Rules of the Game: Love, courtship, marriage, sex and married life from the 19th century until 1939 (Part 2 – Sex and Married Life)

See here for the introduction and disclaimer

Some parts of this entry might have mature content and maybe considered NSFW.

Victorian Sex Culture:

Western (in this instance British) society today likes to think itself as much more open-minded with regards to sex and is saturated with images, discussions and narratives about it. As the cliché says, “sex sells” and we see that everywhere in advertising, television and literature.

Part of this boast of being open minded is a way of denigrating the society before us, particularly the Victorians. To modern day sensibilities, the Victorians are seen as repressed, narrow minded, hypocritical and in the case of sex, prudish. But that is not the case as demonstrated by authors such as Matthew Sweet (Inventing the Victorians) and Simon Heffer (High Minds) who both have recently written about the role of the Victorians in shaping British society into the way it is. The British today still use many of the institutions and infrastructure founded by the Victorians; read works written by some of the eminent writers and thinkers of the era; have built upon their discoveries, inventions as well as legislation concerning social and political issues; and continue to reference aspects of Victorian life into their own. Both Sweet and Heffer in their books as well as those by academic experts of the era have deplored the simplistic stereotypes of the Victorians that continue to be still peddled despite the fact that they have been decisively debunked.

The fact that these stereotypes and myths persists lends credence to the saying that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent in discussions about attitudes towards sex. There is the tendency to patronise the Victorians and stereotype them as hypocritical and prudish while claiming that modern day people are more open and less hypocritical.

One of the classic myths that persist to this day is the view that the Victorians were so afraid of sexuality that anything that was vaguely associated with the human body such as piano legs were covered. There is no evidence that piano legs were covered due to the fear of being sexually aroused but more rather for practical reasons such as protecting from dust and damage something which was a valuable piece of furniture. What began as a joke on both sides of the Atlantic about the up-tightness of the middle class took on a life of its own until it became accepted as historical fact and was held up as an example of Victorian hypocrisy and sexual prudery. The reality is much more nuanced and complex.

Contrary to popular belief, Victorians did talk about sex but not in the way modern society does. It was seen as a private matter and not something to be discussed with anyone else other than one’s spouse and even then there was reticence between husband and wife. Any discussion about sex in the public domain was not for its own sake but rather anchored in discussions of economics, society, science and health. Many of these discussions were centred on the concern of the British population steadily growing despite the omnipresent spectre of mother and baby mortality. Influenced by the ideas of Thomas Malthus, many commentators were alarmed at what they saw as unchecked population growth especially among the working classes. While many thinkers believed that the working class would not be able to improve their lot in life unless they had fewer children others went towards the extreme end by championing eugenics, targeting those who they thought should be discouraged from breeding.

Most of our knowledge of attitudes and discussions about sex during the 19th century comes from social reformers, who were mostly middle class. The Victorian era was one where moral panic and moral reform existed side by side, and resulted in state and societal intervention to protect those who could not defend themselves – such as for instance founding organisations such as the Salvation Army, schemes to rescue “fallen women” or laws that granted the state powers to protect children from abuse – and heavily influenced the continuing debate about issues such as prostitution, pornography, relationships and marriage.

Salvation Army

It is interesting to note that majority of these commentators who adhered to either or both Mathusian ideas and eugenics were from the middle classes. Sexual puritanism was also heavily associated with the middle classes and those who subscribed to their ideas. This puritanical attitude was seen by the middle classes as a way to distinguish themselves from the aristocracy and working classes who they saw as debauched, debased, dirty and scandalous. As Francoise Barret-Ducrocq points out:

[There was a] wish to distinguish themselves from other groups. For most part, the authors of these horrified descriptions of working-class sexuality came from the middle class and bourgeoisie, preoccupied at that time with establishing ideological dominance over the rest of society (hitherto a privilege of the landed aristocracy). This necessarily involved the moral disqualification of the other social classes: first the aristocracy, then the poor.

