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Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism

By Rohan McWilliam | Posted 11th August 2011, 12:42
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Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism
Deborah Lutz
W.W. Norton   331pp   £19.99
ISBN 978 0393068320

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If Deborah Lutz is correct, the Swinging 1960s really began in the 1860s. It was then that coteries of artists and intellectuals began to push at the boundaries of acceptable sexual behaviour. They prized greater openness about sex and expressed themselves through shocking representations of the body, writing pornography and finding in some cases fulfilment through flagellation and same-sex love. Bohemianism became a licence for transgression. There was nothing buttoned-up about these Victorians.

Pleasure Bound focuses on two overlapping groups – the Cannibal Club and the Aesthetes – but readers will find its cast of characters very familiar. Many were associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters founded in 1848. What originality the book possesses comes from pairing the figures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the artist, and Richard Burton, the explorer, orientalist and translator of the Kama Sutra. The book weaves in and out of their lives as they challenge ‘Mrs Grundy’ (the Victorian term for prudery). Both were men about town, parading their sophistication and engaging in endless self-promotion. The image of the Bohemian had been imported from France in the 1840s and stood for the idea of the artist as a kind of romantic outlaw, living on the margins of society and treating conventional rules with the contempt they deserved. Rossetti and Burton never had much to do with each other, but that does not matter as the book is more interested in them as products of the same frame of mind.

Rossetti flitted between religious subjects and images that excavated sexual desire. Some of his paintings, according to Deborah Lutz, could be defined as erotica. Sex and death were common themes locked in an unholy embrace. I did, however, enjoy reading that, in Lutz’s words, Rossetti ‘could be rather vanilla in bed’. Burton (described by one contemporary as resembling the ‘captain of a robber band’) used his travels in foreign countries to explore alternative sexual moralities. There is also a subordinate cast including Swinburne (whose sensuous poetry led Punch to dub him ‘Swineborn’), ‘Walter’ (the anonymous author of the pornographic classic My Secret Life) and Simeon Solomon, one of the less well-known Pre-Raphaelites who is currently being rediscovered. In 1873 he was disgraced after he was discovered having sex with a man in a public toilet. Lutz argues that her characters all gained from their association with the other like-minded figures who populate the book.

There were good reasons why both Burton and the Pre-Raphaelites were rediscovered by the 1960s generation. Their demands for sexual freedom struck a libertarian chord. If this book is correct, the 1860s resembled the 1960s in that it was men who really took advantage of sexual freedom.

Pleasure Bound is well written but has very little new to say. The book rests on a cartoonish portrait of Victorian Britain: full of grey, tight-lipped repression as opposed to the technicolour luminaries who strut their stuff in Lutz’s pages. We get some absurd statements, such as that by 1900 ‘to the majority of the population religion became irrelevant’. Much of the book reminded me of the recent BBC television series, Desperate Romantics, in which the Pre-Raphaelites were reclaimed as a kind of boy band, a Victorian Take That. Desperate Romantics at least had the merit of not taking itself too seriously. Lutz laudably claims that we need to see her characters in the context of their time but one can’t help feeling that they are simply modern sexual liberals wearing fancy dress in this account.

Rohan McWilliam is Senior Lecturer in British and American History at Anglia Ruskin University.


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