THE BOURGEOIS EXPERIENCE: Victoria to Freud, Vol. II: The Tender Passion. By Peter Gay. Oxford. 477 pp. $24.95. WITH THEIR GIFT for brevity and getting to the core of the matter, undergraduates during the 1950s used to refer to the ever popular course on the 19th-century novel as "Dirty Lit." revealing both the sexual themes of the authors studied and the students' own discomfort with adultery, homosexuality, incest and prostitution as the novelist's stock in trade. In The Tender Passion, the second volume of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Peter Gay calls upon Balzac, Stendhal, James, Thackeray, Tolstoy and many others to give witness to the sensual texture of that age we have learned to call Victorian. Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother may have looked as if sex were the farthest thing from their minds when they posed all starched and buttoned up for the family portrait, but if Peter Gay is right, and I find his argument convincing, it was most certainly a preoccupation off camera.

In Gay's view, 19th-century bourgeois hid their erotic desires behind a protective cover of reticence which encouraged the erroneous but popular impression that the middle classes took no pleasure in the flesh. A psychoanalytically informed historian, he interprets this silence as "a tribute to passion" rather than an indication of its absence. Indeed, he concludes his 400 pages of breathtakingly erudite discussion with this paradox: "The century of Victoria was at heart more profoundly erotic than ages more casual about their carnal desires and consummations."

The bourgeois sexual ideal -- virginity before marriage, followed by unbroken monogamy with intercourse in moderation and then mainly for procreation -- is easier to state than it was (or is) to achieve. Theorists on love wavered between Christianity and the Enlightenment. The religious were guided by St. Paul's concession that it is better to marry than burn. The particularly inhibited heeded St. Jerome's warning that "all ardent love for one's own wife is adultery." Enlightened philosophes countered with the scientific study of sexual practices in other cultures which raised serious questions about lifelong monogamy. Furthermore, the philosophes would not confine Eros to the marriage bed. Anticipating Freud, Diderot, for example, insisted that "there is a bit of testicle at the bottom of our most sublime sentiments and most refined tenderness." First, the philosophes used scientific carnality to attack religion. Then the romantics made love into an applied religion. Their "yearning heroes, pale heroines, exotic scenery, stormy nature, cruel obstacles, and deeply satisfying deaths" excited the imagination and further undermined the conventional bourgeois ideal. If true love was spiritually ennobling, it was, in many a romantic's view, impossible within marriage. "What people call a happy marriage," wrote Friedrech Schlegel, "stands to love as a correct poem stands to an improvised song." For a notable few, that spontaneous lyrical outpouring included incest and homosexuality, for many it required adultery.

THOUGH PETER GAY gives the theorists of this "literature of reproach" a fair hearing, it would be a mistake to infer that this book is a veiled assault on middle-class culture. To the contrary, his strategy from the outset is to match what people said and read against what they did. Two courtships, Otto Beneke with Marietta Banks, and Walter Bagehot with Eliza Wilson, are portrayed through letters and journals that show members of the bourgeoisie fell in love and married (under the watchful eyes of their parents) often enough for the historian to conclude with Eliza Wilson that "happy marriages are not uncommon." The Beneke and Bagehot matches do not make for as titillating reading as the adultery of that lusty New England matron, Mabel Loomis Todd, whose neighborly love affair suffused the pages of Volume I. But they provide a necessary contrast to the chorus of critics who shouted "Amen" to Schopenhauer's complaint: "In our monogamous part of the world, to marry means to halve your rights and double your duties."

Gay seems to have looked at everything. He ranges widely from the sculpture of Guillaume Geefs to the operas of Richard Wagner; from the medical literature on nervousness to police reports on syphilis in the bordellos of Europe; from obscene art to the love of nature. What holds all of these seemingly disparate elements together (not always successfully) is psychoanalysis. Civilization and Its Discontents is the guiding text for this cultural historian who finds love expressed or repressed in all of them. He is at his best when he follows a psychoanalytically informed clue to shed new light on the familiar. We know about the licentious upper classes from literature and have read ample studies of the bawdy poor. But presenting these as projected images of the bourgeois mind and matching them against the historical actuality (the aristocracy was not uniformly profligate nor the poor so uninhibited), adds to our understanding of all three. On the other hand, describing Bagehot's or Beneke's courtship in terms of the development of the instincts hampers the narrative and hobbles the writer's often graceful prose. Are we really meant to take seriously his observation that Walter Bagehot "made no attempt on the virtue of Eliza Wilson" at their first meeting in her father's house? Do we really learn any more about Otto Beneke's posturing in the romantic mode by labelling it "a lover's masochism"? The story of a marriage is not moved along one bit by the coy header, "New Objects for Old." Nor is our understanding of Bagehot's classic, The English Constitution, deepened when we are told that it testifies to "the imperialistic ventures of libido in unsuspected places." Too often I felt as though I were in a darkened theatre with an annoying voice coming from behind making tendentious, rib-poking, psychoanalytic comments in a stage whisper to his neighbor. Oh, how I wanted to turn around and tell him to be quiet so I could enjoy the show.

And what a show! There is something here for everyone. A splendid chapter on homosexuality that is a gem of integration; a treasure trove of quotations scattered throughout the text to warm the hearts of the most rabid mysogynist or feminist; or an awesome bibliographic essay which will be the starting point for research for many years. After reading this book, that old family portrait will never look the same.