This middle class view of sex filtered upwards to the British monarchy with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s campaign to make the monarchy respectable and to distance it from its dissolute past by appropriating middle class values. Determined that there should be no repeat of the shenanigans involving George III’s children, Victoria and Albert set up high moral standards for their children through their education and upbringing. Albert especially due his experience of the trauma of his parents’ marriage believed that sexual deviancy was damaging to a person’s moral wellbeing. His overreaction to the Nellie Clifden affair is an example. The Prince of Wales having his first sexual experience with a young woman courtesy of his fellow officers was seen as a normal rite of passage especially for young upper class males but for Prince Albert it was a sign of moral weakness and the younger Prince was duly chastised; and for years Victoria held that the Prince Consort’s death was due to his distress over the affair.

There was nothing surprising about the middle class view of sex; the West for a long time has had the ambivalence towards discussing the topic. For more than a thousand years, the Western Church had asserted the supremacy of celibacy, seeing sex as a mere necessity for the continuation of humanity and only permissible within the sacrament of marriage. While the denominations and sects that emerged during and after the Protestant Reformation did away with requiring their clergy to remain celibate and held that married life was no way inferior to celibacy, there was still the view that only sex within marriage was acceptable and that married couples should follow the Biblical injunction of to “go forth and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”

The 19th century was the beginning of the retreat of the Church from public life and discourse and this filtered into discussions of sex as well. The core Christian message of sex within marriage remained strong but was there was an added scientific bent. Susie Steinbach in her study of women in Britain from the late 18th century to the eve of the First World War observed that discussions about sex during this period “was distinguished by dire warnings of its dangers, detailed discussions of its effects, and the powerful insistence on the necessity for discretion.”

During this period, greater knowledge of anatomy concluded that women were not lesser men but different from men as their genitals differed from those of the male. Re-contexualisation resulted into two views, that women were other beings perfect in their own way and the idea that women were happiest and powerful by following their biological destiny. In addition this information was also used to justify why women were inferior to men as well as the cultural need to redefine women as unlike men.

There was also the re-evaluation of relationship between women and desire. During the early modern period women were seen as more sexually voracious but by the 19th century, women (at least the respectable ones) were thought to be less sexual than men. A symptom of this shift was because of ideas about orgasm, in the past, it was seen as a necessity for conception as it was with the male however studies showed that it was due to ovulation not orgasm which produced the “seed” that could lead to conception. Hence this became the de facto scientific justification for the difference in sexual desire; “respectable” women were seen as passionless and that sex was merely for procreation, motherhood and marital harmony while men were governed by sexual desire and this was often seen as a rationalisation for prostitution; which flourished in an age that insisted on the purity and innocence of respectable women.

Writing about sex and devices in the 19th century:

Some literature during this period dwelt on a range of issues pertaining to sex. They ranged from those that anchored sex with social, economic and demographic issues to scientific tomes to advice manuals down to outright quackery. As what people personally felt about sex was seen as a private matter, private opinions were largely undocumented and what remains were written for an official audience so cannot be seen as necessarily truthful. Others were spoofs (more later) and hence could not be taken seriously.

One of the topics raised during this period was on masturbation which was known as the “solitary vice”. The euphemism alone gives us a clue to how Victorian society saw masturbation and several books and articles were written to warn readers about this “vice” and what caused it. They ranged from being the result of certain illnesses, general uncleanliness, certain exercises and food. It was also thought that associating with people of dubious character, over familiarity with the opposite sex and reading of “sentimental books”. As a result, it was thought that men would develop illnesses such as irritation or pain in their genital organs, kidneys and bladder; consumptions; heart diseases; pain in the limbs and body; paralysis; nervous diseases and nocturnal emissions (spermatorrhoea). Women on the other hand would develop soreness in the roots of the fingernails, menstrual irregularities, cancer of the womb, shrivelling of the breasts, pruritis (terrible itching of the genitals) and hysteria (insanity, exhaustion, nervousness). Today this is dismissed as medical quackery but it illustrates how any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage was viewed and commented upon.


Others attempted to tackle what they viewed as the “sexual problem” through a series of articles in magazines such as The Adult, the Westminster Review and The University Magazine and Free Review. Topics that were covered ranged from issues surrounding marriage, the sexual nature of men and women, prostitution, homosexuality and monogamy. However many of these magazines did not last long due to their small circulation and that many of these magazines had links to anarchist organisations which meant that the authorities were keeping a close watch over their activities. In the end, some of these publications were closed down using the cover of anti-obscenity laws.

