Saturday, October 4, 2008

Ronald Pearsall's "The Worm in the Bud": Book Review.

This 1969 study roams "the world of Victorian sexuality," and over 650-plus closely typed pages you'd think it would have exhausted the subject. It opens splendidly, and for much of its length you're carried along with aplomb by the verve of the prose, the wit of the insights, and the mass of the material. Pearsall with great energy delves into what even in the late Sixties was often a difficult subject to access in English archives, often uncatalogued, or jealousy guarded by its keepers in what the British Library called "The Private Cases," one of the largest erotica collections anywhere. Formidable difficulties met Pearsall's attempts to uncover data beyond the pornographic magazines or love poetry or yellow journalism of the period, and he found as of forty years ago much still left in error or confusion. However, it's a pleasure to read a book that preceded Foucault, one that does not become mired in "social constructionism," or in thrall to academic trendiness. It's written for the intelligent common reader, and deserves attention.

Pearsall reminds us first off how we're not that much altered from our ancestors a century or so ago; "the difference lies in the accommodation to the age in which they live, in their susceptibility to outside forces." (19) Divorce being limited, it does not mean Victorians were more faithful. Oscar Wilde's notoriety does not mean that homosexuality was less common than now;
"because Queen Victoria is supposed to have not known what Lesbianism was, it does not mean that her subjects were no wiser." (19) Not aliens, but ourselves "planted in an age when it was difficult to be honest with oneself, where guilt and alarm filtered out of the personal into the public sphere, when private sexual proclivities were thought to be unique to oneself, and uniquely damning. Harrassed beyond measure, the procreative instinct manifested itself in ways that to the thoughtless are funny, to the perceptive, pathetic."

He begins with the aristocracy and works his way down the classes. The middle classes so long derided, Pearsall argues, could hardly have done differently as they "acted on a level that was hardly more than instinctive; when sex semaphored its presence, reason retired in confusion." (18-19) The extravagant metaphors in the press "coverage" of Prince Albert's nuptials with the Queen make one half-blush and half-gape, so raunchy yet witty they remain. While Pearsall, later in this work, disdains the doggedly punnish, relentlessly puerile, and/or clumsily verbose descriptions of the pornography peddled in such short-lived journals as "The Pearl," his critique jarred me, I admit. He appears throughout the work to thumb his nose at such playful smut, but I was at a loss to figure out what would have been a better alternative for the era, given the restrictions he constantly confirms.

The problem with the topic stymies any investigator. It's sex, it's over a century ago, and it's recorded-- or not-- at a time notoriously stereotyped for its confusion, obfuscation, sniggering, and censorship: "as always in any area of Victorian sexuality, there was a wide discrepancy between what was written and what was done. The link-- what is said-- has been broken by time." (279) Besides, the cult of the little girl, of saccharine marital bliss, half-repressed sadism, abuse of children and women, and coy wiles expected by all involved complicate the elusive matter.
"The sentimentality and gush, the cruelty and the harshness, reflect an inability to see things as they are, a preference for the lazy pre-packaged notions, a reluctance to come to terms with not only children as they were and not as embodiments of one's own virtues and vices, but with life as it was in an age that killed off God and had not fulfilled its promise." (445)

As the narrative progresses, it does slacken. Pearsall's on to a great theme when he wonders about the grey area between promiscuity and prostitution, marriage for money vs. the pay-for-play notions of the lower classes. But, this as with many such topics appears and then vanishes, within sections that nose about a subject, include revealing excerpts from police reports or sensational newspapers, and then digress into another curious byway. It's a leisurely look at it all, but you do begin to tire after a few hundred pages of such an guided, rambling tour. A fine counterpart, much later written but doubtless depending on Pearsall's sources, would be Michel Faber's triple-decker homage to the London streetwalkers, "The Crimson Petal and the White."

Later sections on prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, dream theory, psychology and perversion lack the impact of the first part's explorations of class attitudes, idealizations of women, courtship and love conventions, and "the facts of life" in all their sordidness. Not all sources can be traced, and the splendid poem (is it Browning?) at the beginning of part two goes uncredited. Still, one reads on diligently for gems such as this:
"The notion of prostitution as a crime is, in the abstract, rather an odd one. It is possible that persistent solicitation could be a 'public nuisance', and that in its extreme form it could be something of a trial to the over-sensitive. In Norton Street, Marylebone, prostitutes would appear naked at the windows, would lounge on the window sills, run into the street with one undergarment on, and, when the occasions were auspicious, drag men in. This could be defined as a public nuisance." (337-38)

Such deadpan recital of an age as tawdry as our own makes the best of this enormous presentation of a world that was worthwhile. It may well have been superseded by earnest academics bent more on theory than practice by now. However, for those less enamored of cant and more eager for facts, Pearsall reveals six decades richer than we'd suspected in a manner largely wise, educational, thoughtful, and engaging.

[This Sutton Press reprint depicted has a sexier cover than my old Penguin, bought remaindered 25 years ago for $1.49. Mine displayed a buxom figure, a denuded female draped downward as a detail from W. Etty's "The Deluge." Presumably post-lapsarian.] Posted to Amazon US today.

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