside of marriage, which comes from official investigation from the period. However, it gives us little insight into the personal lives and attitudes towards sex and marriage. This can ignite two main arguments; sex and matrimony were contradictory as the fundamental purpose of marriage was to produce children, or that sexuality was vital in a Victorian marriage as a larger emphasis was placed on the idea of love throughout the period. The former argument states that the Victorian era was a time when sexuality was repressed and there were a set of strict rules which governed peoples personal lives, however by the end of the century this was less the case. Yet recent research, which aligns with the latter argument, states that this is a simplistic picture and there were complex Victorian attitudes towards sexuality and marriage. The place for Victorian women was by no means passive or subordinate. This can be seen as the stronger point; therefore, this essay will argue that attitudes towards sex and matrimony were not paradoxical. However, it is important to look at both sides of the argument.
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The Victorian Era was seen as time of high moral standards; therefore, it can be argued that sex and marriage were paradoxical as sexuality was forbidden to be expressed in public. Victorian culture had a sharp differentiation between men and women, with both having two very different roles. This created the male public sphere and the female private sphere, as the man was seen as sexually active whist the women was seen as passive. This in turn meant that it was seen as improper to show any form of sexuality in public as sexual restraint was encouraged (which can be seen as hypocritical as this essay will later argue). This prudish behaviour is highlighted by the popularity of Thomas Bowdler’s work The Shakespeare Family.
His work included the editing of Shakespearean plays to remove any material he believed was improper or offensive. Moreover, this emphasises how the Victorians had become ever more conservative, compared to their Elizabethan counterparts. It can therefore be said that Victorians saw sex and marriage as two very different things as they went to lengths to prevent sexual ideas or thoughts being expressed in public. The Victorian era was a time, when women in particular, followed a set of ridged rules which ruled the way they lived their lives. Women’s only role in society was to marry and to raise a family. Therefore, before marriage they would learn many skills such as cooking, cleaning and weaving, which would aid them in their married life. This also meant that many few women were allowed to have an education as that was seen as a part of the male sphere. As stated by Richard D. Altick, ‘the women was inferior to the man in every way’.
Nevertheless, in the same way women had an exception for the man (achieving a level of material success). This can show how sex was not a vital component of marriage and was therefore paradoxical. Many books written at the time also allude to how women were not sexual by nature and that sex was kept very quiet even in the marriage home. As women and mothers were seen as ideological characters whist sex was seen as the gravest of sin.
Nevertheless, this argument can be seen as very vague and not representative of all Victorian marriages. The one marriage in particular which shows how important love and sex was is that of Queen Victoria. Her relationship with her husband, Prince Albert, was seen as ‘marital bliss’. This can counter the idea that sex and marriage were paradoxical as there are examples, such as this, that show that sex was vital in a Victorian marriage. This can be seen as a stronger argument as it looks in depth at the lives and marriages of Victorians for different classes. The idea of sex and love became more important as the century progressed.
The strongest argument, therefore, is that marriage and sex were not seen as paradoxical to Victorians. This can firstly be seen by the way in which women were portrayed in novels. For example, female characters in Thomas Hardy novels were seen to be going against social norms and rules. Thomas Harvey states that Hardy’s portrayal of Sue shows the emergence of the New Women in Victorian society, who had previously been ‘denied autonomous existence’. Sue is not the traditional Victorian women who is focused on raising her children and following the orders of her husband. Instead, she is portrayed as being intelligent and empowered to express her sexuality. Nevertheless, she still faces the dilemma as despite not wanted to deny her sexuality she does not want to be reduced to a sexual object.
