The Best Fiction Books

The best books on Sex in Victorian Literature

recommended by Claire Jarvis

We often assume the Victorians had puritanical attitudes to sex, but this was far from the reality. From familiar classics to neglected gems, Claire Jarvis—Stanford academic and author of Exquisite Masochism: Sex, Marriage and the Novel Form—selects the best books on sex in Victorian literature.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

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It seems like the topic of sex in Victorian literature is rife with misconceptions. How did the Victorians think about intimacy and eroticism?

It depends. On one hand, there’s a strong current of respectability in the nineteenth century. Many people (especially middle-class people) were very invested in presenting a pious, chaste version of sexual life. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have had the popularity of people like Coventry Patmore, who we now know primarily as the poet connected with the idea of “The Angel in the House”. At the time, he was very widely read and admired. But critics don’t work on his poetry much now, partly because it feels pedantic and didactic in terms of its sexual mores.

On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Victorian novel that didn’t have some kind of illicit sexuality in it. For example, think of Great Expectations, a novel which most people think of as quite homey and not particularly sexual. Molly, Jaggers’ servant, is Estella’s mother; she had an illegitimate relationship with Magwitch. So a central figure in the novel is a bastard. You also have the Havisham plot, with the absconding husband (or fiancé) Compeyson. You can see lots of evidence of sexual life in the plotting of Victorian novels.

So the absence of sexuality can be just as significant as its presence?

Not even the absence—it’s pushed into plot instead of representation. Once you get to the twentieth century, you see much more clearly represented sexual life. But in nineteenth-century fiction, sexual plots are often the motivating forces.

The marriage plot is always a sexual plot, even if you think about it in the most basic way. In sensation fiction, adventure fiction, even realist fiction, there’s usually somewhere in there a plot of illegitimacy, sexual danger, bigamy. The sensation novel in particular is centrally connected to the bigamy plot, which Maia McAleavey has written about extensively. Sex is there in the Victorian novel—it’s just not there in the way we might recognise it in contemporary literature.

Does literature represent sexuality in a way that Victorian society can’t?

That’s a really good question. In late Victorian society, there was the Bradlaugh-Besant trial, where people who circulated information about contraception were prosecuted for obscenity. Judith Walkowitz has written about this.

Then there’s W T Stead’s serialization of the ‘Maiden Tribute of Babylon,’ a series of what we would now call ‘yellow journalism’ articles. Stead visits London brothels and says, ‘I would really like to purchase sex with a twelve-year-old virgin’. The keepers of the brothel eventually set up an event. Stead goes into it with the intention to rescue a girl, who turns out not only not to be a virgin, but is also sixteen years old. Well beyond the age of consent in Victorian England.

He asks for something, and what he procures is not at all what he asked for, but he runs with the story that he got what he was asking for anyway. So Stead publishes a series of essays that (supposedly) expose a vast underbelly of London society where aristocrats ruin young girls nightly. All the evidence is that this is not actually something that was happening – prostitution was often periodic employment, and often intra-class—but there’s an extreme public reaction to the thought that this is happening.

“Sex is there—just not there in the way we might recognise it”

In the Victorian period, there’s intense anxiety and fear about sexual contagion and impropriety—bad behaviour from aristocrats (usually wealthy, older men) with young women, who don’t have parents to look after them.

Connected to this is scholarship concerning the Contagious Diseases Act (1864), which put the onus on women involved in the sex trade. Prostitutes were put in lock hospitals and checked for venereal disease. The idea was that if you keep control of the prostitutes, you control the spread of disease. But it goes both ways, though you wouldn’t know it from the Act, which actually doubles down on the idea of the prostitute as someone who is marked and “contagious”. In reality, nineteenth-century prostitution was rarely cut-and-dry. Sex work was quite porous as a social structure.

Victorian culture perceived and understood sexual life as dangerous—that it only went one way, to ruination, and needed to be controlled and contained. But in tension with that, similar to our culture today, are actual lived experiences of people—who we see were not concerned at all with such rigid boundaries between sexual life and social life. They just wrote and thought a great deal about it.

Literature can represent that divide more flexibly than something like the didactic essay or a news article could. News articles such as the Stead articles and the beginning of yellow journalism are interested in sensation and selling a lot of papers. Obviously, literature is also designed to sell, but there’s more flexibility in the representational regime of a literary text, both in poetry and in prose. You can present a character who’s had a fall—which happens often in nineteenth-century fiction—and you can condemn her, or complicate her condemnation. You don’t see that as readily in the newspaper essays. Primarily, you see condemnation and moving on.

