I was struck by the anecdote about W. B. Yeats that Heather told in her post about the muse in Victorian art. The romance of the story is captivating until the story reaches its denouement, concluding with a disappointing roll in the hay that leads to the deterioration of the relationship. In case you missed it…
Yeats “spent more than 20 years of his life obsessed with an Irish feminist and nationalist named Maud Gonne. Many of his poems reference her, including “This, This Rude Knocking” and he wrote the plays The Countess Cathleen and Cathleen Ní Houlihan for her. In his eyes, she has been Helen of Troy, Cathleen Ní Houlihan, Leda, Deirdre, and many others…He pursued her relentlessly, proposing to her four different times between 1891 and 1901. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t enough of a nationalist to please her and refused to convert to Catholicism. Much to Yeats’ horror, she ended up marrying an Irish Republican by the name of John MacBride; being a reasonable man, Yeats then proceeded to persecute MacBride both in his letters and his verse. Long story short, that marriage ended in disaster and Yeats and Gonne came to consummate their relationship at last. Unfortunately, their relationship never developed further than that one night and Yeats was left again with his frustration and despair. In in his poem “A Man Young and Old”, he describes his night with her thusly:
My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take;
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck. ”
About their night together, he later remarked, “The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” So even a night of passion with the object of his 20 year obsession could not give him the true communion of souls that he was seeking and likely expected. What a let down.
Today, we view the sexual consummation of a relationship as the ultimate expression of love and romance. Why else would we write modern fan-fiction and sequels to the great 19th century romances just so we can see the characters finally get it on? We feel like romance is not complete without the lovebirds hopping into the sack together. After that, who cares? Maybe the relationship will actually be a disaster, maybe the characters are a terrible fit for one another – we don’t want to see that. In fact, we don’t even care if they marry anymore. We want one passionate night, and then we tune out. Because of this heady anticipation of the conjugal act between characters, we place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of said act to the relationship. We have pretty high expectations for how magical and soul-connecting this encounter will be for the characters, and in Hollywood movies, the encounter is usually everything we want it to be. But in real life, we all know that our expectations are unrealistic, and expecting sex to provide that life-changing soul-connection with another person can lead to the sort of disillusionment that Yeats experienced.
Victorian authors did not seem to consider the physical consummation of a relation as its romantic peak. Certainly propriety prevented many authors from overtly discussing sexuality in their works, but in many great romances, we barely see the lovers married before the back cover slams closed on the lives of the protagonists like the door to their honeymoon suite [e.g. All the Austen novels]. It is the marriage plot, not the marriage-night plot, that so captivated 19th and early 20th century writers and readers. Victorians were not looking for the union of bodies but the communion of souls.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one great soul-mate romance of the period, but the characters in the novel who truly love each other, Catherine/Heathcliff, Young Catherine/Hareton, and maybe even Young Katherine/Young Linton never have sex in the recorded story. All the sexual pairings in the novel, Catherine/Edgar Linton and Heathcliff/Isabella Linton are characterized by one-sided love, violence, and sadism. Clearly, sexuality is not the height of love to these characters – the eternal soul-connection of Catherine and Heathcliff doesn’t require sex for validation or completion.
Jane Eyre also focused primarily on the soul-connection of its lead characters over the physical connection. Jane is disdainful of St. John’s willingness to make love to her without actually loving her. Jane asks herself,
Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent? Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous.
It doesn’t matter that he’s incredibly handsome, which she does point out to the reader multiple times – sex with anyone other than a soul mate, even within a marriage, is “monstrous.”
If Victorian authors won’t give us sex, they can at least give us a kiss, right? The family-friendly version of sex – the moment we will wait a whole movie or book for – even this physical act is rather inconsequential beside the emotional declarations of love that happen before and after it. In Jane Eyre, Jane and Rochester’s first kiss is down-played to the point where you could blink and miss it.
‘As we are!’ repeated Mr. Rochester — ‘so,’ he added, enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips; ‘so, Jane!’ ‘Yes, so, sir,’ I rejoined: ‘and yet not so…’
[Stop talking, Jane! For goodness’s sake, let me enjoy this moment! This is all I’m going to get until your happy little epilogue that skips all the good stuff!] Even this relatively chaste physical expression of passion takes backseat to all the pages and pages of TALK about love and soul connection.
Popular authors did not begin writing explicitly about sex until the early 20th century, but even then the act took a back seat to the cerebral connection or even lead to the dissolution or degradation of the cerebral relationship. In Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (written in 1920 but set in the 1870’s), the engaged, then married Newland Archer spends a few years enraptured by the divorced Countess Olenska. While surrounded by hypocritical friends and acquaintances who engage regularly in extra-marital affairs while publically decrying the practice, Archer and Countess Olenska see themselves as above such behavior. And yet, their passion continues to draw them together until finally, towards the end of the book as the Countess is preparing to leave England permanently, the pair agree to meet for one night to consummate their love and then be parted forever. As soon as the agreement is made, however, the nature of their relationship changes permanently. Their love is no longer pure in either of their eyes – they have become the base adulterers they disdain. Despite the fact that they never even make it to the bedroom [darn it, Wharton! It’s the 20th century! You could have given me something!], their relationship ends, and they never meet again. In this case, not only is sex not required for the pure soul-connection, sex actually kills it.
The Victorians were searching for a soul-mate, not a friend with benefits. Sex was not the end game of romance the way it often is today. In fact, sex without love (regardless of marital status) lead to degradation of character, loss of relationship, and other negative outcomes. Perhaps we should stop thinking of Victorians as “prudish” but rather as lovers with different, and maybe even more sensible, priorities than ours.