I guess you could call my latest researches Transgressive Victorians. We have such an image of the Victorian age as a staid period of buttoned down, pious boring conformity that it comes as somewhat of a surprise to recognize the existence of a small group of anti-deist, sexually bold thinkers whose ideas are radical even by today’s standards.
Ironically, the supposed bedrock of the Empire, the standard classical education in Greek and Latin, was a casual factor in the rebellion. Every schoolboy malcontent was quick to brand himself as pagan, and the literary examples of Petronius, Sappho, Catullus, etc., gave evidence of a broad spectrum of sexuality ignored by the enervating, narrow Christianity of the day. Add to that the pervasive boarding school same sex hank panky and the widespread use of corporal punishment and you’ve got the makings of a pretty kinky nation, even if it was largely on the down low.
I’ve just read biographies of Oscar Wilde (The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna) and Algernon Swinburne (Swinburne: The Portrait of a Poet by Philip Henderson), two brilliant authors whose works and personas were vital to Victorian culture despite the fact that their lives and works were deliberately subversive of that culture’s avowed morals and most deeply held values.
I’ve always held that people’s philosophies are merely rationalizations for their fantasies, but only superior intellects like Wilde and Swinburne can turn their kinks into the kind of credos that underlie great works of art. Branded unnatural for his sexual “inversion,” Wilde proceeded to make inversion his aesthetic principle, holding that the artificial was superior to the natural, art more sublime than nature, and man’s creations superior to god’s. Homosexual sex without the possibility of procreation was, he and his fellow “Uranians” claimed, a much purer form of love, uncontaminated by bestial, evolutionary instincts. Wilde’s work constantly dramatizes characters who are not as they appear, who wear masks that conceal their true desires. The Picture of Dorian Gray is, after all, a book about life, sin and art, the principle conceit being an inversion where a painting shows the wear and tear of dissolute living while a living man remains as pristine as a work of art.
As for Swinburne, his masochistic urges led him to embrace an indifferent and even cruel universe. Like all true mystics he was drawn to that place where seeming dichotomies like love/hate or pleasure/pain dissolve and become reconciled, the scene of what his beloved William Blake called “the marriage of heaven and hell.”
The pre-sexual experience of flagellation produced, as Swinburne himself attested, a masochistic proclivity which to a great extent informed his conception of existence.
He was a masochist who believed that existence and its constructs as well as nature itself were informed by the conjuncture of pleasure and pain.
– Semyon Khokhlov
Sadomasochistic imagery and themes are prevalent in Swinburne’s works, yet the use to which he puts them indicates that he is not merely flaunting a psycho-sexual predilection. Rather Swinburne’s poetry sets forth the bold proposition that in nature, love and the major constructs of existence, pleasure and pain are intertwined.
– Douglas Bush
From Sade Swinburne took the idea that God smites equally the just and the unjust, and perhaps the former rather more than the latter; also the other idea that pain and death are everywhere in Nature, that crime is Nature’s law; and the conception of God as a Being of supreme wickedness (the supreme evil, God), and the revolt of man against the divinity he disowns.
– Mario Praz
These beliefs are nowhere more evident than in his little known, unfinished novel Lesbia Brandon. In many ways it’s unfortunate that Swinburne’s inherited wealth shielded him from the commercial exigencies that might have forced him from poetry into the more lucrative field of fiction, because in his prose he’s able to write more plainly and with more perspective than in much of his verse. His two surviving novels, Lesbia Brandon and Love’s Cross Currents are both fascinating books, much closer to French Romantics like Gautier or even a Decadent like Rachilde than any English writer.
True, there’s a somewhat disconcerting preoccupation with flogging in Lesbia Brandon, but the practice of “swishing” adolescent boys was a widespread but little recorded phenomenon which no doubt affected the psyche of the nation. The book occasionally threatens to descend into a superior example of Victorian smut, but, as Swinburne said The pornographer is also among the prophets.
Here’s a couple of extraordinary passages, in which the frustrated and socially improper passion of a young boy’s tutor for his charge’s sister leads to disordered fantasies and ultimately to very real and socially sanctioned violence against the boy, who has the misfortune of much resembling his sister:
The glory and terror of her beauty held down desire and absorbed despair. Rage rose in him again like a returning sea. Furious fancies woke up and fought inside him, crying out one upon the other. He would have given his life for leave to touch her, his soul for a chance of dying crushed down under her feet: an emotion of extreme tenderness, lashed to fierce insanity by the circumstances, frothed over into a passion of vehement cruelty. Deeply he desired to die to her, if that could be; and more deeply, if this could be, to destroy her: scourge her into swooning and absorb the blood with kisses; caress and lacerate her loveliness, alleviate and heighten her pains; to feel her foot upon his throat, and wound her own with his teeth; submit his body and soul for a little to her lightest will, and satiate upon hers the desperate caprice of his immeasurable desire…
There was a singular light in the man’s eyes as they followed her passing out after this speech; a sharp hard look with a cruel edge to it, but full of hidden heat; the light and heat of dumb desire, of desperate admiration, of bitter and painful hatred. Something too of wayward and hopeless pleasure was in their dark grey globes, latent and tacit. Suffering, self-contempt, envy and the rage of inverted love and passion poisoned in the springs, all were absorbed by the keen delight of a minute while her skirt brushed him and her eyes touched him. A pungent sense of tears pricked his eyelids and a bitter taste was one his tongue when he went out. Her god-like beauty was as blind and unmerciful as a god. Hating her with all his heart as he loved her with all his senses, he could but punish her through her brother, hurt her through his skin, but at least to do this was to make her own flesh and blood suffer for the pain inflicted on himself.