And that flexibility is as much about the reader’s imagination as it is about what you can do with plot and character.

Totally. Not just imagination, but also the training and genre that people get when they read a lot of novels. Once you read one novel that has an illegitimacy plot, the next novel you read with an illegitimacy plot that torques it and twists it a little bit—you think of it through that plot rather than as something that happened in the world.

That might be a good point to turn to your first book choice. In your book Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex and the Novel Form, you call Wuthering Heights “one of the most written about, and most demanding, novels of the mid-century.” Why is that?

Wuthering Heights is a strange novel in a lot of ways. It’s a standalone—there’s not really another book like it. This is apparent even in early editions edited after Emily Brontë’s death by Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte Brontë makes some strong claims for Emily’s goodness, passion and strangeness as a person. She’s trying to argue against readers who see the novel as immoral. Charlotte’s preface and alterations try to regularise Wuthering Heights and minimise the moral complaint one could have against the novel.

Did that work?

To some extent. It frustrates contemporary critics because it seems like special pleading. It’s as if Charlotte trying to turn what Emily is doing in her novel into the kind of thing Charlotte does in hers, which is a very different framework for understanding how characters act.

Whenever I teach Wuthering Heights, it’s hard for students navigate the novel’s story—because of the way it’s plotted, the nested and individuated narration. And because the characters being described are so unusual. It’s also challenging because it’s unclear if you’re supposed to read the first generation or the second generation as the aim of the novel. I think Charlotte, and a lot of readers, would tend to read the second generation as a laudable aim for the novel’s world—it gets the wildness out. There’s that sort-of pedagogical plot at the end of the novel, where Catherine the Younger is teaching Hareton how to read, a contrarian smacking him.

Yet that reading minimises the interest in the first generation. Most readers remember Cathy the Elder and Heathcliff—they don’t focus on Hareton and Catherine the Younger. What do you do with a novel that has, seemingly, a positive happy ending, that seems to actually have more energy and interest in the first not-happy ending?

So the second generation is in some way trying to close down the wildness of the first, and it’s not very satisfying?

Yeah, I don’t think so. There’s a lot of frustration with that second pairing, because it feels like a diminution in intensity in the novel. Obviously, it’s domesticated; they’re going to be married, live at the heights, and enjoy a stable marital relationship. It also eliminates the threat of somebody else, like a fox in the henhouse, because obviously Cathy the Younger’s marriage to Edgar is never consummated. There’s no strange residue questioning, ‘Whose child is this?’

There are some people who want to read Catherine the Younger as Heathcliff’s child. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence for that in the novel. But I do think there’s supposed to be a confusion: who is the true partner of Catherine the Elder? The challenge of Wuthering Heights is teasing out the intensity of the novel versus the plot-level solution that Brontë gives us at the end of the book.

Your second choice, Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, is a particularly sinister, violent ‘sensation’ novel. How does the sensation novel come to prominence in the period?

I think a lot of it is a reaction to the more didactic novels of the 1830s–1850s. It is also closely connected to the rise of very sensational stage plays. There’s a lot of overlap between the stage and the sensation novel: cliffhangers and exciting plot-twists.

The challenging relationship between the aim of respectability and the covert recognition of a sexual underworld we spoke about at the beginning also comes to the fore. Sensation novels often focus on the way that urban life can produce more radically surprising social encounters, as opposed to village life. People who are thrown together in sensation novels would have never come into contact with one another otherwise.

Aurora Floyd isn’t exactly like that, but the cross-class relationship at the beginning of the novel isn’t seen as often in earlier Victorian novels. Aurora Floyd focuses on the way that cross-class romance is not actually productive—I think that’s pretty common in the mid-nineteenth century novel. That changes quite dramatically at the end of the nineteenth century.

Do we see it drop off?

Yes. There’s not as much condemnation—not as much suspicion. It’s still challenging, but the novel that’s most closely connected to Aurora Floyd, Lady Audley’s Secret, features a woman who comes from a poor background becoming Lady Audley. Through her own will, she creates a perfect pre-Raphaelite ‘Angel in the House’ persona.

How do we distinguish between those kinds of sensation novels and earlier novels, such as Defoe’s Roxana?

