Patricia Anderson, from When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians (1995)

Transcribed from pages 71-92 of Patricia Anderson's When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians. Published by Basic Books, 1995.

The Making of Lovemaking

As they pursued the women of their choice, [Victorian men] individually reflected the romantic and sexual ideals of the day. If [they] were not generally poets, some at least dipped into the outpourings of others, as did many of the women they desired. Still more people nourished their romantic longings on best-selling fiction. Meanwhile, songs and other entertainments, greeting cards, love letters, courting customs, and marriage manuals also fostered the relationship of the sexes. Romantic sexual love was a constant, often public presence in Victorian life and popular consciousness. Inevitably this helped to shape people's expectations and behavior in their private relationships. The creation in this way of a widely influential romantic ideal was physical lovemaking's cultural foreplay—the making of lovemaking.

The men and women of romantic fiction set the pace. In the typical fashion of his kind, Captain Ainsley Falkland, hero of Taken by Storm, an 1885 novel serialized in the London Journal, puts his strong arms around the heroine, Beryl, and prepares to "ravish a kiss from her palpitating lips." She in turn responds characteristically to his "sweet kisses"—quick to feel the thrill of physical arousal, the Victorian romantic heroine thrived on passion. "With love's joyous impulse," Beryl nestles her head rapturously on her lover's breast. "'My own Ainsley,' she murmurs, clinging to him in a perfect abandon of love's mystic emotions, that thrills through every fibre of her being."

Other fictional couples were equally devoted and open in showing their feelings. In the early episodes of Charles Reade's A Terrible Temptation , an 1871 Cassell's Magzineserial, the two principal characters, Sir Charles Bassett and Miss Bella Bruce, are newly engaged and mutually smitten: Every day he sat for hours at the feet of Bella Bruce, admiring her soft feminine ways and virgin modesty, even more than her beauty. And her visible blush whenever he appeared suddenly, and the soft commotion and yielding in her lovely frame whenever he drew near, betrayed his magnetic influence, and told all but the blind she adored him. But even from the blind Bella's passion was no secret. She would also "prattle her maiden love like some warbling fountain" or, seized by emotion, exclaim to Charles, "'I love, and honor, and worship, and adore you to distraction, my own—own—own!'"

Bella and Charles, Beryl and Ainsley, and countless fictional couples like them helped to direct the course of real-life heterosexuality. Each of the stories in which such characters figured might have been enjoyed by a million or more readers. A Terrible Temptation and his other tales of love made Charles Reade at least as popular as Dickens. Whether concocted by Reade or more obscure writers, romance was rife in Victorian fiction. The reading public had only to open a cover and turn a page or two, and there would be the ideal of romantic love created and re-created in compelling plots and illustrations of perfect, happy couples.

In an age when print was the major source of mass entertainment, fiction played the single greatest role in the making of lovemaking. But other pastimes also made their collective contribution. Those with the leisure and means to attend art exhibitions might feast their eyes and feed their fantasies on paintings of attractive couples in settings of rustic beauty. Improving methods of reproduction made such images available to an ever-wider public. People passing to or from work might pause over portraits of lovers displayed in the windows of print shops, or stop at a newsagent's to browse through the array of illustrated magazines that regularly pictured romantic scenes—a picnic for two, an umbrella shared on a rainy day, or an intimate outing on a secluded river. The new art of photography also assisted the cause of love by capturing the memory of the warm sun and embraces that went with a day off from work, spent courting in a park or at the seaside.

Photography offered yet another possibility for keeping romance on people's minds. One of its offshoots was among the most popular of entertainments in the middle-class home. This was the stereograph, which consisted of two identical photographic images paired together. Viewed through a stereoscope, the forerunner of the twentieth-century Viewmaster, the double image resolved into a single three-dimensional picture. The London Stereoscopic Company (motto: "A stereo-scope for every home") and other suppliers offered a wide variety of stereographic images for their customers' viewing—everything from the wonders of ancient Egypt to current events. One of the most popular subjects was the relationship of the sexes. The scenes were generally staged using actors or models posing in studio settings. The tone might be sad ("Broken Vows") or sentimental ("The First Love Letter") or humorous, as in the episode of the suitor who hides under his young lady's crinoline. Whether they inspired tears or titters, the three-dimensional, often color-tinted stereographs showing love between the sexes gave romance a tangible presence in many Victorian parlors.