No matter how much several publications claim to have free discussions of unexplored topics and sexual taboos, the reality was that talk about sex was always about sex within marriage. The writings of the likes of Annie Besant and Marie Stopes advocated the use of contraception and sex as being healthy for a woman and to strengthen the marital bond. Besant’s The Law of Population (1870) explored the issue of population growth from a Malthusian perspective and went one step further by asserting that unchecked population growth was not only a detriment to society but also to the health of the mother and by extension the health of the marriage and the family. She advocated the use of contraception as a way to preserve the health of the mother which in turn would lead to a healthier married and family life.


Marie Stopes went one step further with Married Love and Wise Parenthood (both published in 1918) as well as her Mother’s Clinic and production of her own contraceptive devices which offered practical advice on sexual and reproductive health. She was also one of the first to use of consultation for patients recognising that the first step to having a healthy sexual life was through a frank confession in a private room. However she was suspicious of attaching any special meanings to a person’s sexual hang-ups. “Don’t please think about your subconscious mind,” Stopes advised a patient. “All this filthiness of this psychoanalysis does unspeakable harm.”


While the likes of Besant and Stopes focused on the relationship between women, sexual health and its consequences for society, Havelock Ellis was looking at sex from a more detached and dispassionate view. He collected, recorded and analysed data impartially and through the application of the scientific method which resulted into the seven volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1898-1928). His studies showed that sexology was a complex and multi-faceted field and put forward his views that female sexuality was a response to the male one and that female modesty was inherent. What he has in similarity to Besant and Stopes is the assertion that women had “erotic rights” and this ran counter to the belief of the Victorian establishment that women could not and should not enjoy sex and that it was an unavoidable moment of regrettable bestiality unfortunately necessary to produce children.

However, despite the writings that exist there was still that great ignorance in sexual matters during the Victorian era and until even 40 years ago.  Someone who wanted information about sex resorted to pornography. A variety of erotic literature could be purchased but only via expensive underground channels, so in practice it was only available to well off men whose wives were shy, ignorant or both. The Rickatson-Hyatt divorce, awarded in 1939 on grounds on genuine non-consummation after 10 years of traumatic marriage illustrates only too clearly and in painful detail the overpowering middle class taboos in seeking help, medical or otherwise, to discuss sex. Embarrassed repression and sexual taboos were prevalent in most British homes right up until the 1960s and beyond.

Of course there were books, by Marie Stopes and others, containing sexual information for the lay public, as well as text books which, while describing the sexual organs, omitted to detail what was done with them. But there was almost nothing for the general reader nor anything that looked at the psychology of sexual behaviour. One trainee gynaecologist who tried to remedy this state of affairs by writing a simple and straightforward guide had to do so under a pseudonym for fear the medical hierarchy would prevent him getting a post in obstetrics and gynaecology. When he eventually found a publisher, they insisted that any illustrations were bound and sealed separately in a packet at the back of the book, as these were, according to the preface, “of interest only to the serious reader.” Even so the book, first published in 1939, was banned in some areas and burned publicly in Blackpool. The Technique of Sex, by Anthony Havil (pseudonym of Dr Elliot Philip) cost fourpence a copy, stayed in print for a remarkable fifty years and sold half a million copies in hardback alone, clearly satisfying a national demand.

Devices were available such as those to prevent masturbation and for contraception (rubber caps and diaphragms), but the latter again was only available to married couples. General reticence, expense and the lack of privacy meant that many couples didn’t take advantage of the availability of contraception devices but simply resorted to abstinence, withdrawal and prolonged breastfeeding. These devices (which included condoms and dildoes) were also marketed as a way to protect against venereal disease while vibrators (which are now seen as sexual devices) originally were advertised to cure several complaints such as colds, digestive complaints, rheumatism, chest and lung discomfort, head cold and neuralgia.


