We tend to think of the Victorians as the personification of prudery and puritanism, a people whose sexual attitudes, practices, and knowledge differed greatly from our own, to their detriment. Indeed, even in the midst of the AIDS crisis and our growing concern about safe sex, the Victorians hardly seem an appealing role model of sexual behavior. But is this image really very accurate? What did the Victorians really think about sex? What were their sex lives like? And what wider concepts--biological, political, religious--shaped their sexuality?
The Making of Victorian Sexuality directly confronts one of the most persistent cliches of modern times. Drawing on a wealth of sources from medical and scientific texts, to popular fiction, evangelical writing, and the work of radicals such as Godwin and Mill, Michael Mason shows how much of our perception of nineteenth-century sexual culture is simply wrong. Covering such topics as premarital sex, marriage, prostitution, women's sexuality, and male masturbation, Mason shows that, far from being a license for prudery and hypocrisy, Victorian sexuality was guided by a humane and progressive vision of society's future. Mason reveals that the average Victorian man was not necessarily the church-going, tyrannical, secretly lecherous, bourgeois pater familias of modern-day legend, but often an agnostic, radical-minded, sexually continent citizen, with a deliberately restricted number of children. He paints a society in which husbands and wives knew full well about female orgasm and women's sexuality; where if some specialists believed that nervous disorders in women, ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia, were due to masturbation, most experts emphatically denied the connection; and where the extensive use of birth control devices first began (pioneered oddly enough by the bottom of the middle class: shop-owners, hotel-keepers, and other nonmanual but nonprofessional and nonmanagerial workers). Furthermore, he points out that Victorians were the first to concern themselves about sex education for children, the quality of urban nightlife, commuter marriages, the competing claims of pleasure and procreation in married sex, and the rationale of divorce.
Persuasively arguing that there is much in Victorian sexual moralism of interest to the late twentieth century, this lively and fascinating study offers a radical challenge to one of the most enduring myths of our age.
`powerfully documented new study ... rich and challenging book
`astute and eye-opening study, seeks to rescue reality from myth ... probes beyond scandals ... and paints a fresh picture, drawing upon the discoveries of social historians and demographers
`admirably detailed research ... an invaluable point of reference for anyone who wants to know what really went on during the complex Victorian period ... an immensely detailed investigation of a complex subject
`a densely written and heavily footnoted treatise ... The depth of research and level of analysis presented here will be of great interest to scholars.
Publishers Weekly, 1994
`Mason's book is packed with research.
`powerfully documented new study ... Mason treats evidence scrupulously, and gathers an immense amount of it ... no prospective pontificators about Victorianism will safely neglect this rich and challenging book.
John Carey, Sunday Times
`Mason's book is a bold contribution to a debate in danger of collapsing into a comfortable Victorians-as-repressed orthodoxy.
Alain de Botton, Sunday Telegraph
`Mason's thorough research and original arguments are to be welcomed.
Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times
`Michael Mason has made a welcome addition to the literature.
Times Literary Supplement
`Michael Mason ... is to be congratulated on this book. The value of this book, however occasionally hidden under academic varnish, is that 'There are therefore implications for the role of reticence and restraint in our modern sexual culture.
James Munson, Contemporary Review
`... comprehensive new study ...
Nicolas Buchele. The UCL Book Review
`Mason's use of attitudes revealed in contemporary literature is always lively and engaging.
Robin Lucas. Sydney Morning Herald. July '94
`this book is an excellent work on a much maligned element of the Victorian century. This should be a must-read work for students of history and of English language alike. For sheer elegance of style and mastery of language, it is unrivalled. For depth of research and information, it is staggering and an example to historians of how to arrive at their conclusions about the Victorian or any other age, including our own. For any student of the Victorian era,
this book ought to be a necessary piece of reference material.
Keith Pearson, SCENE (Southwestern Ontario) August
`the scholarly research behind them is extremely impressive. ... his arguments are carefully formulated to include ambiguities and contradictions, which are inevitable when dealing with so slippery a subject as sexual behaviour and sexual attitudes. ... these two learned and remarkable volumes reveal a wealth of 19th-century thought and behaviour. Mason has cleared the undergrowth and provided some of the materials needed for someone else to build a
synthesis. In future, anyone interested in the theory and practice of "Victorianism" will have to read them very carefully.'
London Review of Books
`An authoritative and fascinating study.'
Robin Blake, The Independent on Sunday
`a startling, blunt look at the misconceptions widely held about the Victorian Era. ...what gives this book its authority is the use of new evidence to prove the main thesis...a valuable source to both students of hidtory, as well as anyone with an interest in the Victorian era. ...written in a clear, concise manner...easy to read...a well-written, interesting and thought-provoking book. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the
Victorian era or British history in general.'
The Mirror (University of Western Ontario Student History Journal)
`this makes a valuable contributon to our understanding of our Victorian ancestors. One hopes it will help to right the imbalance in many people's thinking about Victorians.'
`excellent book...his prose ia always reaadable, free from jargon, and it is clinically detached: he is not a journalist nudging, winking, and using four letter words. Mason's fascinating book serves to remind us of life's paradoxes.'
New York Times eview
`the range of material is broad...Mason's two books lay a wealth of material before readers interested in Victorian sexuality.'
`the book would be a valuable addition to a graduate seminar because it raises a number of important questions about the interpretation and evaluation of historical sources.'
`a major contribution to this field of investigation ... His work is based on prodigious reading in a vast range of sources, which he handles with scrupulous care and a full awareness of the problems attached both to his subject and to his evidence. This invaluable book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the nature of Victorian sexuality and we must look forward to the next volume with keen anticipation.'
Jeffrey Richards, Lancaster University, The Historical Association 1996
`these two companion volumes by Michael Mason gather together a truly compendious amount of research to account for the emergence, formation, and dispersal of sexual respectability in Victorian society ... Mason can provide richly detailed and rewarding insights into some of the more obscure reaches of Victorian sexual life.'
Joseph Bristow, History Workshop Journal