Romance also made itself felt through another parlor fixture, the piano. During the nineteenth century such instruments became ever cheaper to manufacture, so that by 1880 they were featured in virtually every middle-class household. They were also prestigious additions to the parlors of the most prosperous artisans and tradespeople. In middle-class families at least one female member normally knew how to play—such accomplishment was a common part of a girl's education. In an informal evening's entertainment involving the family or a few guests, one or more of the young ladies might play love songs while others present would listen, perhaps sing along, or quietly let their imaginations stray into pleasurable realms.

The piano also provided an opportunity for young people to enact the rituals of courtship safely in public view, yet with a modicum of delicious privacy. While parents or chaperons occupied themselves with card games or conversation, a young woman and her suitor could enjoy the physical closeness that the piano encouraged. She played, he stood nearby, from time to time bending nearer still to turn a page and breathe in her perfume. New love could thus grow, nurtured by the parlor piano and its romantic strains.

While the piano and stereograph were regular fixtures in the making of love-making, there were also special occasions, and on these the greeting card took over. Apart from seasonal motifs, Christmas and New Year's cards often introduced a note of romance. In one, a man takes a woman into his arms under the mistletoe, while a fragment of verse completes the action—"he pressed her, kiss'd her, caress'd her." Another card offered a lighter look at love. It shows a man and woman embracing on a city street; at the same time a servingwoman from an adjacent house empties a bucket whose contents—water, or worse, maybe—are about to hit the amorous pair. The card's message reads, "May there be no damper on your pleasure at this festive season."

The high holiday for the exchange of romantic greeting cards was February 14. The popularity of the valentine grew rapidly in the Victorian period, and the mid-February flow of cards increasingly strained the capacity of the Post Office. In 1841 the English sent a total of 400,000 valentines; by 1871 the figure had risen to one and a half million for London alone. Valentines ranged in quality and price. At sixpence, the most affordable had simple woodcut illustrations enhanced by a half-dozen or so basic colors. Expensive varieties costing several shillings were often exquisitely beautiful, rich in color and decoration—gold or silver leaf, ribbon, lace made of paper or fabric, tiny silk flowers with pearlized leaves, pieces of plush velvet, and pink and gold embossed cupids were among the embellishments used on these lavish tokens of love.

Some valentines were whimsically romantic. Particularly popular in the 1860s and 1870s were facsimiles of Post Office telegrams. Bearing the legend "Love Office Telegraphs" and an insignia of two cupids, they were stamped with the post-mark "Loveland, Feb. 14." The engraved messages of more conventional valentines were often short and direct: "I love but thee." "Accept my heart." "Affection's token." "Adoration." A few struck a chord of sadness—"I hide my love while it consumes me" but most were optimistic: "Happv Love." "Ever True." "Yours unalterably." Still others, elaborated their sentiments in line, of romantic verse:

The common practice was to send valentines unsigned or with initials only. The Victorian sexual mystique demanded a little mystery, even if it was only symbolic, and the recipient knew full well who was the sender. Romantic though it was, this secretiveness is a bit unfortunate. It is now often impossible to determine even the sex of the sender, let alone his or her identity. Still, there are occasional revealing exceptions. Among those distinguishable by gender were three men who inscribed their own words of love among the embossed hearts and printed sentiments they sent to the women they loved. The ink of these handwritten feelings is now faint, but their sincerity still resonates clearly across the years. "Accept this token of constancy from your most devoted." "With best wishes and sweet kisses." And, simply, "My dear, from GC, 13/2/1856."

Important though they were to the Victorians, there was more to the making of lovemaking than the sentiments and trappings of romance. At the real heart of the matter was sex. In A Terrible Temptation, Bella on occasion punctuates her fervent declarations of love for Charles by "flinging herself passionately yet modestly on his shoulder." Her passionate modesty was not a contradiction in terms but one of the many demonstrations of the Victorian gift for the decorous cultivation of sexuality.

