The Dichotomy of Sexuality in the Victorian Era

Our timeline focuses on the various forms of sexual repression and expression during the Victorian Era. It demonstrates that the dichotomy of sexuality penetrated not only women, but also men, and it reveals the extent to which the idea of sex was permeated throughout Victorian society.


1815: Jane Austen’s Emma

Jane Austen created her heroine, Emma, to be a beautiful, smart, privileged woman of high society England who had her own views on love and marriage.  Emma decides not to marry and, instead, be a matchmaker for her friends.  Emma’s not wanting to marry is a form of sexual expression because she refuses to become what her society expects her to be.  Every young woman of the Victorian era is to find a suitable mate within their social class and marry, but Emma is the black sheep and stays true to her desire of remaining single.  Emma had what a lot of women of that time lacked – self confidence.  She was okay with who she was and knew she would be okay remaining single: “Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing; but I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.” In this statement, the reader can sense the confidence Emma posses.  She knows her feelings on love are biased because she has never been in love, but at the same time she is sure of herself, so that puts her a step ahead of all the other woman of her time.  Although Emma doesn’t present herself in any sexual way, her beliefs on not wanting to be married or in love is a form of sexual expression because she goes against conventions. She is taking a stand and making her own rules.


1842: Lord Alfred Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott

This poem by Tennyson represents the Victorians’ perspective on women and how they are no longer being confined to the Angel of the House stereotype, simultaneously interacting with both the motifs of sexual expression as well as repression. Sexual expression is exemplified as the Lady of Shalott is lured out of her castle upon seeing Lancelot, and is finally able to leave the boundaries of the castle, allowing her to act upon her sexual desire. However, sexual repression is also depicted. Although she is able to initially express her sexual drive, it is then repressed through her death. The poem begins with her trapped inside of the tower and ends with her similarly trapped, this time trapped forever in the afterlife.


1847: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre original titlepage

Bronte’s Jane Eyre was immensely popular at the time of its publication. One of the reasons why it was so well-known is because it addressed the question of female sexuality. However, Jane Eyre is even more significant because it not only focuses on the question of female sexuality, but also on forms of male sexual repression, most prominently through the character of its male protagonist, Mr Rochester. After the existence of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s wife, is revealed, Rochester explains his deceit to Jane. As Rochester realizes that he and Jane are not seeing eye to eye, he grows increasingly irritated. Rochester is unable to establish control; in the end of the scene, he states, “But Jane will give me her love: yes – nobly, generously.” Blood rushes to Rochester’s face, and “forth flashed the fire from his eyes” as he sprang at Jane. Throughout the novel, Rochester has struggled to contain his sexual desire for Jane, and in this case, he is unable to do so any longer. Jane Eyre reveals that Victorian women were not the only people who were expected to act in a certain way regarding sex.


1854: Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House

Patmore composed this poem, the epitome of sexual repression, as an ode to his wife for embodying the ideal Victorian woman; for embodying the angel in the house. Following the publication of the poem, the term angel in the house became popular. It refers to the Victorian feminine ideal of a wife and mother who was selflessly devoted to her children and submissive to her husband.The woman is depicted as being passive, powerless and merely set out to please her husband. Therefore, the reader can infer that a woman who would conjure up any sexual feelings would need to repress them unless summoned upon by her husband. Sexual expression brought about on her own would not fit into the admirable angel of the house status.


1857: Matrimonial Causes Act

click on the image to be directed to the full Act.

With the implementation of the Matrimonial Causes Act, the confines of sexual expression were simultaneously reinforced and loosened. Prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act, divorce was considered illegal in England. Although some couples could be granted divorce by Parliament, they were required to pay an exorbitant fee and the only ground for divorce was adultery. The husband filing for divorce would have to first swear “never to re-marry”, and then present his claim of adultery against his wife’s lover. With this act, the Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was established and slightly expanded the grounds for divorce, as well as a woman’s access to her children and property. Now, a husband was required to demonstrate how his wife had been adulterous, and a wife had to demonstrate not only her husband’s infidelity, but also physical or incestuous adultery. While the act loosened divorce expectations, its requirements still presented men with an advantage. Still, it is a part of bringing about Victorian women’s sexual expression. As it presented women with slightly more freedom, it was influential in the eventual development of the “New Woman”, who “dealt frankly with sex and marriage as well as women’s desires for independence and fulfillment.” See entry 1980s for more information on the “New Woman.”


1862: Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”


click on the image to be directed to “Goblin Market”

The “Goblin Market” represents a paradox with regards to female sexuality because it dramatizes both sexual repression and expression.  For instance, after Lizzie refuses to have a feast with the Goblins she becomes the target for physical and verbal abuse. The Goblins “Clawed with their nails,/ Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,/ Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,/ Twitched her hair out by the roots” (lines 401-404) Essentially, like Lizzie, women are being raped by men because men only care for their desires. Through a man’s perspective a woman’s need even pertaining to sex is nonexistent. However, the poem also represents female sexual expression. For example, after escaping from the Goblins she runs home and tells Lizzie to “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/ Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,/…Eat me, drink me, love me; Laura, make much of me” (468- 469, 471- 472). Lizzie’s determination to not sell herself to the Goblins, shows how females have the ability to choose who they want to share their “fruits” with.