Married Life:

Married life during the Victorian period until at least 40 years ago was run along strict demarcation lines between the role of a husband and wife. This is unlike today with the insistence on equality and shared responsibility where both husband and wife are expected to be both breadwinners, homemakers and assume responsibility for child rearing at the same time (although in reality it is still generally the woman who does the lion’s share of the homemaking and child rearing).

The Victorian and Edwardian husband was seen as the provider of the domestic hearth and home but once he “brought home the bacon”, this “bacon” became the wife’s domain as part of the management of the home and family. It was believed that the man should not interfere in household and we see here how strictly defined the role of a husband and wife was. Isabella Beeton herself in the opening paragraph of her famous Book of Household Management summarises the importance of a woman’s role in the management of her household and family:

As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well-being of a family. In this opinion we are borne out by the author of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” who says: “The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes.

Such pronouncements reinforced the predominant idea that the health of the marriage and the family was down to the woman.

In part one of the blog, I mentioned that the Victorians liked to believed that they married for love and Fern Riddell, in her work The Victorian Guide to Sex claimed that:

The Victorians were dedicated to the idea of mutual physical sexual fulfilment, albeit within the boundaries of married life. Although sex outside marriage was seen in a negative light by the press and popular opinion, sex within marriage was highly important. Finding the right person who would physically match you and with whom you could spend the rest of your life was driven by one single idea: True Love.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with this as the reality was that it was whatever “for love” really meant. The idea of marrying for love was a 19th century middle class construct. Arranged marriages were the normal practice everywhere for most of history and how kings and queens, and all the aristocracy, were married off. Even amongst the peasants marriages were not for love, but for dowries and inheriting pieces of land and property. The “romantic marriage” based on sexual love is a Victorian invention. Before that, most such relationships were outside marriage or developed afterwards.

Victorian society insisted on hypocrisy even in married life. Chastity was regarded by both sexes as more important for women than men, who were assumed to need the experience or simply be unable to control themselves; so women entered marriage wholly ignorant of the “facts of life” and any woman who had any knowledge of sex or the sexual act was “damaged goods.”  Double standards were commonly justified on the basis that for women sex was not very important as they did not experience the passion and pleasure that was natural to men. Despite the breathless pronouncements of the wedding night being a “delight that forms part of the matrimonial state to which access should never be denied and the unlocking of the virginal cabinet become a source of untold pleasure for the years ahead of them,” for the majority of women, the wedding night was more of a fraught affair and several recollections survive of women being so traumatised by their first sexual encounter that it took them awhile before attempting it again. One recalled of her wedding night that her husband tapped on the bedroom door and asked if he could come in and say goodnight. “I didn’t think he was going to do THAT!” she exclaimed and it speaks volumes of the euphemisms used and the general reticence common to that period as well as the wedding night being in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s words “a ‘barbaric trial’ for at least the woman, and sometimes, the man as well. That experience was all the worse because sexual relations, having been forbidden before marriage, became an absolute requirement afterwards.” It was exacerbated by the lack of knowledge and something that was not discussed at all between a parent and a child.

Unlike today where people marry for love and want and hope to spend the rest of their lives with the one they love, earlier generations had different expectations with regards to married life something I suspect escaped Alastair Bruce when he alleged that:

This meant that, from the youngest age, they were trained to behave properly, to be chaperoned if they were unmarried, and to never think of dallying with the opposite sex, no matter how much they wanted to until they were married. That’s why so many of them got married young, in order to discover both freedom from the chaperoning of their parents, and also to discover and enjoy the physical benefits that were available in love and marriage.

I take exception to this remark due to several factors. One is that actually not many women married young because of varying factors such as the stiff competition for prospective husbands especially after the end of the First World War, the lack of money and familial responsibilities. Secondly, there was the fact that they married because that was the life goal – everyone was expected to marry. Certainly young people wanted the freedom not to be chaperoned but to claim that women wanted “to enjoy the physical benefits that were available in love and marriage” is not the case as more than enough evidence exists that women entered marriage without any knowledge whatsoever of sex.