Especially gifted in this way were the many writers of fiction who celebrated biology with propriety. Not uncommonly, but discreetly of course, they evoked the imagery of female sexual parts. In describing Bella's beauty, Charles Reade gave loving attention to her mouth. Searching his imagination, he saw "two full and rosy lips. They made a smallish mouth at rest, but parted ever so wide when they smiled, and ravished the beholder." In writing Taken by Storm, the author gave his hero Ainsley a constant desire to "sip the nectar" from Beryl's "pretty" and "quivering" lips. Some readers would have taken such passages strictly at the face value they ostensibly presented. Others would have responded to the sexual connotations of ravishing or quivering lips, and let their mind's eye stray downward. "Ravish" and "quiver" both had suggestive meanings, while alluring facial lips were respectable symbols of a more fundamental erogenous zone.

Indeed, the language of such symbolism compared closely to the more literal-minded descriptions in pornography. The difference was that pornographers gave short shrift to faces and devoted themselves directly to other "fair lips" and "pink slits," A reference or two to "dewy moisture" or "sucking the honey of love" completed the picture. True to type, the voyeuristic narrator of The Disembodied Spirit was quick to fix his gaze in the direction of what lay between the "quivering thighs" of his current object of desire. Soon his "eyes dwelt on ... a pair of scarlet pouting lips, whilst the soft mound above thrilled as if longing for some unknown pleasure."

Lacking the literalism of pornography and its relentless taste for the objectification of people, popular fiction exercised greater inventiveness in the treatment of sexual themes. It made much of blushing, for instance. Whenever in the presence of her fiancé, Charles, Bella blushes visibly. Beryl's great love for Ainsley suffuses her complexion with "brilliancy." Similarly, "roseate hues," "vivid blushes," and "love's colors" constantly "steal" into the faces of most other romantic heroines in the throes of passion. It was no accident that feminine blushing was one of the preferred motifs of the Victorian romance. Second only, perhaps, to the palpitating bosom, it identified the true womanly woman.

In 1900 Havelock Ellis's "scientific" analysis of the blush, part of Studies in the Psychology of Sex, confirmed what had long been popular consensus on the subject. Blushing was first of all a sign of female modesty, a desirable trait in heroines and real-life women alike. It was also in itself appealing. In February 1858 the author of the advice column in Cassell's Magazine assured a concerned young woman that her blushes were a distinct romantic asset: "That face which has lost the power to blush, has also lost the power to charm—true men."

Beyond adding to a woman's general attractiveness, the blush was also specifically sexual. Ellis and others before him argued that physiologically it was virtually the same as the "general rosiness" of the sexual flush and directly comparable to the "erection of sexual organs." It was thus a signal of arousal and, for the unmarried, an appropriate sex substitute. Small wonder that fiction made much of feminine blushes as beacons of arousal, they undoubtedly titillated readers and stimulated authors' sales.

It almost goes without saying that heroes did not blush. In and out of fiction, real men controlled their sexuality, emotions, and bodily responses—or so they were supposed to do. At times this was difficult, even for heroes. Ainsley found Beryl "perfectly irresistible" and could not stop himself from "ravishing" her lips. Indeed, she was "possessed of such power over him" that he gave up a fortune to marry her, "his only earthly treasure." Charles was also overcome by his passion for Bella. On those occasions when she "flung herself passionately" upon him, he was weakened to the point of feeling "highly gelatinous" and bereft of "all power of resistance." His coloring, though, remained unchanged.

But if even in the heat of passion men were constrained to suppress their own blushing, at least they were always at liberty to take a prurient manly interest in the blushes of women. This the poet Joseph Ashby-Sterry acknowledged, although with less than lyric greatness. In "A Breezy Ballad," part of his anthology for the boudoir, he is delighted with "Old March" wind who "romps with skirts and dresses," revealing "snowy frills" and provoking a "wealth of blooming blushes / Seen through tangled mass of hair!" Here were not only blushes, but suggestively tangled hair, ladies' unmentionables, and romping—a favorite activity of the sexual adventurer. The poet had in fact created an entire erotically charged scenario.

