Deborah Lutz's "Pleasure Bound," on Victorian sex rebels

Saturday, February 26, 2011; 5:31 PM

Many characters parade through the pages of this examination of sexual doings among the illuminati of Victorian England, but two occupy center stage. The first is Algernon Charles Swinburne, poet and aesthete, whom Oscar Wilde described as "a braggart in the matter of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality, without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer." The second is Richard Francis Burton, "the secret agent and explorer who introduced the word 'safari' to the English language," the translator into English of the "Kama Sutra" and "The Arabian Nights," whose "myth as a man rested not just on his carefully objective work but also on his personal appeal as a libertine, experimenter, and worldly figure who not only had knowledge but had lived it."

An unlikely pair indeed, Swinburne "with his delicate frame, soft voice pitched high, and dancing gestures," Burton a "powerful, athletic man, [who] cut a forbidding, ultramasculine figure - the sexually experienced world traveler." Yet in their fascination with forms of sexual activity and expression that were regarded with horror by conventional Victorians, they led the way toward what are now generally considered "modern" attitudes toward sex, from acceptance of homosexuality to the understanding that what consenting adults do in privacy is their own business and no one else's. Though some of the things they did and thought would be regarded even today as strange or worse - Swinburne liked to get drunk, fling off his clothes and slide down banisters, while Burton was sexually ravenous to a degree most people could not comprehend - they did help lead the way out of Victorian repression.

Deborah Lutz, who teaches at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and, according to its Web site, "has published widely on Victorian eroticism, pornography, death culture, and collecting," brings all those interests (if "interests" is the word for them) into one package in "Pleasure Bound." Aside from a reflexive fixation on gender, she writes well, even amusingly at times, and clearly knows her subject. Unlike some students of Victorian sexuality, she does not make the mistake of drawing broad conclusions from the behavior of a handful of artists and writers; indeed, at the end she pointedly observes that "reading or looking at sexually explicit material was not possible for most Victorians," who in any case almost certainly would have found such activities distasteful.

To be sure we know well that some Victorians knew how to engage in sexual play from books such as the anonymous "My Secret Life," also known as "The Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman," 11 volumes published between 1888 and 1894 and many years later widely published in a condensed edition, in which the narrator's adventures in the London demimonde are narrated in such detail as ultimately to become tiresome rather than titillating. The good Queen Victoria may have loved only her handsome Albert, but among her subjects there certainly were those who misbehaved, and there were ample opportunities:

"How easy it was to find sex in 1860s London! The man about town could cruise the Strand, Tottenham Court Road, the Queen's Highway, and scores of other pickup spots for women who had that unmistakable air of being available for a price. . . . City sophisticates had their favorite brothels. But for the country fellow just come into the city, there were guides like 'Hints to Men About Town' or 'Water Fordiana' or 'The Man of Pleasure's Pocket Book,' which described the intimate attributes of well-known prostitutes, their addresses, and sometimes their prices. Casinos, dancing rooms, divans, night houses, pleasure gardens, music halls, and cafes worked as more casual sites for picking up a bedfellow, but most commonly the flaneur fulfilled his desire by hitting the streets. As London was beginning to outpace Paris as the shopping capital of the world, so too was it becoming famous for its heady display of flesh for sale."

That was commercial sex. What Lutz is writing about, by contrast, is "two loosely overlapping groups of men who were more than usually involved in questions of erotic freedom and expression. . . . Out of two of these clans - the Cannibal Club and the Aesthetes - sprang most of the sexually themed writing and painting (including out-and-out pornography) of the latter half of the nineteenth century." Along with Burton and Swinburne, these groups were frequented by the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and James McNeill Whistler, which is to say some of the best-known writers and artists of the day. They exposed "troubles that ran beneath the surface of the larger social fabric: the just-stirring struggle for women's emancipation, the dissolution of traditional religions into more personal expressions of faith, the pressing need to expand definitions of accepted forms of sexual expression."

In some of the work done by these men (and a few women, most notably Rossetti's sister Christina), Lutz finds deeper meaning than may really be there. To wit: "Death appears as the ultimate ecstasy, its climax reaching a similar intensity as the sexual orgasm." This may or may not be far-fetched, but it puts a heavily deconstructionist spin on paintings and verse that were done before the emergence of academic "theory" and the many indulgences to which it is prone.

Lutz is on much firmer ground once she gets past her first couple of chapters and into the more nitty-gritty business of the Victorian sexual underground: flagellation (Swinburne was an especially eager participant), homosexuality (the "idea that one's sexuality could make up one's identity - a basic foundation of the 1960s gay rights movement - began to take shape only in the 1880s and 1890s"), pornography (the publication of "My Secret Life" and, at a far more elevated level, the "Kama Sutra"). Publishing such material was a "risky venture" punishable by heavy fines or imprisonment, with the result that some of it was done abroad and smuggled into England to enrich the collections of gentlemanly devotees of erotica. A few of these collections were fabulous indeed, especially that of Henry Spencer Ashbee, who bequeathed it to the British Museum, "but to guard against prudish purging, he stipulated that the curators take his complete book collection, or none of it." This they did because the collection included "many extremely rare editions of other kinds of books," but they held their noses as they did so and put the erotica in their "Private Case," accessible only to those with special permission.

Despite her penchant for deeper meaning, Lutz wisely declines to draw sweeping judgments from all this material about the people who created and collected it. Suffice it to say that these were interesting people who did interesting things, not all of which could be done out in the open. They were not the first to do so - remember the debauches of Imperial Rome - and they certainly weren't the last.


Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism

By Deborah Lutz

Norton. 331 pp. $27.95

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