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Sexuality In Victorian England Essay

The Victorian era is considered by many to be a period of intense sexual repression, as expressed in Sexualities in Victorian Britain: ‘the Victorians were notorious as the great enemies of sexuality; indeed, in Freud’s representative account, sexuality sometimes seems to be whatever it was that the middle-class Victorian mind attempted to hide, evade, repress, deny’ (Miller and Adams, 1996).

Modern critics such as Michal Foucault have recognised that Victorian prudery is no more than a ‘repressive hypothesis’ (Foucault, 1978) due to the ‘institutional incitement [in Victorian England] to speak about [sex], and to do o more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail’ (Foucault, 1978) which allowed the Victorians to discuss sexuality as something to be ‘inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum,’ thus implying that sexuality to the Victorians was ‘a thing one administered’, rather than a taboo subject(Foucault, 1978).

However, Steven Marcus’ The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid- Nineteenth-Century England (1966) illustrates the sexual hypocrisy of Victorian society, which maintained a veneer of respectable society over an underbelly of prostitution and pornography, which could account for the prevalent notion of sexually repressed Victorians, which is perpetuated by the anti- Victorian modernist writers such as Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Due to the inherently didactic nature of Victorian literature, the motif of the sexually repressed male pervades many of the great literary works produced during this era, even if it was not necessarily representative of Victorian actuality.

This essay aims to explore the manner in which the sexually repressed Victorian male manifests through the application of literary theory to Mr Rochester of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Doctor Jekyll of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Basil Hallward, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) is a Bildungsroman novel which depicts the emotions and experiences of its eponymous heroine as she grows to adulthood and falls in love with the Byronic master of Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester. The sexual repression of Mr Rochester anifests in the novel in two ways: metaphorically, in the form of Bertha Mason, and linguistically, through the self-censorship of his speech.

The linguistic repression is evident in the language Mr Rochester utilised whilst addressing Jane; dressed in naught but a thin nightgown, she saved Mr Rochester in a fire. When she attempts to exit his bedroom due to the impropriety of the situation he cries What, are you quitting me already, and in that way? ‘ (Bronte, Weisser and Stade, 2004, p. 210), before he’s described as [he] paused; gazed at Jane: words almost visible rembled on his lips but his voice was checked’ (Bronte, Weisser and Stade, 2004 p. 210). The vehement nature of his speech implies that Mr Rochester desires that Jane remains at his bedside, but that the impropriety of the situation prevents him from articulating this request, and acts as the incipient indication of Mr Rochester’s attraction to Jane for the reader.

This is furthered by his exclamation of ‘What, you will go? ‘ (Bronte, Weisser and Stade, 2004, p. 210), which ostents that his desire for Jane to remain seems to outweigh his concerns about having an unmarried woman remain in his bedroom lone at night. This is also exemplified when he bids Jane goodnight later in the novel. He says, ‘Goodnight, my -‘ (Bronte, Weisser and Stade, 2004, p. 252), when he stops and bites his lip. Mr Rochester denies the completion of his sobriquet, which makes it seem accidental; like his feelings for Jane, which continue to be ambiguous at this point in the novel, Mr Rochester represses the urge to claim Jane romantically despite his use of a possessive noun.

This simultaneously belies his internal struggle to remain proper whilst also building the sexual chemistry between himself and Jane, and increasing the ension between them. The second manner in which Bronte depicts Mr Rochester as sexually repressed is through the actions and appearances of his wife, Bertha Mason. Bertha is one of Mr Rochester’s various lovers from his youth, who he deigned to marry before her descent into madness; she can therefore be viewed as the personification of his voracious sexuality prior to his moral upheaval which allowed him to become a respectable gentleman. Because of this, Bertha reviles him, although he allows her to remain under his roof.

Bertha’s first appearance in the novel is in the scene where Jane aves Mr. Rochester from the fire; Bertha is a pyromaniac, and attempted to set fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed during the night, although Jane is unaware of her existence at this point. Previous to this, Mr. Rochester bids Jane to ‘Come to the fire’ (Bronte, Weisser and Stade, 2004, p. 167), which simultaneously means that he bid her to come closer to him. Like Mr Rochester, the fire is pleasant unless one allows oneself to get too close, in which case one is in danger of being burned, although the lexeme ‘burning’ itself is synonymous of both desire and danger. There s therefore significance in that ‘the very sheets were the kindling’ (Bronte, Weisser and Stade, 2004, p. 206).

Jane discovering Mr. Rochester’s bed on fire, and being the only person in the house capable of saving him serves as the spark which begins the transformation of their relationship from one of governess and employer to one of desire and sexuality; Bertha’s actions, therefore act as a catalyst of the sexual repression exhibited by Mr. Rochester That Bertha’s existence is revealed moments before Jane and Mr. Rochester’s wedding is also of note. Mr Rochester’s desire for Jane has such a hold on im that he is willing to marry Jane, an innocent whose soul is without taint in the eyes of the Church, unlawfully; he conceals his wife, and has no intention of revealing her until it is too late for Jane to realise that she is his mistress, rather than his lawfully wedded wife.

The climatic reveal of Mr Rochester’s past coincides with the peak of his repressed desire for Jane, which he has allowed to overrule his morality. The emergence of the madwoman in the house also betrays the sexual madman which Mr Rochester attempts to conceal beneath his gentlemanly demeanour. Robert Louis Stephenson’s 1886 ovella The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde pertains to the struggle between Doctor Jekyll’s public, moralistic persona, and his inherent sexual and violent urges which manifest through Mr Hyde, Doctor Jekyll’s alter ego.

