It’s not every book that can boast to allow the reader a sneaky peak info what went on in Queen Victoria’s own wedding night, but then, The Victorian Guide to Sex by Fern Riddell is a surprising book indeed. It turns many of the commonly held perceptions of the Victorians attitudes towards sex on their heads, and has a unique style of presenting these facts, which feels genuinely novel and at times hilarious.
Riddell chooses to divide the book into five separate volumes, each with a different narrator representing a separate aspect of Victorian sexuality. Thus we have Mrs Dollymop in whose writings we see the stirrings of what would become the fight for equality, and in Lord Arthur Cleveland the 19th century gentleman decadent, determined to take his own pleasure at any cost.
The information each guide imparts is surprising to say the least. Far from their sexually uptight and patriarchal reputation, we learn that he Victorians had a great and healthy respect for the female orgasm (even believing that it was necessary to achieve pregnancy), and that many believed that physical and mental harmony was the true secret to a healthy marriage.
Of course there are some anomalies in this. The Reverend J. J. James lectures his male audience on the importance of choosing the right leg shape in a wife – apparently those with the misfortune to have heavy legs and flat shoes should be avoided at all costs on the grounds of an irredeemably coarse nature. And Doctor Dimmick advises that no woman with a Roman nose should ever seek to find a husband – unless they can find a particularly small-nosed and submissive specimen willing to do their bidding.
But there is also much that can be translated to a more modern age – Mrs Dollymop’s exhaustive list of secret messages that a ladies fan can communicate shows that discreet sexual advances and flirting existed long before the cheeky text message. And an early reference to the Kama Sutra makes it clear that the Victorians had found a way to get their sex tips long before Cosmopolitan magazine hit the stands.
Amongst all this humor and surprising emphasis on mutual happiness Riddell is careful strike a warning note. Although there might be much that is surprisingly modern about the Victorian era, this was also the age that saw the passing of the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act. This was a heavy handed attempt by the government of the day to stem the tide of venereal disease that in towns like Portsmouth, were reckoned to affect over 50% of the armed forces stationed there, and laid the blame firmly at the door of women. Any unfortunate woman suspected of harboring venereal disease could be placed in front of a magistrate and taken to a locked hospital for up to nine months, without appeal. Luckily, as Mrs Dollymop makes clear, these unfortunate women found a champion in Josephine Butler, whose tireless campaigning against the act eventually saw it repealed in 1886.
Riddell’s cast of narrators perfectly captures the language of Victorian pamphlets – while never detracting from the fascinating information at hand. This novel approach has the delicious effect of making us truly feel that we have glimpsed behind the bedroom door of our most contradictory of historical eras, finding everything from blow up dolls to True Love.