Aristocratic marriages were for the union of great fortune and estates and were carefully planned; if the young couple found each other attractive so much the better, but love came a very poor second to suitability and marrying within one’s class. If couples like the real life Curzons or the fictional Granthams were lucky love and happiness would come, but for every Robert and Cora, finding happiness after a miserable start, there must have been a couple who remained incompatible,  doing their duty and finding love outside the ties of marriage. Society with a capital S and society at large tacitly acknowledged that people who were unable to find fulfilment and happiness in marriage were entitled to find it elsewhere as long as the unwritten rules were kept – a sort of slackening of the corsets when no-one was looking. Couples of all classes did not expect that they would be able to fulfil all the needs of their spouse; they expected to and were expected to maintain their own interests – the man had his employment, the pub, the club, the regiment or the estates, while women had their families, their charities and their friends to occupy them. Robert and Cora live in an unrealistic daily proximity in the early series; it’s only in series 5, where Robert is out and about with his committees and estate business while Cora pursues her interest in art that we see anything like an aristocratic couple and the separate lives they led.

This separation also extended to the marital bed. Especially for the royals and the upper classes, separate bedrooms were more or less seen as the norm but there were a few notable exceptions such as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra. A blog claimed that some people believed that actually sharing the same bed can “preserve honor (sic)” and extensively quotes Honore Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage to back up her point. However even a cursory reading of Balzac’s tome strongly suggests that his work was meant to be a parody and spoof of advice literature prevalent in 19th century France with the underlying serious message that adultery is the logical outcome of marriage. It is highly likely that separate bedrooms were seen as a status symbol to demonstrate wealth and high social standing as well as a form of birth control. After the necessary heir had been produced couples avoided the issue by retreating to separate bedrooms and husbands resorted to prostitutes or extramarital affairs. Crucially, marriage then was not submitted to scrutiny and analysis in the way it is now. There weren’t articles about it and endlessly picking it over – one was married and that was that. Nor did couples live in a hyper-sexualised society – no articles telling them that if they weren’t doing it five time as night there was something wrong with their marriage.

While it is true that many couples in the past did find love and fulfilment in marriage and married life, the reality of the restrictive norms and rules placed a strain on others. This tension between public and private was a recurring issue with Victorian discourse on sex and married life and as we shall see in the next part, the middle class Victorians, echoing Edward Gibbon, were of the belief that both the aristocracy and the working class where in Barret-Ducrocq’s words “insufficiently virtuous” and how the elite particularly tried to reconcile their public role and private passions.

Notes on pictures:

1. From William Booth’s In Darkest England and the Way Out

2. 19th century print showing consequences of masturbation -photo taken by blogger of post card from the Institute of Sexology exhibition

3. title page of Annie Besant’s The Law of Population – photo taken by blogger of copy held in the British Library

4. title page of Marie Stopes’ Married Love – photo taken by blogger of copy held in the British Library

5. anti-masturbation device –

Further reading:

Anne Sebba. That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (London, 2012)

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

F.M.L. Thompson. The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 (London, 1988)

Matthew Sweet. Inventing the Victorians (London, 2001)

Simon Heffer. High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (London, 2013)

Gertrude Himmelfarb. Marriage and Morals among the Victorians (London, 1989)

Joan Perkin. Victorian Women (London, 1993)

Francoise Barret-Ducrocq (translated by John Howe). Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality, Class and Gender in Nineteenth-Century London (London, 1991)

Fern Riddell. The Victorian Guide to Sex (Barnsley, 2014)

Marie Stopes. Married Love (London, 1918)

Annie Besant. The Law on Population (London, 1870)

Isabella Beeton. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (London, 1861)

Pamela Horn. Ladies of the Manor (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2014)

Pamela Horn. Flappers (London, 2013) originally published as Women in the 1920s in 1995

Pat Jalland. Women, Marriage and Politics 1860-1914 (Oxford, 1988)

Sex and the Church – BBC 2 documentary presented by Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, telecast from 10-24 April 2015

The Institute of Sexology – Wellcome Collection exhibition from 20 November 2014 – 20 September 2015

Anne Humphrys. ‘The Journals that Did: Writing About Sex in the late 1890s’. Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century vol. 3 2006

Patricia Mainardi. Husbands, Wives, and Lovers: Marriage and Its Discontents in Nineteenth-Century France (Yale, 2003)