Who Is Really a Sex Rebel?

Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

I haven’t had sex since starting Deborah Lutz’s book, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism. Now that I’ve finished, I’m still in recovery. It’s only fair, you say, to look for other causes, but, I’m sorry, the correlation is too strong. These interwoven tales of Victorian high jinks include some piquant stories: Dante Gabriel Rossetti digging up his poems from his wife’s grave, Algernon Swinburne scurrying off to be “birched” by prostitutes near Regent’s Park, Richard Burton (the explorer) trying to wake the British out of their sexless sleep. But there’s a problem. Here’s a representative passage.

Wilde took the sexual radicalism of the Aesthetes and Cannibals and propelled it even further, making it more perilous, more blatantly illegal, and more—as it would be called in the twentieth century—gay. The movement had always flirted with male-male sexuality. There were Burton’s writings on sodomy (and sapphism). Morris and Rossetti loved their collaborations with men. Swinburne, throughout the 1860s, seemed to have sodomy always on his mind.

It’s sex in summary, cast in amber. That’s the problem, and I blame Norton & Co. more than Lutz, a professor of English at Long Island University, who specializes in literature and sex. Signs abound that the author has been moved by the scenes of Victorian desire, by the way a culture of respectability was also a universe of pleasure, a theater of tease and compulsion. But somewhere along the line a decision was made to frame the erotic transgression for a trade readership.

That’s where the book lost the lure of desire and acquired the reek of a publishing opportunity. The mistake wasn’t to sexualize an academic subject, or to intellectualize pleasure; both of these can be done, and done well. The problem is that both sides, sex and scholarship, were snipped and straightened to fit the trade protocols. Lutz scarcely nods at eminent academic precedents, such as Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality or Steven Marcus’ The Other Victorians. She has a chapter titled “Erotic Faith” that makes no reference to a major book on the 19th-century sexual imagination called, funnily enough, Erotic Faith (by Robert Polhemus). At the same time, there’s no juice to justify the high gloss of the production: the title, the color reproductions, the steamy blurb (“stunning exposé”), and the cover design with a sleeping classical maiden in hiked-up toga. What’s on TV?

Pleasure Bound follows Foucault in claiming that respectable Victorianism had sex leaking out of every decorous pore. Its special claim is that two subcultures—one around Rossetti, one around Burton—were sites of an erotic bohemianism that rose to challenge and finally to defeat the upright followers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The Rossetti circle—a network of family members, fellow painters, critics, and poets as well as female models, plucked from lives that were meager or worse—not only generated a London avant-garde, a precursor to the confrontational modernisms of the coming decades, but also risky experiments in living. The first half of the book is a speedy tour through familiar scenes of indulgence, Rossetti among the prostitutes and models, Swinburne in theatrical intoxicated revelry.

At one point Lutz quotes a disappointed Swinburne on the Marquis de Sade: “I looked for some sharp and subtle analysis of lust—some keen dissection of pain and pleasure,” but he found instead that Sade took “bulk and number for greatness.” Lutz is like Sade (and I’m like the disappointed Swinburne) at least in this respect. She collects anecdotes from the standard biographies and correspondence, threading them on a string that loops without knotting. Alongside her principals come flocks of cameo pornographers, itchy writers, and louche painters—and those models. Yet all the protagonists are male, with the women reduced to mere quickly potted biographies. The book leaves the “new eroticism” as a masculine invention. It’s one tryst after another, one flagellation after the next. Tales that have been told many times are condensed here, and we have to ask, Why? Why tell them again, and why offer them as a reader’s digest of short hot flings? And then why assume that transgression is rebellion?

Something happens, though, in the final third of the book that restores faith in ambitious authors and in the glory of sex. When Lutz turns fully to the extraordinary career of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90), she finds her vocation. The randy doings of Rossetti are finally the most conventional thing about him (Lutz concedes he could be “rather vanilla in bed”); the twists in Swinburne’s erotic preferences are clotted and closeted, and lose interest without the poetry. But Burton is a fit subject for Lutz’s taste, talent, and calling.

An ambiguity unsteadies Pleasure Bound. It speaks of “sex rebels,” but a “rebel” here more often means only a “boundary crosser,” someone who defies convention in the pursuit of pleasure, too much of it or with the wrong receptacle. Transgression, of course, can require bravery. But Richard Burton emerges as the one convincing rebel in the book, defiant not only in the service of his own desires but in concerted resistance to a society of sex-denial and false innocence. Whatever obscurity still shrouds the tilt of his preferences—what, exactly, was he doing in his notorious military commission to investigate the male brothels of Karachi?—it’s clear that his late writing meant to shatter the repressions of “Mrs. Grundy” (that icon of Victorian propriety), to liberate the passions of his contemporaries, women as well as men, and to do so through writing that forced sex into the open. Scar-faced and poly-lingual, Burton was the great global explorer of the age, visiting Mecca in disguise; living among Arabs and Indians; investigating unmapped regions of Africa; serving in remote consulates; and, wherever he went, studying the sexual practices of his species. What he saw he recorded in a profusion of increasingly subversive books. Lutz shows how his traveling, research, and writing converge in an adversarial erotics of growing power.  His editions/translations of The Arabian Nights (which restored the bawdiness and shocked the prudes) and the private publications of Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden belong to a campaign against British sexual insularity and ignorance. In her last three chapters, Lutz makes Burton the privileged voice, and in locating him within the context of late-Victorian pornography (authors, publishers, and collectors), the book at last finds its center and keeps its promises. It discloses the counter-life of an alternative sexual culture whose provocation is with us still.

Indeed, the real interest of Pleasure Bound is not what it tells us about the Victorians, because the information was already there, and so were the interpretations. Lutz’s contribution lies in what her book tells us about us in relation to them. Why do we want these sex stories, and not just any stories, but the Victorian versions, tales of oppression followed by jack-in-the-box eruption? Why is it irresistible to think about 19th-century gents (and a few gentesses) trapped in their desires? To picture them doffing top hats and unlacing crinolines, and then diving into the four-poster? To imagine the respectable citizens of a confident age exchanging secret looks, playing footsy under the lace-covered table?

A three-page epilogue casts these questions in Lutz’s own terms: “why this thirst for erotic detail, this almost unseemly need to watch Victorians move through their private sexual lives?” Her answer is that the 19th-century improvisation of desire has never been resolved. Pleasure is still bound, still trapped in norms and scripts and boxes. How can it get out? If we can’t stop staring at these Victorian excessives, stiff, stagy, and over the top, that’s because we recognize their strangeness as a mirror. As Lutz sweetly remarks, the Victorians (like us) “had to make their ardent way with only the courage of their desires.”

But for Lutz to put it this way is to miss the strangeness of her own book: academic and erotic, nostalgic and ironic, distant when it wants to be close. In the last pages, she weirdly yearns, “If only I could, like Burton, slip into a disguise and stroll down a Victorian London street at night. Or learn to be a peeping tom …” Learn!  As if she hasn’t peeped on every page of her book. But these sentences say a lot about her (and our) fascination with the Victorians: We fantasize jumping outside self-consciousness to rejoin their innocence, we picture ourselves as if top-hatted or in crinolines, as rebels fighting repression with the courage of our desires.  It’s all right, it’s fine, as long as we know it’s fantasy. In fact, though, it’s absurd, unhistorical, even grotesque. Our pleasures are still bound, but the fetters clamp in different places. They let us know about desire now, all the places it tickles. We have more of everything: more self-consciousness, more seductions. So give the Victorians their distance. Don’t confuse them with us; we have our own chains to rattle.

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