Well, they’re less connected to a kind of demimonde. Defoe is episodic—concerned with the way an episode or part of a story creates a pivot for a character to react to. Whereas both Aurora Floyd and Lady Audley’s Secret focus on personal representation. It’s the building of the self, rather than response to event.

In that way, Braddon is very different from someone like Becky Sharp, the main character of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–48), too. Sharp is more closely connected to eighteenth-century or seventeenth-century picaresque heroines, because she has a plot-event that produces an inflection point that then changes the story; she has to respond to it. By contrast, Lady Audley creates her persona by picking and choosing from pre-Raphaelite aesthetics, Patmore-ian female docility. She’s trying to build the psychology of a perfect wife. That’s also the reason it’s flawed, and the reason her performance doesn’t work in the end. She can’t hold together the persona she’s constructed for herself. The end of that novel dissolves into madness. Madness is the only explanation we have for someone who would do this.

“A lot of sensation fiction shuts down female power, or suggests the best response to female independence is control”

Aurora Floyd is quite different, even though it’s often paired with Lady Audley’s Secret. Janice Radway’s great book on twentieth-century romance novels, Reading the Romance, has an almost sociological argument about romance readers. Her assessment of the heroine of a romance novel counters the Victorian angel in the house: the romance novel heroine is always dark, with flashing eyes, very independent, does things for herself. This fantasy of perfect female power in the romance novel is, I think, very close to the representation you get in Braddon’s Aurora Floyd. Aurora is a proto-Romance-novel heroine, and importantly, she doesn’t end with a miserable life. There is a bigamy plot, but she ends up happy with John Mellish at the end of the novel, rather than condemned to madness.

But they do call her “a shade less defiant”, right? She seems reformed.

She’s diminished, yes, but she’s able to retain some of her independence at the end of the novel, which usually sensation fiction does not allow. A lot of sensation fiction shuts down female power, or suggests the best response to female independence is control. Aurora Floyd never going to take out her horsewhip again—that scene is so bizarre in that novel—but she’s still going to be feisty.

That feistiness seems to be a strong connector between Aurora Floyd and twentieth- or twenty-first century romantic fiction. Braddon picks up on the interest that headstrong characters have for readers, and doesn’t fully dampen it at the end of the novel.

In many Victorian novels, a typical female pair is the headstrong, independent woman and the docile gentlewoman. You get it really clearly with Lucy and Aurora. But the docile woman doesn’t win in the end here; there’s a more equal treatment which is unusual for Victorian novels. But the most unusual scene in the novel is most definitely the horsewhipping scene.

Can you describe that scene?

Sure. There’s a man who works as a groom, and who seems to have understood that Aurora Floyd’s first husband (another groom) is not actually dead, but horribly maimed. (This a bigamy novel, but unlike Lady Audley, she doesn’t know she’s bigamous until she sees her first husband again.)

So, when Steve Hargreaves sidles up to Aurora and tries to get her to acknowledge his awareness of her bigamy, she whips him with her horsewhip. The description of this scene starts with her pulling out a gold jeweled horsewhip.

Sounds vaguely erotic.

Yeah, it’s like a toy whip. Its smallness is emphasised. Then her hair comes out of its bun, her cheeks flush and she’s described as towering above this small man. The man who eventually becomes her husband sees this and controls her passion. This scene skates the line between rage and erotic rage. It’s done really well, highlighting the way a canny Victorian novelist can play with representation so as to signal eroticism without it being explicit.

It might be a good time to turn to your third pick, Dracula.

Talk about representation of the erotic!

Yes! Here, the female vampire is sexualised. When Jonathan is kissed by one of Dracula’s brides, Stoker writes, “The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth.”

Exactly. Every time I teach Dracula, it’s amazing because the students are not ready for the eroticism of the novel.

Even though it’s so canonical?

Again, people think that twentieth- and twenty-first century versions of erotic nineteenth-century texts are doing something that isn’t there in the original—but it is, obviously.

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This is one of my big questions. I sometimes teach Sarah Waters in a class on Victorian sex. Waters uses a lot of both historical documents and literary texts to build queer versions of Victorian novels—this is especially true of the novel I teach most, Fingersmith. But the students ask: is this not present in the original texts? It is present—just in a different way. Explicitness is not the only way to present the erotic.

But Dracula is very explicit. That’s what’s so surprising about it. We know the story so well, but until you actually read the novel, you’re not quite aware. It’s quite a sophisticated novel that gets kind of short shrift because it is written in an adventure style, and because it is so culturally well-known. But the scene you’re describing is one of the great scenes in erotic representation in Victorian literature.

