NINETEENTH-CENTURY GENDER STUDIES
ISSUE 3.1 (SPRING 2007)
Sexing the Victorians
Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London. Seth Koven. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 399pp.
Dickens and Sex. Critical Survey 17.2. Edited by Holly Furneaux and Anne Schwan. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005. 125pp.
Reviewed by Chris Louttit, University of Leicester
<2> His wish has been heeded: since the publication of his work, scholarly interest in the sexual life of the Victorians has burgeoned. Critics and writers from a variety of disciplines have deployed a wide range of theoretical perspectives in coming to terms with the subject. Important, post-Marcus studies have included, to name a mere handful from the early 1990s, Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight, James R. Kincaid’s Child Loving, and Michael Mason’s The Making of Victorian Sexuality. According to Walter Kendrick, even as short a time as “thirty years ago,” “the prevailing stereotype was that the Victorians owed their formidable energy to intense sublimation, that as for body contact, they all would have preferred to lie back and think of England.”(2) It is thanks to the work done in studies like those named above that such easy scholarly preconceptions have largely disappeared.
<3> Seth Koven’s book Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London and Holly Furneaux and Anne Schwan’s edited collection Dickens and Sex further develop the observations and insights about Victorian sexuality produced by this rich, dense body of scholarship in engaging and original ways. Both also look back to the theoretical work of Michel Foucault, an equally important influence on critical work in this area, and perhaps the seminal thinker on issues of sex, desire, and the body. In Slumming, Koven outlines explicitly how his approach differs from Foucault’s; his focus, he claims, is generally upon the micro level of individual lives, rather than the macro level of power structures:
This specificity and attention to detail is one of the great strengths of Koven’s book. It should be pointed out, though, that he does not dismiss Foucault entirely, admitting instead that “my approach also draws upon Foucault’s work on ‘discourse,’ ‘technologies of power and knowledge,’ and their relationship to sexual and social institutions, ideologies, and identities” (294n). In the Introduction to Dickens and Sex, Furneaux and Schwan suggest that the essays in their collection take a similarly qualified response to a Foucauldian “disciplinary thesis” (2). As they observe:
As this passage makes clear, the volume avoids an overly narrow or polemical approach. The same is true of Koven’s study: both works under consideration here offer often rich and nuanced accounts of their subjects, acknowledging the unavoidable presence of Foucault’s work in the field, but also pushing his theories in new, productive directions.
<4> Koven’s book takes as its starting point an examination of the phenomenon of slumming in late nineteenth-century London, “widespread” enough that “slums became tourist sites” in the period (1). Following the “lead” of urban historian H.J. Dyos, and aware of the “fundamental instability of meanings” attached to the term, Koven defines the practice in what he calls “mobile” terms as an activity “undertaken by people of wealth, social standing, or education in urban spaces inhabited by the poor” (9). This flexibility allows him to pay attention to those “men and women who used any word except slumming—charity, sociological research, Christian rescue, social work, investigative journalism—to explain why they had entered the slums” (9). Having defined his central term fluidly in the book’s Introduction, Koven goes on to divide his material into two sections. In different ways, both of them illuminate his central thesis: that “sex, sexual desire, and sexuality” are impossible to keep out of the story of the “slummers” that the book tells (4). Part one deftly brings together three quite distinct case studies—on the furor created by James Greenwood’s “A Night in a Workhouse” in 1866 and beyond, on the Barnardo controversy of 1877, and on 1890s accounts of social investigation by little-remembered American journalist, Elizabeth Banks—by discussing the shared theme of the use of “deceptive practices…to reveal ‘truths’ about the poor that they claimed would otherwise have remained hidden” (19). The second part ranges more widely across a variety of “philanthropic and religious institutions and movements in late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century London” (20). Koven’s focus here is not so much on sex scandals, as much of the first part is, but rather upon what he calls the “elusive articulation of sexual desire, sexual subjectivity, and gender ideologies” (20–21).
<5> This barebones summary can only hint at the richness of Koven’s study. In its early pages he describes “immers[ing] [himself] deeply in the sources” (4), and this kind of commitment certainly shows through in his often painstaking and impressive scholarship. As his extensive notes and list of manuscript sources demonstrate, Koven has effectively mined copious sources of archival and manuscript material on both sides of the Atlantic. His efforts result in the rediscovery of almost entirely forgotten subjects. In Chapter 3, on the American investigative journalist Elizabeth Banks, for instance, Koven cites only one “published scholarly assessment of Banks” which is “marred by a variety of historical errors” (332n). His work on her, both in terms of the information it gathers together and the close readings it provides, is therefore an important assessment of a neglected figure. It also offers an interesting comparison to the slum visits made by predominantly male journalists like James Greenwood. His scholarly excavations throw new light too on the book’s better-remembered sources. In Chapter 4, for example, he fruitfully considers the work of Vernon Lee, the subject of increasing critical interest, alongside that of the popular, and less often-studied, novelist L.T. Meads. His discovery of a rare, privately circulated journal called “The Wadham House Journal” also provides striking new information for his assessment of the philanthropic East End venture Toynbee Hall, already the subject of a significant body of scholarship, in his fifth and final chapter.
