Thesis puts Victorian obscenity into context

Oct 31, 2002, vol. 25, no. 5
vol. 25, no. 5
By Roberta Staley

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The idea of Victorian England being sexually repressed - and Victorian woman sexually anesthetized - is a persistent one. Enduring clichés verge on the comical: Victorians covering piano legs so as to avoid inciting displaced, libidinous desire in men, or Queen Victoria dutifully concentrating on God and Empire while engaged in sexual relations with her husband Prince Albert.

Assistant English professor Colette Colligan (left) debunks such stereotypes in her doctoral thesis, Obscenity and Empire - England's Obscene Print Culture in the Nineteenth Century. Colligan analyses England's burgeoning interest in a range of erotica - writing as well as cartoons and paintings - of Arabic and Oriental harems, Eastern sex manuals and flagellation obscenity. Colligan also explores the role of imperialist anthropologist Sir Richard Burton in sparking an English erotic literary renaissance through his translations of such scandalous (for the time) texts as The Arabian Nights, the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden.

Burton saw English attitudes toward sex as prudish in comparison to a greater openness among Arabic and Eastern cultures. However, Colligan argues, that doesn't mean that the Victorians were repressed. Far from being ostracized for bringing such works into the English literary mainstream, for example, Burton was lauded and, scholars believe, granted a knighthood largely based upon his translation of The Arabian Nights. Mainstream as well as underground publishers followed Burton's lead, making obscene texts accessible and affordable not only to the upper crust but the working class as well.

Although some modern feminists may dismiss such texts as representative of the victimization of women during the Victorian era, Colligan says such polemics “overlook the parody and play that's often going on in these works.”

The growing acceptance of obscenity was part of the fascination with new, exotic cultures as the British Empire expanded. So alluring was the idea of harems, for example, that some women of means - single as well as married - holidayed in Constantinople's Turkish harems as observers, says Colligan.

Colligan also points out that, like modern pornography - a French term that first entered the English vernacular in the late 19th century - Victorian obscenity was meant simply to titillate, provoke and shock. But even such base objectives allowed the exploration of taboo subjects like homosexuality, a criminal offence in England at the time, thus helping redefine moral codes and attitudes, says Colligan.

It is important to put Victorian obscenity into proper historical context, Colligan adds. The burgeoning interest in erotica paralleled radical economic, religious, political, philosophical and social shifts that occurred throughout the 19th century, as well as the Victorian era, which spanned 1832 to 1901.

The creation of organizations like the Salvation Army reflected a growing concern for the poor and needy while Charles Darwin's theory of evolution fuelled a growing interest in science and technology - and a questioning of religious precepts.

Although marriage and divorce laws remained draconian, especially for women, gender and racial equality issues came to the fore with the growth of the suffragette movement, as well as the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

Disturbingly, however, Colligan shows how the late 18th to mid 19th century image of the flogged slave woman, an image introduced by abolitionists to provoke Christian compassion, invoked prurience. The victimized naked black woman began to incite a preoccupation with racialised sexual violence around slavery, evidenced by the numerous publications that were sold displaying such images.

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