Because of her power over him?

Because of her power over him; also the pleasure mixed with the corruption. Stoker manages the Victorian antipathy to sexual representation while also relishing it.

That’s what I was about to ask. Dracula’s representation of sexuality often comes at second-hand— we read the perception and experience of arousal, but aren’t directly confronted by it.

Yes. That fits into the medial frame of the novel. Those who’ve read Dracula know that Stoker writes the novel through phonograph recordings, telegrams, letters, journal entries, shorthand typed notes. There’s an insistence on mediation in the novel’s form that’s connected to the way it constantly mediates sexual life.

Another great scene is towards the end of the novel, where we see Mina drinking blood from Dracula’s chest. It’s an amazing scene because it mixes imagery of maternity—with Dracula as a mother and the blood he’s giving Mina as milk—and sex. It all comes together. Then the Crew of Light sees this; they’re voyeurs, but are they too late to rescue Mina? And how do they rescue her? I think this is an amazing fictional representation of the danger sex produces for young women.

Now let’s look at Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads (1866). First, can you say a little bit about Swinburne for those who may not have encountered his work?

Swinburne is a really interesting figure. A Balliol student, but he didn’t finish his degree.

Newman got a 2.2, Housman failed, Ruskin scraped a pass…

Yes! I think Swinburne decided at one point that if the degree wasn’t going to be brilliant, he just wouldn’t finish. He’s really closely connected with the pre-Raphaelites; for example, he lived with D. G. Rossetti after Elizabeth Siddal died. Edward Burne-Jones’s painting “Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus)” is based on Swinburne’s poem of the same name.

Most of Swinburne’s poems were translations or versions of other poems. He’s very interested in English Sapphic – in trying to represent, in English verse, the form of Sappho’s poetry. You can see that in something like Anactoria.

But the book I chose, the 1866 Poems and Ballads, is interesting as a collection for several reasons. First, it’s 1866. It’s early in the century for this kind of explicitness. Second, it clearly demonstrates the effect of Baudelaire on English poetry. You can see the blend of contagion and desire that is so central to Baudelaire in someone like Swinburne very early in the nineteenth century. It prefigures decadence—or, I would say, Swinburne shows that decadence is already there. It’s not just a fin de siècle thing.

“Swinburne decided at one point that if the degree wasn’t going to be brilliant, he just wouldn’t finish”

The other thing that’s amazing about Swinburne is that he’s interested in corruption, the erotic and how they mix together. But he’s also invested in the relationship between violence and sex. Some of the things I like to teach from Swinburne are his short pornographic poems, The Whippingham Papers. These are about birchings in public schools. They experiment with Victorian cross-generational romance, with homosexuality, and with sexual violence as part of sexual life. Flagellation is really interesting to him.

Swinburne moves between a kind of register that requires a lot of erudition, such as versions of classical poems, and what I think we’d now read as a very low form in some ways, the pornographic poem. He’s also an interesting figure to think about because he had a long career and life; he wrote very widely, and is also known as a great critical essayist.

I previously thought of decadent poets’ language of the senses as pitched in a highly erudite, allusive way, as you mention. When mixed with the more violent idea of flagellation, how is it received?

He was scandalous, as you can imagine. The flagellation poems would not be widely disseminated. They were mostly privately circulated, which is why collectors are so interested in them.

But take Anactoria. There’s a long description of trampling—the idea is that love produces a sort of violence that is soul-destroying and physically destroying. If you think about the colours that are represented in Swinburne’s poems, they’re almost always black, red and white. It’s about the intensification of bodily violence in love.

He’s testing the limits of what language can do, really.

Yes, and trying very hard to shock the senses, like you say. And remember, he’s doing this in the mid-nineteenth century. For readers who are huge fans of late nineteenth-century decadence, you could easily put any text by Oscar Wilde on this list, but I think it’s interesting to look at something earlier, which is, not in a comic mode but in a kind of violent mode, doing the same things you see representationally in Salomé.

We see this in criticism, too. The energy of proto-modernist or avant-garde scholarship is concentrated in the late century, but if you look at earlier texts, there is evidence that a Baudelarian mingling of death and sex was being represented in English letters earlier than you might think.

Speaking of the hidden, the last book you’ve chosen is an anonymous memoir called My Secret Life. Why did you choose this book?

