Yesterday's dismaying encounter with Roy Hattersley (or, to be more precise, with pixels generated by Roy Hattersley) reminded me of yet another popular misconception about the Victorians: that their literature is remarkably...pure. By "pure," of course, I mean sexless. Which is why scriptwriters like Andrew Davies* insist on livening up their miniseries with heaving flesh. Although I've pointed out on more than one occasion that the sexlessness of Victorian literature is, to say the least, exaggerated, and have even supplied some examples of Victorian literature being...non-sexless...I thought it might be time to offer a more thorough guide. And so, here we have "Clues that Victorian Characters Are Having Sex, Might Be Thinking About Sex, or Have Had Sex."
1. Items of female apparel appear in unexpected and/or untoward places.
Arthur lay still for some minutes after Adam was gone, but presently he rose feebly from the ottoman and peered about slowly in the broken moonlight, seeking something. It was a short bit of wax candle that stood amongst a confusion of writing and drawing materials. There was more searching for the means of lighting the candle, and when that was done, he went cautiously round the room as if wishing to assure himself of the presence or absence of something. At last he found a slight thing, which he put first in his pocket, and then, on a second thought, took it out again and thrust deep down into a waste-paper basket. It was a woman's little pink silk handkerchief. He set the candle on the table and threw himself down on the ottoman again, exhausted with the effort. (Adam Bede, ch. 28)
2. Beds are mentioned (apparently out of nowhere) in the context of romantic/marital issues.
She looked at the little white bed, which had been hers a few days before, and thought she would like to sleep in it that night, and wake, as formerly, with her mother smiling over her in the morning: Then she thought with terror of the great funereal damask pavilion in the vast and dingy state bedroom, which was awaiting her at the grand hotel in Cavendish Square. Dear little white bed! how many a long night had she wept on its pillow! How she had despaired and hoped to die there; and now were not all her wishes accomplished, and the lover of whom she had despaired her own for ever? (Vanity Fair, ch. 26)
3. Did somebody mention marital issues?
"...Unmarried to him, this would never grieve me; but can I let him complete his calculations--coolly put into practice his plans--go through the wedding ceremony? Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent?" (Jane Eyre, ch. 34)
4. Indulgence in mysterious pleasures brings on illness, hysteria, and/or sudden death:
No wonder: Hetty had thrown off her bonnet, and her curls had fallen down: her face was all the more touching in its youth and beauty because of its weary look; and the good woman's eyes presently wandered to her figure, which in her hurried dressing on her journey she had taken no pains to conceal; moreover, the stranger's eye detects what the familiar unsuspecting eye leaves unnoticed. (Adam Bede, ch. 36)
He was a youth, apparently not more than sixteen years of age, although taller than boys usually are at that period of life. But the tenderness of his years was divined by the extreme effeminacy and juvenile loveliness of his countenance, which was as fair and delicate as that of a young girl. His long luxuriant hair, of a beautiful light chestnut colour, and here and there borrowing dark shades from the frequent undulations in which it rolled, flowed not only over the collar of his closely-buttoned blue frock coat, but also upon his shoulders. Its extreme profusion, and the singular manner in which he wore it, were, however, partially concealed by the breadth of the brim of his hat, that was placed as it were entirely upon the back of his head, and, being thus thrown off his countenance, revealed the high, intelligent, and polished forehead above which that rich hair was carefully parted.
His frock-coat, which was single-breasted, and buttoned up to the throat, set off his symmetrical and elegant figure to the greatest advantage. His shoulders were broad, but were characterised by that fine fall or slope which is so much admired in the opposite sex. He wore spurs upon the heels of his diminutive polished boots; and in his hand he carried a light riding-whip. But he was upon foot and alone; and, when the first flash of lightning dazzled his expressive hazel eyes, he was hastily traversing the foul and filthy arena of Smithfield -market.
An imagination poetically inspired would suppose a similitude of a beautiful flower upon a fetid manure heap.
He cast a glance, which may almost be termed one of affright, around ; and his cheek became flushed. He had evidently lost his way, and was uncertain where to obtain an asylum against the coming storm.
The thunder burst above his head; and a momentary shudder passed over his frame. He accosted a man to inquire his way; but the answer he received was rude, and associated with a ribald joke. (The Mysteries of London, ch. 1)
7. Characters head off to bed in a state of pleasant (or, here, unpleasant) sexual tension; physical contact (implied and explicit) ensues:
8. Seductive words + "swooning" = something is going on:
They lay together in the warm valleys, listening to the tinkling of the sheep-bell, and one evening, putting his pipe aside, William threw his arm round her, whispering that she was his wife. The words were delicious in her fainting ears, and her will died in what seemed like irresistible destiny. She could not struggle with him, though she knew that her fate depended upon her resistance, and swooning away she awakened in pain, powerless to free herself.... (Esther Waters, ch. 11)
9. If it sounds like postcoital bliss, then it probably is:
10. If the characters seem to be having sex, then it is highly likely that they are, indeed, having sex, and not putting on a sumo wrestling exhibition:
He that had held her by the hair,
With kissing lips blinding her eyes,
Felt her bright bosom, strained and bare,
Sigh under him, with short mad cries
Out of her throat and sobbing mouth
And body broken up with love,
With sweet hot tears his lips were loth
Her own should taste the savour of,
Yea, he inside whose grasp all night
Her fervent body leapt or lay,
Stained with sharp kisses red and white,
Found her a plague to spurn away. ("The Leper")
*--There's going to be a film version of Middlemarch? I feel concerned.