In the nineteenth century, women are sacred, but young girls can be bought cheaply. More churches are built than ever before, but one in sixty London houses is a brothel. The sanctity of marriage is proclaimed everywhere, but many public figures act scandalously in private. The female body is hidden, but sculptors must be able to carve naked women. Literature is very chaste, but an incredible amount of pornography is produced. No one talks about urinating or pooping, but practically no one has flushing toilets. Women supposedly don’t have orgasms, but all prostitutes learn to pretend they have them. There’s great progress in every area except for personal life.
Fowles comes down hard on the ironies inherent in Victorian society. It’s important to note that only with a retrospective view is it possible to see the era in this way; one must be removed from it. These ironies show that many Victorians lived with cognitive dissonances and didn’t question them. Fowles’s observations also show that despite the surface condemnation of sexuality, sex was actually present everywhere in this period.
The easiest answer is that the Victorians divert their sexual impulses into other areas. However, this makes it seem that the Victorians are not highly sexed, when in fact, they are just as highly sexed as people in the twentieth century. They’re actually more preoccupied with sex and love, and the comparative sexual freedom of the 1890s probably just resulted from the private being publicized. The same amount of sex happens no matter the age; the difference is how it’s discussed. The Victorians are just more serious and secretive about sex than more modern people are.
The most dominant modern stereotype of the Victorians is that they were sexually repressed. While Fowles illustrates this idea in numerous ways throughout the novel, he also argues here that societal repression didn’t necessarily equal an erasure of sexuality from daily life. In fact, making such an effort not to talk about sex or have unacceptable sex requires one to think about sex rather a lot.
People often think that being ignorant about sex means that it’s less enjoyable, but this isn’t necessarily true. Modern people might think they’re more often able to have sex when they want it than the Victorians were. However, modern society pushes sexual desire much more than it fulfills it. Though the Victorians might be more sexually frustrated, they also might enjoy sex more because it’s rarer. In fact, maybe they unconsciously choose to be silent about sex in order to heighten the degree of pleasure it brings. By tearing down the mystery around sex, the twentieth century has also lessened its pleasure. Besides, the Victorians’ sense of secrecy between men and women creates energy in other areas.
Here, Fowles turns the stereotype of the repressed Victorian on its head, suggesting that Victorians might have had better sex than modern, supposedly less repressed, people. Going even further, he argues that repression actually creates sexual pleasure because there’s an added thrill of partaking in the forbidden. Although the novel generally exposes the destructive force of sexual repression in social life, it ironically argues here that sexual repression is a source of pleasure.
Mary is not in fact an innocent country virgin, because peasants are rarely innocent. The view of Victorians as prudish really comes from the middle class, and a true view of country life must be found in the reports of those who have studied it factually. In the country, almost everyone has premarital sex, and gets married once the woman is pregnant, so that the couple knows they’ll have children to help earn money. Besides, families sleep crammed together and no one has any privacy, making incest common.
Fowles points out that history tells the story of the privileged, in this case meaning that modern people imagine that the lives of the middle and upper classes were typical of all Victorians, which is false. With further irony, the life of the lower class entirely contradicts that stereotype of the repressed Victorian. Premarital sex is actually an acceptable part of the culture.
Thomas Hardy was the first author to try to write about sex in the Victorian age. Ironically, he hid his own sex life—the truth of it wasn’t discovered until the 1950s. At twenty-seven, he fell in love with his cousin, Tryphena, and they got engaged. Their engagement was broken five years later, apparently because Hardy learned that Tryphena was actually his half-sister’s daughter. Some people claim that he broke the engagement because of class differences, but Tryphena was remarkable and intelligent. His love for her inspired poems and important characters in his novels. Paradoxes of repression and desire shape both Hardy and the Victorian Age.
This entire novel is written in the tradition of Hardy in both subject matter and setting, and it’s typical of Fowles’s metafictional style that he directly acknowledges the link here. This chapter focuses on the paradoxes of Victorian sex, and Hardy himself embodies paradox in that he can advocate in fiction for open discussion of sex and a loosening of society’s censures around sexuality, but he buried his own sex life deep in secrecy.
The reader can probably guess now why Sam and Mary were heading to the barn, and Mary was crying because they had been there before. She knows more about sex than one might have suspected had one seen Tryphena, who helped make Hardy a symbol of the mysteries of the Victorians.
As a lower-class rural woman, Mary is already sexually experienced. Fowles implies that Mary is pregnant, and the news of Sam’s departure hits her all the harder because she’s afraid of being abandoned in this socially vulnerable condition.