“While [social morality] winked one eye at a young man and even encouraged him with the other to ‘sow his wild oats’ [with shopgirls and other lower-class women whom the toffs didn’t give a toss about] ... in the case of the woman it studiously shut both eyes and acted as if it were blind. That a man could admit desires, and was permitted to experience them, was silently admitted by custom. But to admit frankly that a woman could be subject to similar desires ... would have transgressed the conception of the ‘sanctity of womanhood’. In the pre-Freudian era, therefore, the axiom was agreed upon that a female person could have no physical desires as long as they had not been awakened by man, and that, obviously, was officially permitted only in marriage. But even in those moral times, in Vienna in particular, the air was full of dangerous erotic infection, and a girl of good family had to live in a completely sterilised atmosphere, from the day of her birth until the day when she left the altar on her husband’s arm. In order to protect young girls, they were not left alone for a single moment. They were given a governess whose duty it was to see that they did not step out of the house unaccompanied, that they were taken to school, to their dancing lessons, and brought home in the same manner. Every book which they read was inspected ... A girl of good family was not allowed to have any idea of how the male body was formed, or to know how children came into the world, for [she] was to enter into matrimony not only physically untouched, but completely ‘pure’ spiritually as well. ‘Good breeding’, for a young girl of that time, was identical with ignorance of life ... [M]iddle-class usage strove frantically to uphold the fiction that a well-born woman neither possessed sexual instincts nor was permitted to possess any as long as she remained unmarried – anything else would have made her an ‘immoral person’, an outcast from the family...”
Friday, January 15, 2010
This Week's Blinding Thought (VIII)
As I wandered along the beach recently (the first time I've been able to get there since the ice that made the road lethal finally melted) I saw something lying in the sand that, in the fading light, looked like a deformed skull. Closer inspection revealed it to be, not the controversy-sparking remains of a visiting alien whose saucer was brought down by the recent cold spell, which froze his navigation system (or something), but a burst and mangled football. It seems an apt image for what I'm about to write, though!
Last night I watched Dorian Gray, the contemporary retelling of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel (which I’m currently reading). All in all, it was pretty poor; Ben Barnes was an epicene and prissy Dorian (it occurred to me while watching that, in appearance alone, a fantastic Dorian would be Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh) and the storytelling was clumsy and hamfisted, a parody of Wilde’s elegant original (curiously, the filmmakers jettisoned both the blatant homoeroticism of the original, as well as its intellectualism, as if scared that too much talk about ideas might scare away the punters; as with A Rebours, the dandy’s search for pleasure and sensation is more about aesthetics and the flaunting of restrictive social mores than simply getting your leg over a lot, something the film ignores entirely as far as I can see). Colin Firth is a passable Henry Wooton, but his relationship with Dorian is reduced to saying “g’wan, lad” while Basil Hallward (the painter who executes the eponymous Picture) says “careful, now...” (It’s hilarious the way Henry’s seduction of Dorian to the Dark Side of Life begins with offering him a cigarette; I knew it! First a cigarette, then you’re an absinthe-swilling opium fiend getting the arse whipped off you by a transvestite midget in an East End dive! They’re evil! Eeeeeee-vil!). The ending is also a travesty, but at least the portrait itself, when revealed, isn’t too ridiculous (although the bits where it growls and maggots fall out of it are laughably silly) and Rebecca Hall is both charming and attractive (I quite like the 1945 version of this film, and the portrait in that is better too!). But the most idiotic moment in the film comes when, at a high society party, Dorian plies a wealthy young woman with drink and has his wicked way with her upstairs, then does the same with her mother while the young woman hides under the bed. What’s most interesting about this is how it fundamentally misunderstands just how Victorian society functioned, and does this so badly that it renders the film worthless. Ignoring the effect that an unwanted pregnancy would have on a young heiress’s life, and the fact that at a society party, with respectable adults everywhere, it would be impossible to ply her with enough drink to make her consent to rumpy-pumpy (especially with her mother present!), I ask you to read the following extract from Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (published in English in 1943, two years after the author killed himself while fleeing Hitler’s Europe and on his way to South America) about the sexual climate in 19th Century Austria (and I imagine that Victorian Britain would have been the same):