It can be argued however that this does show that attitudes towards sex and marriage were not paradoxical as the book was read by many. This means that the idea of the New Women and feminism were being read by large amounts of people and was popular. Alluding to the changing attitudes of sexuality as the century went on. Edward Carpenter was a key figure who revolutionized the way in which sex was perceived. He was a poet who was an advocate for free love and gay rights. This can show how, especially at the end of the twentieth century there were a lot of discussions regarding sex and marriage, meaning they were not two paradoxical concepts. Another reason as to why sex became more of an acceptable topic can be due to the changing role of women and of the position of the middle classes in Victorian Britain. This is as more women were going out for work and earning a wage. This can show how women’s role changed. It also has to argued that many of the sources we have do not allow us to measure the attitudes towards sex and marriage in Victorian Britain, especially in working class families. This therefore means that attitudes were not paradoxical as Victorians were known to have large families therefore sex was seen as a vital part of marriage. It can be said that sex was only seen as improper outside of the marriage bed.
However, it can be argued that even though many women worked they were still dependant of their husbands. This can show how women’s sexuality was also repressed as despite many working-class women having jobs in the textiles industry their wages would go to their husbands. This would prevent women from having freedom and confide them to the home, where they were expected to take care of and raise children. The Victorian women, whether single or married, was expected to be weak and helpless. The New Women despite being attractive, intelligent and lively were still seen as weak and likely to fall to the pressures of society, therefore, still being seen as inferior to men. These traits were expected of Victorian women who were educated and brought up to work towards marriage and having children. The New Women was also often torn between these different aspects as they did not want to be seen as sexually promiscuous but still have sexual freedom and the change to express it. Nevertheless, these women were against marriage and women being treated as someone else’s property. This can against show how there was a gradual change in attitudes throughout the century.
To conclude, it has to be argued that attitudes towards sex and marriage were by no means paradoxical, as both were hand in hand. It can be argued by many that the century was incredibly prude and a lot more conservative that previous centuries. This can be attributed to the nature of society were men and women were seen to follow a strict set of rules. In other words, sex was therefore looked down upon and rarely mentioned. It can therefore be said that both aspects were paradoxical as they were rarely spoken about in the same context and even within the marriage sex was seen as a taboo. Nevertheless, due to the number of children and the large families that many Victorians had it has to be argued that sex was the most vital part of the marriage. Therefore, the two cannot be seen as sperate entities. This can mean that overall, they were not paradoxical. As both have to be seen as intertwined and an integral part of marriage. This also alludes to the new idea that emerged throughout the century such as the notion of New Women and as more women went out to work.
- Susan Johnson, Women and Domestic Experience in Victorian Political Fiction, (London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001)
- Thomas Bowdler, The Family Shakespeare: In Which Nothing is Added to the Original Text, But Those Words and Expressions which cannot with Propriety be Read Aloud in a Family, (London: Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861)
- Richard D. Altick, ‘The Weaker Sex’, Victorian People and Ideas, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1973)
- Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England, (Chicago: Lyceum Books, 1989)
- Julia Baird, Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman who Ruled an Empire, (London: Hachette UK, 2016)
- Thomas Hardy, Jude The Obscure, ed. By Norman Page, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969)
- T. R. Wright, Hardy and the Erotic, (London: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1989)
- Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, (London: Verso, 2008)
- Emma Griffin, ‘Sex, illegitimacy and social change in industrialisation Britain’, Social History, (2013)
 Susan Johnson, Women and Domestic Experience in Victorian Political Fiction, (London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001), p. 104
 Thomas Bowdler, The Family Shakespeare: In Which Nothing is Added to the Original Text, But Those Words and Expressions which cannot with Propriety be Read Aloud in a Family, (London: Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861)
 Richard D. Altick, ‘The Weaker Sex’, Victorian People and Ideas, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1973), p. 54
 Julia Baird, Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman who Ruled an Empire, (London: Hachette UK, 2016), p. 146
 Thomas Hardy, Jude The Obscure, ed. By Norman Page, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 318
 T. R. Wright, Hardy and the Erotic, (London: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1989), p.125
 Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, (London: Verso, 2008)
 Emma Griffin, ‘Sex, illegitimacy and social change in industrialisation Britain’, Social History, (2013), 38:2, pp.139-161
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