Saturday, 31 August 2013

Hypatian Erotica Awards … High Victorian nominees announced!

A recent issue (24.05.13) of The Lady (founded 1885), belatedly arriving in the mails, contains the oddest intelligence. Its correspondent writes:
Hugh Betts, who works at Maggs booksellers in Berkeley Square, told me that he knows a girl currently writing a PhD on Wrists and Waists in English fiction of the 19th Century.
Thought provoking. 

In the same speculative vein, my recent blog post (here) recalling the metrical brilliance of the poet Roy Fuller
jogged my memory of reading his fine novel of 1959, The Ruined Boys*, in which he charts the lost innocence of schoolboy protagonist, Gerald Bracher, who had ‘discovered that a cupboard in a classroom senior to his own housed a collection of books...’ that, if intuitively delved into, could satisfy his secret unspoken desires.
The most unlikely books sometimes proved to contain what he was seeking and the ardour of his quest seemed to give him a fine instinct not only for the right book but for the vital part of it. So it was scarcely any surprise that turning over the pages of a brown Victorian volume of small dull print whose title–Hypatia–had vaguely held out its only promise, he found:
‘She shook herself free from her tormentors, and springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around – shame and indignation in those wild clear eyes, but not a stain of fear.’
Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell

Rereading that passage, it seems to me that this subject of teasingly half veiled erotic texts from High Victorian writers bears further enquiry, and for the ardent Geralds among us it surely deserves its own award and nominees.

As such texts invariably teeter on the carnal brink I suggest the Hypatian Erotica Awards has a ring to it, with the breathless ingénue in a state of déshabillé the customary object of literature’s wish-fulfilling male predations. Is that actually a laced bodice ripped off and cast aside at the base (left) of the painting shown, or is it Hypatia’s Alexandrian sandal?

Take this seduction scene from a fiction published in 1888 ... 
...the atmosphere was heavy with the melancholy odour of refined white blossoms such as stephanotis, tuberose, and lilies of the valley ... [She] was at his side, just a little breathless, the flowers on her dress a little crushed, and the lace rising and falling rapidly. The moment was propitious for the study of human nature, and [she] saw it in a new phase ... [he] laid his hand upon her wrist. [She] experienced a sudden sense of chilliness all over. There was an obstruction in her throat and she prayed inwardly that something might happen suddenly ... to prevent him saying more ... The music went on, and there was a vibration in the floor as of people dancing. In a dark corner of the conservatory the monotonous drip-drip of a tap imperfectly turned made itself heard. [He] had taken her hand within his fingers now.

‘... I will never,’ [she said], with dangerous calmness, ‘be bullied or frightened into loving you. Surely you know me well enough to recognize that.’
... She turned half away from him, and moved towards the door, but before she had taken two steps his arms were round her, crushing her painfully. With sudden passion he kissed her twice on the lips ... Then he released her with equal abruptness. She stood for a moment, while he looked down at her, breathing hard ; then she raised her gloved hand, and pressed back over her ear a tiny wisp of golden hair that had escaped and curled forward to her smooth cheek.
Yes. The breathlessness of the crushed breast is quite a feature of this author, fixated on
visions ‘of soft clinging silks and incomprehensible gauze.’

Incomprehensible Gauze. Mmmm. That phrase could serve as the title of a study of John Ruskin’s marriage.  

Clinging silks with close-fitting bombazine, then, seems an essential feature of stimuli in popular literature as effective rousers of sensuality in the genteel Victorian reader desirous of the vicarious thrill of the chase.
She was almost crouching at his feet — crouching gracefully in her close-fitting black dress, with the beautiful golden head bent and turned from his sorrowful eyes.
Designedly, constrictiveness of dress as the cynosure of the writer’s hot gaze intensifies the reader’s voyeuristic complicity. But is tight-bound breathlessness, or yet the glimpse of wrists and ankles, deserving of the first rank of the excitants to ignite the timid reader?


No. In my view, at the highest ranking, I would place descriptions of the sweated brows exhibited by female athleticism. (cf. Betjeman’s sportsgirls, Joan Hunter Dunn before her ‘warm-handled racket is back in its press’ or Pam whose ‘Old Malvernian brother ... can’t stand up to’ her ‘wonderful backhand drive.’)