1889: Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of being Earnest”


For the full play, click on the above image

Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” demonstrates an underlying sense of male sexual repression, especially for homosexual men. Considering Wilde’s secret relationship with a man name Lord Alfred Douglas parallels Jack’s dual personas . During this time it is against the law to commit any act of homosexuality, which is why Wilde faced “a trial for sodomy in April 1985.”  A homosexual could not expose himself without the possibility of going to prison. Instead they resort to creating another identity or keeping it a secret. The play presents a character name Jack who creates another personality, who he calls Ernest, which he uses when he goes to the city. With the play being a satire, when Jack actually finds out that his name really is Ernest, he realizes that he has been honest the whole time and says, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”(Damrosch and Dettmar, 1869) By illustrating that Jack is actually who he has been claiming to be all along, Wilde is showing that one’s fabricated personality can be a truer form of oneself, than their actual personality. Wilde illustrates this duality in his person life, one being a married man with children and another persona where he is a homosexual.


1890: Emergence of the “New Woman”

imagesThe New Woman represented the epitome of sexual expression, and thus arguably a result to all the years of her sexual repression. She was a symbol, often found printed in newspapers and animated through cartoon pictures, of independence (she could choose who to marry, how many children to have, etc.), a rejection of monogamy and the “angel of the house” responsibility. In short, she urged for woman to have more freedom in every realm of her life.The public viewed the New Woman as a slippage because again, the angel of the house was still held as the ideal. The image below illustrates  that the symbol for the New Woman was the bicycle because with it they had more mobility and could come and go as they pleased. In addition to critics fearing this mobility on behalf of women, they also feared that this level of freedom would escalate into women beginning to wear pants and dress like men, and so many cartoons of women riding bicycles include them dressed in pants rather than proper dresses.


1894: Ruth Smyther’s Tips for Husbands & Wives from 1894

Symthers wrote a manual on how sex should be endured and not enjoyed for married couples.  This is interesting because the Victorians grew up learning to save themselves for marriage, so one would think that they would finally be able to explore themselves sexually with their life partner.  Instead, Smythers wrote a book basically telling society that sex was still something to be ashamed of even during marriage and that it was not to be enjoyed – it was to be endured. The following link contains some of her tips on how sexual relations should take place between husband and wife:

One of the more interesting tips is as follows: “When he finds her, she should lie as still as possible. Bodily motion could be interpreted as sexual excitement by the optimistic husband. Sex, when it cannot be prevented, should be practiced only in total darkness.” Smythers makes marital sex seem quite sinful.  This text is amusing because Smythers does not actually believe what she writes, and that she is critical of her society’s notions of sex.


1894: Sarah Grand’s “The New Aspect of the Woman Question”

Sarah Grand is one of the strongest leading figures of the “New Time,” a time devoted and centered around all aspects of female expression. Grand believes this time was one to acknowledge and accept the mistakes women have made throughout history. According to Grand, the reasons behind female exploitation, (including sexual repression) was caused by women’s inability to prevent men from arranging and managing “the whole social system and manage or mismanage it all these ages without ever seriously examining his work with a view to considering whether his abilities and his motives were sufficiently good to qualify him for the task.” (Damrosch and Dettmar, 1552) Women in some ways enabled men to put their needs and desires before them, which also translated into how they would be treated sexually. Grand is telling women to not only look at the erroneous acts committed by men, but also at themselves. She is telling women to take on the responsibility of asking the questions regarding the “Woman Question” and figuring out the answers that will improve their lives. For the full text of ‘The Woman Question”, click here.


Adut, Ari. “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde.” JSTOR. The University of Chicago Press, n.d. Web. 27 March 2014.

Austen, Jane. Emma. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

Damrosch, David, and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. “Goblin Market.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 2010. Print.

Damrosch, David, and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. “The importance of being Earnest.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 2010. Print.

Eyre, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

Grand, Sarah. “The New Aspect of the Woman Question.” JSTOR. University of Northern Iowa, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Hager, Kelly. “Chipping Away at Coverture: The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 28 March 2014.

Smythers, Ruth. Tips for Husbands & Wives from 1894. Chichester: Summersdale, 2011. Print.

“The New Woman Fiction.” The Victorian Web: literature, history, & culture in the age of Victoria. Ed. Andrzej Diniejko. Web. 28 March 2014.

“The New Woman and Her Bicycle.” Library of Congress. Digital ID # 3b49127. Web. 30 March 2014.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “The Dichotomy of Sexuality in the Victorian Era

  1. we buy junk cars albany ny

    On-line providers have produced this approach much
    less difficult. With all becuse of respect to the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes,
    Pittsburgh (22-two SU, 9-8 ATS, 10-one Significant East) has looked likie
    the very best group in College Basketball at timkes this season. It implies that even when they disintegrate, they may noot degrade fhlly and instead
    pollute tthe soil.

    my blog: we buy junk cars albany ny

Comments are closed.