Writers of romantic fiction could be just as thorough. Take the 1870 Bow Bells serial Morton's Fate, a simmering mix of passion, murder, revenge, separation, and mistaken identity. Marion and Walter, her divorced husband and now her lover once more, are together in Paris and about to marry again. But Marion knows what Walter cannot—that their love is destined always to be thwarted in life. She determines to put an end to this dire fate by poisoning first him, then herself. As the story ends, they die in each other's arms, "passionately entwined as one."

Their final, intense encounter on this earth is imbued with unspoken sexual appetite. After dining intimately in Marion's boudoir, they set to "dallying daintily" with "rich fruits" contained in silver baskets upheld by nude figurines, and spread sensuously over the table. She plays the guitar and sings "a tender love ditty." The accompanying illustration is also infused with the characters' sexual love. Physical union the dominant motif, the figures' eyes are locked; she leans back against his legs. His arm is thrust out, his hand stroking her hair. Apart from its possibly phallic connotation, Marion's guitar is the visual device joining their two bodies. In the making of Victorian lovemaking, passion was no abstraction. With or without actual intercourse, it was a bodily reality, integrally bound up with living—and, in Marion and Walter's case, with dying as well.

Outside of the privacy of the bedroom, the passionate fever pitch that romantic fiction could reach was not regularly surpassed. But while Victorian sexuality was not always openly intense, it was still a constant if often coy presence in romantic life.

February 14 provided a formal occasion for some tantalizing glimpses—eroticism was not far from the surface of the frills and sentiment of many valentines. In the verse about hidden treasure, "coral" had a possibly suggestive association with "coral lips," that much-loved image of both romantic and pornographic fiction. "Pearl," meanwhile, was a symbol of female sexuality and figured often in valentine poetry and ornament. Another popular motif was the glove, either in the form of a paper miniature pasted to the card or an entire valentine shaped like a glove. The motif signaled a man's serious romantic interest in the recipient, and often it was an unspoken proposal—"prelude to a Ring." Additionally, as casings into which bodily parts were inserted, gloves were inescapably colored with erotic overtones. Not surprisingly, they were among the most beloved objects of sexual fetishists.

The air of fetishism also lingers about a tiny lady's lace nightcap, complete with real pink silk ribbons, mounted on the paper lace background of yet another valentine. The image was not a common one, but the message—"Good night dear"—captured a recurring theme. Valentine verses were frequently evocative of beds and going to bed. Female breasts were invariably the "pillows" where men longed to lay their heads, while their women lulled them into "balmy rest" and "soothing sleep." Weary from "playing the game" all day, the Victorian man apparently sometimes needed sleep more than sex. Also, perhaps, he occasionally confused being sexual with being mothered.

Finding a mother substitute does not appear to have been foremost in the minds of the young men who gathered around that bare-legged center of courtship the parlor piano. Beyond its connection with innocent romance, it was where male sexuality sometimes aggressively asserted itself. The piano as a scene of seduction showed up in Victorian painting—most notably, William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853)—and in popular magazine illustrations of the day. As an instrument, the piano was also the object of ribald humor. In the comic song "Tuner's Oppor-tuner-ty," the piano tuner takes a more than professional interest in his client, Miss Crotchety Quaver, a young woman whose versatile "playing" requires regular tuning service:

Like many other comic songs, this one was sold as a song sheet and performed, with appropriate gestures no doubt, on the music hall stage. There the nudging, winking style of entertainment enjoyed considerable license. Clothed in humor, the making of lovemaking could "go all the way" in full view, with the general approval of a mass audience. Typically bawdy was an 1890s song called "Starve Her, Joe." It begins with a married man, Joe, whose domestic tranquility is disrupted by the extended visit of his wife's mother. Driven to distraction, he contemplates starving the offending in-law to death. Quickly coming to his senses, he abandons this plan and instead seeks solace with Flo, an attractive lady barber with, as Joe puts it "such a goo-goo eye / I lay back my head and sigh." He then launches into a full-frontal chorus:

As Joe and most of the audience well knew, "pimple" had two meanings—one of which was "a swelling."