<6> In his introduction Koven makes quite grand claims about the interdisciplinary nature of his project, promising to “move freely across traditional disciplines including history, literature, art history, and sociology in bringing together men’s and women’s, cultural and political, feminist and queer histories” (18). As it turns out, Koven pays more than just lip-service to this fashionable academic concept; throughout his study he proves himself equally adept at close literary analysis, historical contextualization, and convincing interpretations of visual evidence. The first chapter, on James Greenwood’s “A Night in a Workhouse,” a series of sensational articles published in the Pall Mall Gazette, is a model performance of Koven’s flexible critical practice. As Koven himself admits, ‘“A Night” has not languished in obscurity….[It] has been studied by historians of journalism and the press, theatre historians, literary critics, and social historians of the urban poor” (27). Yet Koven brings a fresh interpretation to Greenwood’s work: that within his journalistic exposé, “the male casual ward of Lambeth workhouse” is transformed into a “male brothel,” thus revealing its “homoerotic dimensions” (27–30). He builds this argument through several layers of analysis. He makes searching use first of historical research, even noting at one point the following detail which may have contributed to “A Night in a Workhouse’s” impact:
Koven also effectively employs close readings, both of the text itself and of related visual images. The connections he makes with several homoerotic workhouse illustrations from Gustave Doré’s and Blanchard Jerrold’s London are particularly persuasive, and form part of the last section of the chapter on the influence of “A Night” on subsequent representations of the male vagrant. As Koven puts it in concluding this chapter, and establishing his overall argument, “Placing ‘A Night’ at the beginning of a tradition of writing about the poorest of the London poor” allows him to make “visible the complex links between sexual and social politics in modern British history, literature, and culture” (86).
<7> This multi-layered approach exemplifies what is so impressive about Koven’s work. He makes it clear in several places that he is keen not to over-generalize about the past, and those who lived in it. As he claims in his conclusion:
Koven’s commitment to exploring human complexity and difference
is admirable. At the same time, moreover, Koven subtly manages to draw
out the general implications of his careful research, and notice connections
between his wide range of sources, in creating a narrative of “the
intimate, turbulent, and often surprising relationship between benevolence
and sex, rich and poor, in Victorian London” (3). Both aspects of
his technique—the telling use of detail and the convincing generalizations—make
this an important and enjoyable contribution to the fields of social and
cultural history, urban history, and gender studies.
<9> The editors of Dickens and Sex, a special issue of the journal Critical Survey which has its origins in a conference held at the University of London in 2004, introduce the essays by noting this fundamental conservatism in Dickens criticism, both in relation to sex and more generally. They forthrightly claim that:
Aligning themselves instead with such critics as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Joss Lutz Marsh, and William A. Cohen, the contributors provocatively set out to consider what Ackroyd assumes is “thwarted” or “blocked off”: “the still underrepresented topics of sex, erotics and desire in the work of Charles Dickens” (1). Given the collection’s basis in a broad topic for conference discussion, one might assume that the connections between the seven essays would be loose and fairly arbitrary. In fact, while each might be read as an isolated critical intervention on a particular aspect of the larger theme, they also cohere well together. One of the collection’s overall aims is to “draw upon and suggest new points of convergence between a wide range of theoretical perspectives” (1). This is far from an overstatement: all of the papers engage in what is aptly described as “a rich dialogue” (4) with one another.