Consider George Gissing’s Fleet-Footed Hester (1893) for an instructive expression of this attraction:
At sixteen, Hester had a splendid physique: strangers imagined her a fine girl of nineteen or twenty. It was then she ceased running races with the lads in London Fields …
Grown to a young woman, Hester provokes a fight between two rivals for her hand
Her face was hot … Hester went off in the opposite direction, an exulting smile in her eyes … On reaching home, Hester lit her lamp — it revealed a scrubby little bedroom with an attic window — took off her hat and jacket, and deliberately lay down on the bed. She lay there for an hour or more, gazing at nothing, smiling, her lips moving as though she talked to herself. At eleven o’clock she rose, put on her hat, and once more left the house. She walked as far as the spot where the fight had taken place. It was very quiet here, and very gloomy. A policeman approached and she spoke to him.
‘P’liceman, can you tell me ’ow fur it is from ’ere to the corner of Beck Street?’ she pointed.
‘Cawn’t say exactly. Five ’undred yards, dessay.’
‘Will you toime me while I run it there and back?’
The man laughed and made a joke, but in the end he consented to time her. Hester poised herself for a moment on her right foot, then sprang forward. She flew through the darkness and flew back again.
‘Four minutes, two second,’ said the policeman. ‘Not bad, Miss!’
‘Not bad? So that’s all! Find me the girl as can do it better.’
And she ran off in high spirits.
We don’t have to spell out sublimated sexual arousal when the clues are in Hester’s restlessness, ungratified and raw. (Incidentally, the male world record-holder’s speed for the 1000 yards of 1881 was twice as fast as Hester’s speed, which was nonetheless impressive.) 

Encrypted caresses or too easily decipherable seductions?

But for a sophisticated account of a consensual heterosexual sadomasochistic pact – redolent of pheromonal exudations such as sweat and damp hair – the narrative below by an English regional fictionist (born 1867) is, for those times, unsurpassed for its novelty in founding its intense eroticism on quotidian reality, in this case the rural setting of the Derbyshire dales. A flirtation between a beautiful, much-courted village girl and a rejected suitor ...
... her flushed face bore a pleasant look of malice ... She turned and faced him defiantly.
‘I wunna!’
‘But yo’ will, for i’ll mek yo’.’ ...
It had never struck her before that he was very handsome, but as he stood there without jacket or waistcoat, and with his snowy shirt all damp with perspiration, she became convinced that there was none in the neighbourhood half so worthy of the name of man ...
She set down the basket and showed him her hands. The skin was roughened, the finger-tips were bleeding. The sight made his eyes swim ...
He came nearer and caught her in his arms.
‘I wouldna hev done et ef I hadna looved yo’.’
‘Et’s all reet ... Yo’ll be master, I reckon.’
And she kissed him, and he led her to the road.
Or take this sinister coded erotic encounter from the author of the 1888 conservatory seduction ...
He rose from his seat and deliberately crossed the room to the sofa where she had sat down, where he reclined, with one arm stretched out along the back of it towards her. In his other hand he held his riding-whip, with which he began to stroke the skirt of her dress, which reached along the floor almost to his feet ... She gave a strange little hunted glance round the room ... Then she leant forward and deliberately withdrew her dress from the touch of his whip, which was in its way a subtle caress
Yes. Coded eroticism for Victorian fictionists seems to function through dependence on ravishing detail of an almost hallucinatory Dadd-like painterly meticulousness.

This trick of the cinematic close-up, like the whip and dress-hem, can be seen in the example singled out in my recent post on Emma Bovary, Adamantine Madame. 
Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders.
Oh. Did I mention I bought my prized first English edition of Madame Bovary from Maggs of Berkeley Square? More than a quarter of a century ago.

Puzzle of the missing pizzle.

As to more decipherable seductions, even the novice literary cryptographer is quick to unriddle the cruder emblems of sexual intrigue when the determined symbolist is intent on delivering his message with a semiotic battering ram, whose impact is no less subtle than the authorial telegraph pole it evokes with which the messenger signals the callowest itch of lust.

So let me conclude with two contrasting views on literary expressions of sexual desire.

My aim has been to demonstrate how the intensely observed teasing glimpses of so-called second-rank 19th century novelists succeed in their purpose to provoke the fantasizing reader to imaginative immersion in what is, essentially, a fictive sexual adventure; whereas, by contrast, the clumsier overt symbolism of a vaunted stylist of the period tends sometimes to neuter, indeed sabotage, intended erotic effects with the reader left disengaged.

For the last word, look no further than Thomas Hardy and his Jude the Obscure (1895). Consider this famous passage:
On a sudden something smacked him sharply in the ear, and he became aware that a soft cold substance had been flung at him, and had fallen at his feet.