Although it did not necessarily go to the lubricious lengths of the music hall, sexual humor still found a place offstage. The repertoire of stereographic entertainment included a lot of light-hearted naughtiness—the suitor under the crinoline, the monk with his naked female "provisions," husbands dallying with pretty French maids, and so on. Valentines also had their moments of comic suggestiveness. In one vignette a hoydenish young woman (with an impressively large bottom) tries on a type of men's breeches known as peg-tops. The humor rested on the double meaning of "peg"—once clad in the trousers, the young woman is disappointed to find something missing. "Oh dear there's nothing in 'em," she exclaims:

While many Victorians were never averse to a little sexual humor, most did not allow themselves to be long diverted from sexuality's serious purpose—the procreative marriage. As biology proceeded along a decorous course toward matrimony, there were certain rituals and conventions to be observed. Women had their ways of signaling marriage-mindedness—eye contact, blushing, flirting—but men usually made the actual proposal. "Man proposes (or at least should do so) and woman disposes," was the wisdom of the day, and few would have thought to challenge it. The heroes of fiction and their counterparts in everyday life produced gold rings with a flourish, or fell to their knees in romantic entreaty, or otherwise declared their matrimonial intentions. "Name the day ... that makes thee mine" was the plea of many men who sent valentines, while the poet Ashby-Sterry ended his "Lover's Lullaby" on a similar note:

Although there were always exceptions and variations according to class, the general expectation was that the engagement was the time for a couple to enjoy increasing physical intimacy, but to stop short of premarital sexual intercourse. As the wedding date approached, those who adhered to this regime of going just so far, but not the whole distance, found their sexual tension growing and their restraint weakening. Men and women alike thus looked forward eagerly to the wedding night. Of course, anticipation did not mean that there were no prenuptial anxieties. For all her genuine passion, Charles Kingsley's bride-to-be Fanny confessed to a certain amount of fear mixed with her sexual yearning. Her groom meanwhile was wrestling with his own worry. "The blaze of your naked beauty," he confided anxiously, might dazzle him into impotence.

As it turned out, all went well in the Kingsleys' conjugal bed. Sexual gratification was in fact what a majority of about-to-be-married Victorian couples optimistically looked forward to. Pictures and verses in wedding cards represented this hopeful longing and the imminent joys of consummation. A card from the 1880s depicts a bride and groom in their bedroom, alone at last, kissing tenderly. "What...oft they dreamt, and oft they longed for" was about to become, as the card's poet expressed it, "reality at last":

Even pornography, usually unsentimental, was apt to soften a little when it turned to the theme of newly wedded bliss. A turn-of-the-century pornographer's catalogue of "Photographic Novelties" unctuously advertised a series of images of "The First Wedding Night": "The preludes of love, the clever caresses, the endless ecstacies and then the carnal refinements, the search after the new, the unknown and lastly prostrated, the felicity of the total initiation."

After the first joys of consummation had subsided, sex remained at the core of the healthy Victorian marriage. Not everyone experienced sensual fulfillment as intense as that of the Kingsleys—what made for a happy sexual relationship varied from couple to couple. Still, there were broad guidelines for establishing and maintaining appropriate and rewarding marital relations. Those who sought sexual knowledge or the improvement of their conjugal lives could always turn to one of the many manuals whose advice helped to shape marital lovemaking.

Frequency of intercourse was a standard theme. The experts, mostly physicians and doctors of divinity, agreed that sexual moderation was the ideal and that excesses were to be avoided. This view arose not out of prudery but in part out of a belief in the necessity of spermatic economy—the end result of the overexpenditure of seed might be the moral, intellectual, and physical degeneration of the human race. Or so believed a number of commentators, among them Sylvanus Stall, who wrote several sex manuals published in Canada, England, and the United States. In What a Young Husband Ought to Know(part of an 1897-1902 series called Sex and Self), Stall, like other authorities, was concerned for the general health of couples. Too much sex, he cautioned, might be "most ruinous" to the health of the wife and lead to a host of fearful conditions in the husband: "backache, lassitude, giddiness, dimness of sight, noises in the ears, numbness of fingers and paralysis."