Although Jekyll ostents in the novel that ‘man is not one, but truly two’ (Stevenson, 1990, p. 9), his potion simply allows him a medium through which he can act on his illicit sexual desires; Hyde is a transformation of the body which releases Jekyll of the exacting moral standards of his professional community by making him unrecognisable, and thus able to act upon his esires without guilt, or fear of repercussion. He is committed to a ‘profound duplicity of life’ (Stevenson, 1990, p. 78) accompanied by ‘an almost morbid sense of shame’ (Stevenson, 1990, p. 78). The duplicity of Doctor Jekyll’s life emulates that of the repressed homosexual in Victorian Britain, and thus may be viewed as an allegory for homosexuality, a primary concern during the fin-de-siecle period.

As previously stated, Miller and Adams defined Victorian sexuality as ‘whatever it was that the middle-class Victorian mind attempted to hide, evade, repress, eny’ (Miller and Adams, 1996), which meant that homosexuals during this era had a double secrecy to adhere to as he had to conceal and repress both his carnal desires in addition to his homosexuality, which was condemned at the time. The dual nature of Jekyll, when read as belying his latent homosexuality, can be explained utilising Freudian theory; Jekyll’s public persona is masculine, as society dictates that is should be, whereas Hyde becomes the Freudian ersatz (substitute) homosexual component, or the repressed inner self/feminine counterpart.

This reading is furthered by the physical escription of Hyde; in Janice Doane and Devon Doges Demonic Disturbances of Sexual Identity: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr/s Hyde, ostents that many of Hyde’s traits are ‘congruent with cultural descriptions of femininity’ (Doane and Hodges, 1989) in that he is ‘small in stature, has a quick light step with a swing, and weeps like a woman’ (Doane and Hodges, 1989) with a ‘husky, whispering, and somewhat broken voice’. He also acting with a ‘mixture of timidity and boldness’ (Doane and Hodges, 1989), therefore it can be said that Hyde has a feminine weakness in accordance with homosexuality. Therefore, one may claim that Hyde is the unrepressed homosexual side of Jekyll, whose violence is born of his extensive repression.

Another example of the repressed homosexual male is Basil Hallward, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic novel pertains to a Faustian contract which allows the titular character to lead a decadent, immoral lifestyle by causing the portrait’s image to change rather than Dorian’s, thus becoming an embodiment of his soul. Basil Hallward, the reclusive artist who painted Dorian’s portrait, is the character wherein the sexual subtext is most revalent due to his obsessive idolisation of Dorian. This is evident from the incipient passages of the book, due to his reluctance to reveal Dorian’s name to Lord Henry for fear that he would spoil him.

Additionally, there are a myriad of passages throughout the novel which hint at an infatuation rather than a simple artistic admiration; Basil professes that he ‘couldn’t be happier if [he] didn’t see him every day’ (Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007), that Dorian is ‘absolutely necessary to [him] (Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007),, and that Dorian ‘is much more to [him] than a odel or a sitter(Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007),. These quotes show the intensity of Basil’s affection for Dorian, which seems to extend beyond the realm of friendship. Additionally, Basil is depicted as becoming increasingly jealous throughout the novel, which is most prominent once the engagement of Dorian and Sybil is announced. Basil is described as being ‘silent and preoccupied'(Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007), with ‘a gloom over him'(Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007),, and Basils feelings are revealed by the following passage ‘a strange sense of loss came over him.

He felt that Dorian Gray would never again be to him all that he had been in the past'(Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007),. This is Basil’s recognition that any claim he had to Dorian has been nullified by his upcoming nuptials. Furthermore, Basil’s death is subsequent of refusal to ‘believe anything against you [Dorians’ (Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007),; Basil’s naive inability to consider the notion of Dorian becoming corrupted without undergoing intense distress is an ostentation of his idolisation of Dorian; he cares not that he missed the train which would allowed him to return home as visiting Dorian allowed him to satiate his worry. Basil’s infatuation with Dorian is also betrayed by his attachment to his portrait.

Despite Lord Henry’s encouragement to exhibit the artwork, Basil refuses as he fears that he has ‘put too much of [himself] in the thing’ (Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007), He even considers exhibition to be ‘bar[ing] [his] soul to their shallow, prying eyes'(Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007),; this may be read as Basil fearing that his homoerotic admiration of Dorian is too prevalent in his work, and therefore to exhibit the portrait would be to out himself as a homosexual, or at least rouse suspicion in others. Basil’s intense love and admiration for Dorian has translated into hard work which allowed him to sincerely replicate Dorian’s beauty, which has caused him to become paranoid that the portrait betrays his feelings. A homosexual subtext is also prevalent in the description of Basil Hallward’s art studio. The rich odour of roses’, the ‘heavy scent of lilac’ and the ‘delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn’ (Wilde and Elfenbein, 2007), are descriptions attributed to the aroma surrounding Basil’s art studio.

Each of the flowers whose odour overwhelms the senses has romantic connotations: roses are associated with expressions of romance; lilacs are identified with emotions of one’s first love; and pink flowering thorns are symbolic of admiration. As Basil and Henry’s first conversation pertaining to Dorian takes place whilst they are in Basil’s art studio and admiring the garden, one may insinuate that they offer a homoerotic subtext as they reflect Basil’s feelings for Dorian. In summation, the motif of the sexually repressed male was a prevalent motif during the Victorian era which pervaded literature due to the oppressive nature of Victorian society.

However, the manner in which this repression is manifested in a literary context varies significantly. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester’s repressed sexuality is personified by Bertha Mason, his hidden wife whose emergence coincides with the moment when Mr Rochester has the least control over his repressed sexuality; in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Doctor Jekyll’s latent homosexuality manifests through his transformation into Mr Hyde, whose stature is effeminate and unrecognisable as being Jekyll; and in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward’s homoerotic fascination with Dorian pervades his art, his moods, and even his garden.

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