Whispers from the Wings

Them sexy Victorians

April 2, 2014

My very first RSC sex lecture

Oooo I do love a job where you get called in for a lecture on sex. And you also discover one of the coolest jobs ever - a revisionist historian - a truth-seeking historical missile if you will, a forensic scholar who puts pre-accepted historical 'fact' in a petri dish and tests the bejesus out of it.

Lord only knows what you would find in a Victorian petri dish in Clapham Rehearsal HQ, the almost obscenely young Fern Riddell came along to inform the Roaring Girl cast that those supposed buttoned up “Oooo no sex please, we're VICTOOOORIANS” were actually more clued up on the birds and the bees than most of the dates I've ever had.

Tie a ribbon round it

Now, being a mere hacktor addicted to sniffing out drama and intrigue, I can bury history in heresay and rumour faster than a revisionist historian can excavate it. You have been warned. However,  I've read a few novels to know those 19th Century folk weren't so prim. In fact a recent visit to the Museum of Eroticism in Paris (on a job, I promise - that sounds worse...) revealed it wasn't just the 70s that had hairy porn.

Nevertheless, Fern's facts hit us hard and full-frontal. The Victorians not only knew ALL about the female orgasm and how it worked (the Victorians LOVED knowing how things worked), they thought a woman could only get pregnant if she had one. And what is more, the very quality of the sexual act was thought to have direct aesthetic repercussions on your offspring. In a nutshell: rubbish sex = ugly kids. Seriously.

ALSO. Sex in 'abnormal' places was thought to create corresponding abnormal defects: i.e. sex on the stairs meant a staring child. It was that literal. I presume sex in the bathtub led to a wet weak. Hence it followed that when a woman fell pregnant (love that phrase 'fell pregnant' - 'Oops, I fell. On top of that man.') she was CONFINED lest she clap eyes on ugliness - rats, beggars, the POOR and had a ginger one. (I'm ginger so I can make that joke).

Masurbation preventerNow, a nine-month imprisonment of flowers, lace and kittens is enough to make any woman puke so there was a heavy reliance on prophylactics: homemade or shop-bought:- sponges, India rubber pessaries, perfumed ribbon-tied sheep intestines (!) followed by a douching of alum, quinine and zinc. Niiiice.

My character in Roaring Girl, Prudence Gallipot, is an apothecary's wife so she presumably would have sold a variety of these and no doubt the blushes of the customers would match those asking for a Femidom in Boots today. I like to think Prudence would tie those ribbons personally.

Women didn't have all the fun though - men had to play their part. Sex was considered fab but you did have to be married to do it properly, you know, with true love, mutual respect and mutual physical pleasure. Cue the Victorian anti-masturbation device. And at this moment in Fern's slideshow, even the women wince.

Still, at least they had flagellation. Apparently being birched with a beaded cat 'o nine tails was the number one brothel fad of the time. So that's where the girls exorcised all their aggression...

I blame the bicycle

Our first slide was of The New Woman - a new breed, more active in society and the workforce, newly fighting for independence at home, in the arts, politically and of course on bikes. We will never know if women tried riding the first bone-shakers side-saddle but it's no co-incidence that they started wearing trousers.

Victorian women on bikesNow, girls in pants on the stage was entertaining - a favourite music hall song of the time was 'Oh What a Beauty' - a song about a carrot. But pants in public - nooooooo. A woman was mobbed in Kew Gardens for the crime. In Fern's words “seeing a woman in trousers was like seeing someone wearing an elephant on their head.”

On the other hand, gay women had it eeeeeasy. Due to an addition to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, this was a very scary time for men, just ask Oscar Wilde. Thanks to a sneaky Liberal MP called Labouchere who waited until tea time in parliament when most men were asleep, wanting to go home or to their brothels to be flagellated and at the 11th hour he snuck in the 11th Section, an amendment which made gross indecency a crime in the UK. With no definition of 'gross indecency', it was therefore used to prosecute willy nilly.

Literally. Holding hands - no. Sodomy and buggery - oooooo no. Bestiality - N. O. In capitals. With full stops. Whilst it's not entirely true that Queen Victoria refused to believe in lesbians, lady love was still by comparison easier to conceal as let's face it, the eyes of society were on men for the next 80 years at least.

One of the most interesting and disturbing changes to be made to our version of The Roaring Girl is in making one of our characters gay. In the original, Jack Dapper's father has him beaten and set-upon for over-spending, hoping he'll be imprisoned and 'reformed'. This takes on a whole new sinister meaning, especially in light of recent global anti-gay laws. The stakes for Jack and for Moll, our Roaring Girl who is an advocate of sexual independence and expression, are shot through the roof.

Fifty shades of Ashbee

But hey, I'm getting too serious. This is a COMEDY goddammit so back to ribboned sheep's intestines. In Fern's online blog you'll find '9 Victorian Books That Will Change Your Sex Life'. Check it out. Hidden amongst 'The Fruits of Philosophy' (a guide to young married people) and 'The Art of Begetting Handsome Children' is a little known tome  entitled 'My Secret Life' by Henry Spencer Ashbee, 1888. In short, a memoir of a Victorian gentleman's sexual development and experiences. And in shorter short, the rudest most frankest book I've ever encountered. 'Fifty Shades of Grey'? Do me a favour. Henry's been there and done just about everyone. And he minces not a word. His sexual awakening starts with an overenthusiastic nursery nurse and from then on in the 'C' word appears 5,357 times. Henry is a self-confessed 'C' word connoisseur. Why isn't this man famous? Why hasn't Lars Von Trier done a film about him??!

Another important 'C' word of the time was Cora

Cora PearlWhen Fern is asked who her idea of a Roaring Girl is, she replies instantly. Cora Pearl. A Plymouth girl, educated by nuns (surprise!) who spurned the life of a milliner to become a superstar high class prostitute in Paris who at one point owned 40 horses, several chateaux, was mistress to Prince Napoleon, the Emperor's cousin and performed on stage in a bronze bath of champagne over 100 years before Dita Von Teese was even born.

Am I right in thinking she looks a little like Elizabeth Taylor in this picture?? My reading list is getting longer. Her self-penned 'The Memoirs of Cora Pearl' sounds even more intriguing, particularly as they were written when she was aging, penniless and dying of cancer. So I'm off to visit Amazon to stock up on some erotic RESEARCH.

I may also pick up a copy of 'The Fruits of Philosophy'  by fellow Roaring Girl, Annie Besant - socialist, secularist, orator, women's rights activist and force of nature who left her vicar husband after educating herself away from religion and rejecting his Tory politics, taking her daughter with her. ALL of which was unheard of at the time. Annie may as well have had five elephants on her head. And still she roared.

by Lizzie Hopley  |  1 comment

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Apr 8, 9:53pm

I've heard that there was a Victorian law outlawing the sniffing of women's bicycle seats by men, though I can't swear to it being true!

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