But how much was too much? The experts were not entirely dogmatic and, to a point, allowed for individual preferences and circumstances. Most offered some general direction as well. A few recommended relations every twenty to thirty days. A greater number considered once a week to be sounder practice for maintaining a satisfactory bond of "mutual affection" between husband and wife. Pregnancy, however, changed matters. By and large, greater than usual moderation was the rule, although Stall advocated complete abstinence.

It is impossible to know with any certainty the extent to which Victorian couples followed the experts' advice, and how often most actually made love—there were then no national polls or statistical averages. In 1892 Dr. Clelia Mosher of Stanford University conducted a survey of about forty-five middle-class American women. Her sampling was too small to permit sweeping conclusions, but it is not unreasonable to take it as a general indicator of more widespread behavior among the prosperous middle classes. On average the women reported having sex once a week, while a few indulged more often. At the lower ends of the economic scale, it is probably likely that frequency declined. Exhausting labor, poverty, and lack of privacy were not conducive to sexual activity.

The writers of marriage manuals tended to overlook the existence of an impoverished working class. In the world of sex experts the ideal of the well-off middle-class family reigned supreme. From such a privileged vantage point, the feeding of extra mouths was not an overriding concern, and the ready consensus was that the primary purpose of sex was procreation. Sexual feeling, wrote Dr. Mary Wood-Allen in her 1899 advice book What a Young Woman Ought to Know, "is the indication of the possession of the most sacred powers, that of the perpetuation of life. Passion is the instinct for preservation of one's kind, the voice of the life principle, the sign of creative power."

But the reproductive purpose of sex did not mean a negation of pleasure. Dr. Wood-Allen was quick to refer approvingly to "throbbing and pulsing in every fibre." In Stall's opinion, pleasure was one of the strongest arguments for moderation. Indulge "every slight inclination" and oversatiation would be the unhappy result, but exercise a degree of moderation and "realize the greatest pleasure and satisfaction." Dr. R. T. Trall, author of Sexual Physiology,published in 1870, counseled people to set aside whole days for making love. Whether the object of such activity was a "love embrace merely" or a "generative act," he was convinced that it should be pleasurable to husband and wife alike. "Surely," he insisted, "if sexual intercourse is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well."

It is one of those enduring myths about the Victorians that sexual pleasure was a disproportionately male enjoyment, and that women on the whole were indifferent. The misconception arose principally out of the work of the now notorious Dr. William Acton, an "expert" on the "evil habit" of masturbation and other sexual matters. In his 1857 treatise, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, he pronounced with chauvinist certainty that "the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind." Of course, he admitted with spurious fair-mindedness, there were exceptional women who experienced "sexual excitement." But this, he hastened to add, invariably progressed to "nymphomania, a form of insanity which those accustomed to visit lunatic asylums must be fully conversant with."

Acton was read widely in his day, and his opinions were undoubtedly given some credence. For instance, they validated the asexuality that was simply some women's nature. Perhaps they also alleviated the guilt of those in whom ill health had diminished sexual interest. But many Victorian authorities on sexuality had grave doubts about Acton's views and even his competence. Others simply ignored him and propounded their own ideas. Stall for one considered that the "largest number" of women took at least moderate pleasure in the sex act. He also acknowledged another, smaller group "in whom sexuality presides as a ruling passion.... Such women should never be married except to men of good health, strong physique, large powers of endurance, and with a pronounced sexual inclination."

He also described a third group that on the surface appears to be indistinguishable from Acton's sexually anesthetic women. But a closer look shows that Stall did not regard some women's sexual coldness as either inevitable or healthy. It was a correctable condition whose causes were varied. Indigestible food, late hours, and general debility from too little fresh air and exercise all contributed to sexual malaise. So, too, did excessive novel-reading, tight lacing, and chronic constipation. He did not say so directly, but the implication is also there that some women might have overreacted to Acton and his misogynist kind and come to believe that frigidity was very nearly a virtue.