This book is an amazing document. It hovers between fictionality and memoir. It’s unlikely that everything is true, because it describes this man’s sexual exploits for seventy years. The sheer length shows a kind of energy that I think would be impossible.

It borrows from all kinds of narrative forms, such as the novel. He’s very interested in making characters out of the women he’s encountering; he describes his own domestic life in very novelistic terms.

So we shouldn’t just expect standard autobiographical interiority here?

No, it’s very strange. The first experience it describes occurred around the 1830s, and it goes to the 1880s—a long history of debauchery. But what’s fascinating to me is the author’s eye for detail in descriptive writing. There’s so much attention to the kind of conditions of rooms in which he meets prostitutes; there’s attention to the kinds of food, drink and clothes women are wearing.

There’s an amazing sequence where he finds himself ill on a railway trip. He leaves the train—or maybe doesn’t even get on the train, I can’t remember—but goes into the bathroom, and has diarrhea. He realises while he’s sitting on the toilet that there’s a little peephole into the ladies’ room. So he sits there and watches women urinate and defecate! The other thing that’s quite interesting about this book is that he watches a woman pull out rags from her menstrual cycle. So he’s really paying attention. You get a lot of grotty detail about Victorian life in this book.

It was privately published in the 1880s, but it wasn’t published as a text until late in the twentieth century. It was privately known, but because it was so explicitly pornographic, it circulated in a very small coterie.

And we still have no idea who wrote it?

No! Some people think it was Henry Spencer Ashbee, who edited a large index of pornographic literature called the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Much of Ashbee’s text is in English, but all of the entries on homosexuality are in Latin, which is amazing and so perfect. But the dates are off. If My Secret Life is Ashbee, he’s hyper-fictionalizing himself. It’s somebody like him, though – relatively well-to-do and with a connection to the pornographic underworld.

The other thing that’s quite interesting about the My Secret Life is ‘Walter’ describes experiences of sexually transmitted infections and his own experiences with homosexuality. There’s a wealth of information about the variety of sexual experiences that people had, and what was possible in the nineteenth century.

“There’s obviously a deeply misogynistic impulse in a document that catalogues every woman that a man has slept with for seventy years. But there’s also a sensitivity to women’s actual lives”

There’s obviously a deeply misogynistic impulse in a document that catalogues every woman that a man has slept with for seventy years. But there’s also a real sensitivity to women’s actual lives. He asks a lot of questions about their lives, and seems interested in them. That’s what shocks students when I teach this book—that this rapacious sex addict is surprisingly sensitive to the lives of the women he’s encountering. Not always, but sometimes.

Given that we don’t really know much about its composition, how do we treat it as a text? It holds you in its thrall—it’s so descriptive and surprising. But you can’t fact-check for veracity.

Exactly. And of course, it is presented as a memoir, so the factual quality of part of its appeal. It’s clear that it was written in the nineteenth century. It’s also clear that it involves some elaboration or exaggeration. But I also think you can take quite truthfully the descriptions of sexual life. He doesn’t make himself seem too appealing as a person, either. There’s a kind of honesty in moments of his brutality. He’s not just flattering himself.

But the details about daily life are extremely valuable for anyone who’s interested in the Victorian period. You get information about the kinds of things you want to know that aren’t in novel. How people went to the bathroom, where they went when they got sick on the train, how they felt about certain sexual acts, whether or not people knew about them. What people ate, what they drank. What kinds of clothes prostitutes wore, what their living situations were. How people put on and took off their petticoats.

Quotidian sexualities.

Yeah. It’s amazing in that way. It has so much detail that it’s impossible not to see it as a valuable document. As long as you know that it has obscure origins, you can still appreciate just how encyclopedic it is as a text.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

February 15, 2018

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Claire Jarvis

Claire Jarvis

Claire Jarvis is an assistant professor in the English department at Stanford University. Her first book, Exquisite Masochism: Sex, Marriage, and the Novel Form was published in 2016 by Johns Hopkins University Press. She is currently working on a book about women’s genre fiction and its scholarly framing, titled A Little Britain: Women, Genre, and Form.

Claire Jarvis

Claire Jarvis

Claire Jarvis is an assistant professor in the English department at Stanford University. Her first book, Exquisite Masochism: Sex, Marriage, and the Novel Form was published in 2016 by Johns Hopkins University Press. She is currently working on a book about women’s genre fiction and its scholarly framing, titled A Little Britain: Women, Genre, and Form.