Thursday 22 May 2014


I've been curious about this book for ages, because I follow Fern Riddell on twitter, and hints about its genesis have been scattered through her twitter feed, not least the remarkable discovery of an advertisement for a 'Femme de Voyage or Artificial Fanny' - the original blow-up sex toy. The Femme de Voyage may or may not have existed (as Riddell readily acknowledges in her blog post, it may be the work of a contemporary or latter-day satirist / hoaxer) but the Victorians' interest in sex - and having good sex - was very real, which brings us to The Victorian Guide to Sex.

The book is not a big academic tome on Victorian sexuality - although backed-up by rigorous research - but playfully presented as a genuine Victorian sex/relationships manual. Such books existed ... I have a copy of Augustus Gardner's The Conjugal Relationship as to Health (1894) on my shelf (doesn't every one?), one of the more finger-wagging examples of the breed, not least on 'personal pollution' amongst women, i.e. masturbation ... 'much of the worthlessness, lassitude and physical and mental feebleness attributable to the modern woman are to be ascribed to these habits'. Gardner, however, is/was just one voice (and not necessarily a great read) whereas Riddell brings together her compendious knowledge of 19C sex/relationship books, to present a synthesised fictional manual for the young (or young-at-heart) Victorian.

This could go awry but it's a nice pastiche and the result is very interesting and worthwhile - and something you wouldn't get from, say, just picking up an old copy of Gardner or one of his contemporaries. Rather, the modern reader obtains a fascinating and comprehensive insight into the advice our ancestors could obtain on sexual matters. This includes not only more familiar topics (e.g. masturbation - very much against) but the Victorian conception of healthy sexuality - i.e. within a conjugal relationship and, surprise surprise, involving mutual pleasure (albeit perhaps heavily geared towards conception). Riddell says she wants us to move away from the modern idea of Victorians as either moustache-twirling perverts or repressed piano-leg coverers, and she does a great job of presenting a much more balanced view.

There are, of course, much bigger, more detailed books on Victorian sex, not least from the golden age of Victorian Studies, such as Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians, or Ronald Pearsall's The Worm in the Bud (checking my copy of the latter, I find it's a 1993 edition, withdrawn from Croydon public libraries - Croydon's loss is my gain). Riddell's focus on the sex/relationship manual, however, provides a slightly different way into the subject - and basically this is a fun primer, not so much for hard-core (cough) Victorianist researchers, as those with a general interest or curiosity in the subject. The only negative, perhaps, is that the pastiche format means there's an absence of citations (although a list of principal sources at the back).

I'm also still a bit sceptical that Vigor's Horse Action Saddle was anything other than an exercise machine - but don't let that hold you back ... I agree that the hand-turned mechanical spurting dildo couldn't really double as anything else.

There's a sentence I won't be writing again in a hurry.

No comments:

Post a Comment