Not least of all, Stall blamed ignorance. Of this both husband and wife might be guilty, but the greatest onus for knowledge and consideration he placed on the man. Ignorance could lead to clumsy and unintentionally brutal lovemaking on the husband's part—and on the wife's, permanent aversion. An informed and considerate approach, Stall maintained, would make all the difference between a "disgusted" bride and "a union of lifelong happiness." Quoting from Mrs. Eliza B. Duffey, a contemporary authority on "the relations of the sexes," he counseled new husbands to "practice in lawful wedlock the arts of the seducer rather than the violence of the man who commits rape, and you will find the reward of your patience very sweet and lasting."

No doubt many Victorian husbands never became as well versed as they ought to have been in the fine art of wife seduction. Even so, their wives were not necessarily sexually unsatisfied. Quite the opposite, often. In fiction just-married heroines typically took on "new beauty" or "the blossom of wifehood"—the signals of recently discovered physical satisfaction. In a more forthright vein, greater than a third of the women in Dr. Mosher's survey reported experiencing orgasm "always" or "usually"; another 40 percent said "sometimes" or "not always." Even among the remaining women—about a quarter of the whole group—there were some who at least occasionally felt arousal.

Other middle-class American wives indicated general sexual contentment through their language and tone in letters to their husbands. One woman wrote playfully to her absent husband in the summer of 1873: "How are you this hot day? I am most roasted and my chemise sticks to me and the sweat runs down my legs.... don't you wish you could be around just now." Another wife's sexual longing was too great for teasing. "I like you to want me, dear," she wrote to her husband in 1883, "and if I were only with you, I would embrace more than the back of your neck, be sure."

For all their expressiveness, these women, the many others like them, and the men with whom they exchanged loving letters all preserved a characteristically Victorian reticence when it came to what, precisely, gave them erotic pleasure. Even most marriage manuals were unforthcoming about the mechanics of lovemaking. Stall, among others, says nothing on the subject. Such discretion need not be narrowly interpreted as prudery, nor even as fastidiousness with regard to subject matter. Saying nothing about the technical particulars served the sexual mystique of the day. It left room for variation and experimentation, as long as no one violated the general rule of mutual pleasure.

At least one expert, however, was more explicit—and dogmatic. This was a French medical man, Auguste Debay, the author of Hygiene et physiologie du mariage, published in 1848 and reprinted throughout the century. Debay insisted that the only "natural" and "normal" way of making love was in the missionary position. His conviction arose from an assumption of general male superiority as much as it did from a notion of appropriate intercourse. In bed or elsewhere, men "naturally" belonged on top. Many of his contemporaries no doubt agreed and, coincidentally or not, enjoyed sex in the missionary position. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the populace of a country famed for its lovemaking unanimously and invariably obeying Debay's authoritarian stricture.

And, looking across the Channel, it appears no less inconceivable that upon marriage, versatile English eroticism could universally subside into missionary monotony. Kingsley for one had a lively sexual imagination. How could he have been content with marital relations limited to the missionary position—even though he undoubtedly had a tendency to mix religion with sex. Take off your clothes and pray, he had once suggested to Fanny. "Then lie down, nestle to me, clasp your arms and every limb around me, and with me repeat the Te Deum aloud." Eccentric Anglican clergyman though he might have been, Charles Kingsley was no puritan missionary.

Whatever the ways in which individual couples chose to make love, the joys of marriage, including its physical side, were ideally supposed to last. In his manual for young husbands, Stall hinted at "the later years" of marriage, which could bring with them "the largest possible good and blessing." In 1901 he would follow up the hint with a further volume, What a Man of 45 Ought to Know. Romantic fiction offered a similarly optimistic view, and many of its couples continued to enjoy "perfect bliss" and "passionate devotion" long after marrying.

