As I argued in one of my very first blog posts, Victorian novels are obsessed with sex – the legalities that surround it in marriage, its results when unsanctioned by law, the power dynamics of attraction, the results of its absence and repression. Yet writers in the nineteenth century faced significant constraints when approaching this topic. Its very exploration is reliant on a level of awareness from readers about what can, and cannot, be said, and so, in novels of the period, writing about sex is often just as much about not writing about sex.
Enter contemporary writers taking Victorian England for their setting. They’re faced with a conundrum. Neo-Victorianism is an opportunity to dial up the sexual content of a period novel, to say what couldn’t be said before, and to expose the dark underbelly of what can seem from a distance a puritanical society. Yet by making sex explicit, modern writers in a Victorian mode risk destroying the suggestive elisions that some readers find most appealing about the period’s writing, and the text coming across as too modern – destroying our faith in the verisimilitude of the worlds they create.
Robert Edric has one solution. His The London Satyr (2011) is all about sex and its trade. The mysterious Marlow runs a pornography racket in 1890s London, with the narrator, Charles Webster, illicitly supplying him with costumes from the Lyceum – the theatre where he works – for use in his explicit photographs. It’s not the kind of novel that could in any way be conceived of as having been written at the time.
Yet, despite this frank summary, Edric doesn’t get to the sexual content immediately. The novel opens with, and continues to be obsessed by, an examination of what it means to be followed, to be paranoid, to be aware that you are doing wrong. Webster, like Marlow’s other associates, doesn’t have moral concerns about what he is doing – even when a 12-year-old prostitute is murdered. What he is obsessed by is the fear of discovery and punishment in a society that, as a whole, disapproves of what many of its inhabitants are doing. Here’s a representative paragraph in the early pages:
‘But there was no one. There had never been anyone. I had been acting out these small subterfuges and dramas for almost three years. And each time I remarked on this to Marlow, he dismissed my concerns and complaints with the amused remark that I knew nothing of what was happening in the world around me; that I was blind and deaf, ignorant of the wider scheme of things, oblivious to those putative, secretive followers, all those others who sought only to expose and undermine and destroy him. And every time he told me this, of course – every exaggerated word and dramatic flourish – what he did not say, what he did not need to say, was that if he was destroyed and punished, then the same thing, in its lesser way, would surely befall me too.’
There’s a lot going on here. Webster’s series of ‘subterfuges and dramas’ could almost refer to how sex is spoken about in Victorian writing more widely and how it plays out in the lives of people in societies that condemn or control it. Even more importantly the idea of ignorance when it comes to the ‘wider scheme of things’ is one of the book’s central themes. Many characters have, and barter with, partial knowledge, especially when it comes to Marlow’s shady dealings. But rather than accepting this ignorance and paranoia as a universal truth, Webster is preoccupied with the idea that somebody must know everything – Marlow himself, his associate Bliss, or the London Vigilance Committee and its leader, hot on the heals of the pornographers.
|Diagram of a panopticon|
In this way, Webster can be seen as suffering from the kind of self-repression and discipline described by Michel Foucault in his 1975 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Foucault uses the image of the panopticon – a prison designed by Jeremny Bentham in the late eighteenth century, where no one prisoner can ever be sure if he is the one being watched. Foucault writes:
‘Traditionally, power was what was seen, what was shown, and what was manifested...Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.’
This model has been taken by many critics since to explain the self-policing of nineteenth-century society, especially when it came to sexual behaviour – and its close relation to much of Webster’s narrative is clear. By giving his central character this kind of internal struggle, Edric does something very clever – he manages to suggest the milieu of Victorian society, even when writing about a topic that would have been impossible to write about in a novel at the time.
|Robert Edric (1956-)|
Another key strategy Edric employs in the novel is to make Webster’s own responses to the sex and sexual moments he witnesses highly ambiguous. The narrator goes through the whole novel without appearing to have any sex himself at all, even while moving in these circles. He certainly doesn’t appear to be having any sex with his wife – although, in typical Victorian novel style this isn’t discussed directly but suggested by their lack of closeness and separate bedrooms. And he wakes up following an orgy like this:
‘I nudged the girl with my foot. She moaned incoherently but made no attempt to rouse herself. I struggled to remember what – if anything – had happened between us, but little came. All our clothing – what little she still wore – remained intact.’
There’s a strange tension here. This night – watching a pornographic stage show before falling asleep beside a topless girl in a room full of other copulating people – is a major social transgression, but, at the same time, for Webster, it is also something of a non-event. Even in a room filled with every sexual temptation, the narrator doesn’t find satisfaction or resolution, allowing him to remain the frustrated nineteenth-century hero. Even when the novel reaches its most explicit and we, and Webster, get to witness one of the infamous photo shoots, his reactions remain very difficult to read:
‘I glanced at the boy, his organ now in the woman’s mouth, her hands clasping his buttocks, her lips formed in a perfect circle against the dark skin and stiffening flesh. The boy had moved his hands to his hips. He was grinning – arrogant almost – his eyes wide and watching the top of the woman’s head. They were perfectly still, though their motions, the gentle rocking and swaying, drawing and pulling, were easy to imagine, and I watched them for a moment before realising how closely Marlow was now watching me. ‘Go closer,’ he suggested to me. I shook my head at the offer.’
For Webster, revealing anything of his own sexual desires to Marlow is an impossibility and a sign of weakness, despite the trade they both participate in. The man or woman who inspires desire – either personally, or in a directorial capacity – is always the one with the power in the novel. This is most clearly seen in the scenes with Marlow, and also the scenes between Webster and his cunning and sexually provocative maid Isobel – where Edric reverses the usual sexual power dynamics between male employer and female servant.
In The London Satyr, sex can be written about more directly than in a nineteenth-century novel, but the sex that the novel is obsessed with is far from ‘modern’ and never straightforward.