<10> Several of the essays use queer studies as a lens through which to view Dickens, following the influential example of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. None, however, merely follows her lead: instead they take her readings and push them in new, and often exciting, directions. Sedgwick is an especially important influence on Holly Furneaux’s essay, which “is strongly committed to demonstrating the fallacy of [Sedgwick’s] influential paradigm that the homoerotic emerges most strongly in Dickens’s work through violence” (34). With particular reference to scenes of male-male nursing in Martin Chuzzlewit and Great Expectations, Furneaux convincingly pursues her argument that “other, gentler ways of touching also had highly erotic connotations during the period of Dickens’s career” (34), claiming that Dickens’s “anxious, homophobic responses were balanced by a more positive interest in exploring, and even celebrating, such ‘deviant’ desires” (36). In his piece Vybarr Cregan Reid also reacts to Sedgwick, making an intriguing (if, for me, ultimately unconvincing) reinterpretation of the final death-embrace of Rogue Riderhood and Bradley Headstone as “one of restful permanence”: “Their death, like Quilp’s is a deserved punishment for criminality and immorality, but it is simultaneously a permanent embrace, like that enjoyed by the drowned siblings in Mill on the Floss” (29). Cregan Reid’s main focus, however, is on the queering of the trope of drowning in Dickens’s later novels and journalism more widely. Deftly tracing “the pervasive [Victorian] cultural concept of water as embodied agent of destruction” (24), he argues that, in texts like David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend, “concepts and anxieties of gender, sexuality, degeneration and the oblivion of identity, all…connect with the trope of drowning” (21).
<11> Other essays in the collection belong in the broader category
of gender studies. Jenny Hartley ingeniously connects the secret histories
of working women that Dickens took down at Urania Cottage, the Home for
Homeless Women in Shepherd’s Bush which he ran with Angela Burdett-Coutts,
with the “women’s papers and letters, sometimes read but not
responded to, sometimes not even read” that proliferate in Little
Dorrit (64). Through sensitive close readings of the novel and some
illuminating attention paid to Dickens’s working practices “as
a self-checking writer at this time” (68), she shows that “[k]nowing
women’s stories, secreting and mystifying them—‘becoming
a party to their mystery’—constitutes one of the narrative
conditions of Little Dorrit, and the source of its underground
energy” (64). One particular woman’s story, that of Florence
Dombey, is the focus of Kristina Aikens’s essay. Aikens energetically
takes on still-prevalent notions of Florence as a stereotypically angelic
Dickensian heroine. Casting Florence in this light, Aikens claims, “necessarily
overlooks the subtle, often vexed traces of Florence’s sexual agency
that appear in the text” (77). Aikens suggests, more specifically,
that the novel “speak[s] of the heroine’s sexual energy in
coded, barely perceptible forms while constantly asserting her innocence”
(79); this, like many in the collection, is an intriguing premise, but
one that is not, to my mind, convincingly demonstrated by evidence from
<13> William A. Cohen begins his essay for the collection by eloquently
asking: “Is there sex in Dickens? To some
readers, even to pose this question is to indulge in vulgar indiscretion.
To others, it is so predictable a form of inquiry that it seems utterly
banal” (5). Perhaps feeling chastened by recent, rather acerbic
criticisms of his work by Valentine Cunningham,(5)
Cohen opts for an answer that seems relatively conservative: “I
would say that there is sex in Dickens, but that it might productively
be understood within a range of other practices, experiences and ideas”
(17). There are points in the Dickens and Sex essays where readings
are over-extended. Vybarr Cregan Reid’s reading of Dickens’s
description in Our Mutual Friend of the “ooze and scum”
of the Thames as “a colloquial synonym for semen” (30), despite
the fact that it did not become one until the twentieth century, comes
to mind as does Kristina Aikens’s interpretation of a stormy scene
in Dombey and Son as “an erotic, orgasmic, masochistic
aural background for Florence’s obsession” (85). In the main,
however, the articles gathered together by Furneaux and Schwan do follow
Cohen’s lead, and “productively” attempt to understand
sex as he proposes. The same can also be said of Seth Koven’s subtle
attention to the detail of human lives in Slumming. In revising the simplistic
notion that the Victorians “were prudish, squeamish, and hypocritical
about sex,” both works considered here avoid the similarly strong
temptation, noticed by Walter Kendrick, “of
merely flipping [the stereotype] over into its opposite, the equally crude
notion that the Victorians seethed with lust and wasted no time arranging
its indulgence, so long as superficial propriety was maintained.”(6)
In adopting instead a mature attitude to Victorian sex and sexuality they
continue the tradition inaugurated by Steven Marcus, and offer new insights
and interpretations which future scholars in the field will continue to
benefit from in years to come.
(1)Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964), pp. xvi–xvii.(^)
(2)Walter Kendrick, “T’Otherest Victorians,” Victorian Literature and Culture 22 (1995): 304.(^)
(3)Pamela Hansford Johnson, “The Sexual Life in Dickens’s Novels,” in Michael Slater, ed., Dickens 1970: Centenary Essays (London: Chapman and Hall, 1970), p. 173.(^)
(4)Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 96.(^)
(5)See Valentine Cunningham, Reading After Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), esp. pp. 99–105.(^)
(6)Kendrick, “T’Otherest Victorians,” 304. (^)