In real life, frequency of intercourse perhaps declined over time—or so the Mosher survey suggests but in many marriages, romance and sexual pleasure endured throughout the years. Among the love letters preserved from Victorian America, a number attest to the longevity of marital passion. In 1856 Nathaniel Hawthorne, famed author of The Scarlet Letter and other novels, expressed the fervid sentiments of many when he declared to his wife of fourteen years: Oh, dearest, dearest, interminably and infinitely dearest—I don't know how to end that ejaculation. The use of kisses and caresses is, that they supersede language, and express what there are no words for. I need them at this moment—need to give them and to receive them.

Not unexpectedly, Hawthorne's enthusiasm was perhaps exceeded only by the erotic devotion of Kingsley. During a brief separation in the first year of his marriage, he tantalized his wife with the question, "Shall we the first night we meet reenact our marriage night?" "Oh!" he exclaimed, "to be once again with you—to lie once more naked in your arms." A half-dozen years later, in May 1850, separation still made him physically long for her. "These soft, hot damp days fill me with yearning love," he wrote. "Your image haunts me day and night as it did before we were married, and the thought of that delicious sanctuary"—but here the fantasy breaks off. No less passionate but more discreet than her husband, Fanny had carefully inked over his amorous revelation.

While most Victorian husbands might not have been as articulate as Kingsley, there were many as passionate—and with wives as compatible as Fanny. As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more people strove toward this conjugal ideal. The number of marriages grew during the Victorian years, as the marital norm became increasingly central in the making of lovemaking. Common-law arrangements progressively decreased until they survived only among the poorest, who tended to keep quiet about their irregular circumstances. For those of means marriage had longer been the established norm, but it was more firmly entrenched than ever by the turn of the century.

Some advertising did not fail to use the norm to its own advantage. An attractive pictorial advertisement for Pears' Soap featured the image of a young woman sitting in a field and plucking petals from a daisy. Superimposed were a few lines of appropriately "romantic" verse:

With or without the help of Pears' Soap, women not only increasingly got married but, as far as their families could afford, ever more favored elaborate and colorful weddings to mark the day. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, bridesmaids wore colored gowns, instead of the traditional white. For brides, the shades of preference were cream or ivory, rather than stark white; other popular choices were by later standards startling—claret velvet, purplish-brown satin, gray corded silk. In contrast, the bridegroom and his attendants became less colorful. As the popular notion of masculinity grew more rigid, the male members of the wedding party gave up shades of blue, claret, and mulberry. By the 1890s the only acceptable color for a frock coat was black.

Not everyone was happy with the ideal that middle-class weddings represented. Here and there the voices of dissent spoke out against the marital norm. A number of late-Victorian feminists were critical of marriage and its embedded premise that women were property. These and other women also wanted greater educational and political rights, as well as marital reform. In 1893 still others—men as well as women—founded the Legitimation League to protest against conventional marriage, advocate free love, and demand legal rights for children born out of wed-lock. Meanwhile, the majority of men and women took little notice of these voices. As the century ended, they were absorbed in falling in love and planning romantic weddings.

In yet another sphere, still far removed from most common experience, the sexologists were at work distinguishing and describing the "normal" and the "pathological," turning sex into definitions of standard or deviant modes of behavior—talk, that is. Although their efforts escaped the attention of most people, there appeared a few signs in everyday life that sex was already less a total affair of the body than it had been not long before. By 1900 new, matter-of-fact fictional heroines tended not to blush, or at least not so readily as their predecessors. Suitors, accordingly, were not so apt to turn "gelatinous" in their presence. At the same time, the odd sex manual was inclined to equate sexual love with effective technique, rather than with individual passion and bodily response.

But even as the nineteenth century gave way to the next, such signals were still sporadic and faint. The making of lovemaking retained most of its old devotion to passion. At once profoundly romantic and physical, the mystique of carefully nurtured eroticism had not yet dissolved into analytical talk. Throughout the Victorian age, for countless lovers, both courting and married, sex radiated much of the "sweetness and light" that the poet and moralist Matthew Arnold envisioned in a perfect world. Inevitably, though, in a less than perfect reality there were unlit places shadowy corners where most lovers, content in the felicity of the norm, never cared to venture. In such places passion's aspect darkened.