A glance told him what it was—a piece of flesh, the characteristic part of a barrow-pig, which the countrymen used for greasing their boots, as it was useless for any other purpose. 
‘I didn’t throw it, I tell you!’ asserted one girl to her neighbour, as if unconscious of the young man’s presence.
 ‘But you want to speak to me, I suppose?’
‘Oh yes; if you like to.’
No better than a slap in the face with a wet fish (as the saying goes), that ‘characteristic part’ of the pig considered ‘useless’ is, in fact, an overwrought symbol of clunking gaucheness, as I see it, spelling out its message in banner headlines: ‘This is a sexual pass! Wake up, Mr Libido!’ 

Extraordinarily enough, when a perfectly applicable term for this porcine boot-grease exists and is ready to hand – ‘pizzle’ – the word appears nowhere in Hardy’s text, a needless evasion that consigns the reader – this reader, at least – to feeling distinctly short-changed.

So no nominations here, then, for the Hypatian Erotica Awards that distinguished poet Roy Fuller prompted, whose own Mythological Sonnets are, conversely, rich in allusion and unforced sensuality:
Trailing great pizzles, their dun stallions
Huddled against hedges while our mares
Cavorted in the grass, black, yellow, bronze.  
‘Stallions’ and ‘bronze’ ... words destined to be spellbound by a magician of rhyme.

And since Fuller so perceptively quotes from Hypatia, in a text I have remembered for more than half a century, maybe I should conclude with its author’s true, irrepressible, High Victorian, libidinous outpourings ... the love letters that passed between Charles Kingsley and his bride-to-be, Fanny Grenfell.

It is to them that the Hypatian Erotica Awards are awarded. The judge’s verdict is final: Charles and Fanny are uncontested joint winners.

Thrilling writhings. Wandering hands. Smelling salts.

In the fourth decade of the 19th Century, the most remarkable love letters were exchanged between the young curate, Charles Kingsley, and wealthy socialite, Frances Eliza Grenfell, five years his senior, who opened their hearts to each other with an explicitness that scholars of that period rarely encounter, certainly in texts unredacted.

No bland, sentimental billing-and-cooing billets-doux
but Frances’s imaginings of ...
... delicious nightery [when they would lie in each other’s arms] and I will ask you to explain my strange feelings ...
These strange feelings of the lovelorn – agonising physical pains in her heart – caused Fanny to resort to large doses of morphine and salvolatile.

As for Charles, the floodgates of his private fantasies were unloosed without constraint ...
When you go to bed tonight, forget that you ever wore a garment, and open your lips to my kisses and spread out each limb that I may lie between your breasts at night ... Will not these thoughts [by postponing bliss] give us more perfect delight when we lie naked in each other’s arms, clasped together, toying with each other’s limbs, buried in each other’s bodies, struggling, panting, dying for the moment. Shall we not feel then, even then, that there is more in store for us, that those thrilling writhings are but dim shadows of a union which shall be perfect?
The perfect union Charles, an accomplished artist, envisioned was their hallowed lovemaking for all eternity, pinioned on orgasmic pulsing waves ... a fevered sketch of which remains: 
The consecrated lovemaking of Charles and Fanny,
pinioned on the pulsing waves of Eternal Orgasm.

Charles once told Fanny: ‘Your letter about bare feet almost convulsed me. I have such strange fantasies about bare feet.’ And his fetishisation of Fanny continued: hands are perfumed with [your] delicious limbs, and I cannot wash off the scent, and every moment the thought comes across me of those mysterious recesses of beauty where my hands have been wandering, and my heart sinks with a sweet faintness and my blood tingles through every limb ...
The Ascent of Charles and Fanny to Eternal Sexual Bliss

The power of suggestion.

Nevertheless, Charles feared the sight of Fanny on their wedding night would unman him. Some months before their marriage he wrote:
I have been thinking over your terror at seeing me undressed, and I feel that I should have the same feeling ... until I had learnt to bear the blaze of your naked beauty.
So there it is. At last, the authentic.   

The blaze of naked beauty. 

This fierce eroticism, forged by lovers separated by the proprieties of polite society, and expressed in a series of astonishing epistolary convulsions, underscores my initial point ... effective erotic writing relies on the power of suggestion and the tingling religio-sexual experience of ‘touching the veil’ recorded by Charles Kingsley is the more ardent for its trembling – like the Song of Solomon on the brink of coherence, and for daring to breach the boundaries of scriptural agápē.


* re. The Ruined Boys, see, also, a very fine contemporaneous novel that charts similar territories of betrayal and lost innocence in a girls’ school: The Chinese Garden (1962) by Rosemary Manning.


See also: Sex Lessons from History Unhindered by 20/20 Hindsight

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