This is not going to get anywhere near Shakespeare. In case you don’t already know it, anything in Shakespeare that you suspect of having a sexual meaning almost certainly does, and most of the stuff you don’t suspect of having a sexual meaning has one anyway. This is about a few writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who are often mentioned by people who are shocked — shocked! at sexual innuendo in modern writing.
When I was a TA, almost nothing drove me crazier than undergraduates calling Jane Austen “Victorian”. She wasn’t Victorian no matter how you define it. In the first place, she died in 1817, two years before the birth of Princess Alexandrina Victoria, who took the throne as Queen Victoria in 1837. Secondly, “Victorian”, especially when used by an undergraduate, implies prudishness about sex (a concept that would have stunned Queen Victoria herself, but that’s another post). Jane Austen was not a prude. She was a vicar’s unmarried daughter, and had she been born in 1875 rather than 1775, she might have gone to her grave without knowing where babies come from. But she was born in a freer age and she not only knew about sex, she wrote novels that include premarital sex, adultery, children born out of wedlock, and at least one stunningly bawdy joke. In Mansfield Park we see Mary Crawford, an admiral’s niece, who is asked whether she might be acquainted with a certain captain. She says, “…we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post-captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us…. Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
Did you see that? Miss Austen, the clergyman’s daughter, has just given us a buggery joke. She did it to show us that Miss Crawford is not a nice person, but she did it. Now you have some idea of why her niece wrote years later that she was “too coarse” for the “refined” tastes of the Victorians.
But what about the Victorians themselves? Well, we have Charlotte Brontë writing in Jane Eyre about Mr. Rochester’s “ward” Adèle. Readers would certainly have understood that Adèle was Mr. Rochester’s daughter by his Parisian mistress. George Eliot, who lived openly with a man not her husband, also wrote about love and sex in a way at odds with our ideas of Victorian thinking. Besides various illicit passions in some of her better-known novels, she has a little passage in Felix Holt: The Radical (don’t waste your time reading it; I really mean that) in which Felix sees a beautiful woman and his first thought is that he would like to cut off all her hair and make her cry. George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell — they and others of their time knew how to hint at the dark side of sexual passion in such a way that, well, if you get it you get it, and if you don’t get it you can still enjoy the story.
How about Lucy Maud Montgomery, a few decades later? Surely there’s nothing naughty in any of the Anne of Green Gables books? All the children are born safely in wedlock, including the orphan Anne Shirley. Not all marriages are happy, but the ones in the foreground are. And yet in Anne of the Island, we see Anne receiving this tidbit in a letter from her friend Philippa:
“Cousin Emily has only five boarders besides myself – four old ladies and one young man. My right-hand neighbor is Mrs. Lilly. She is one of those people who seem to take a gruesome pleasure in detailing all their many aches and pains and sicknesses. You cannot mention any ailment but she says, shaking her head, ‘Ah, I know too well what that is’ – and then you get all the details. Jonas declares he once spoke of locomotor ataxia in hearing and she said she knew too well what that was. She suffered from it for ten years and was finally cured by a traveling doctor.”
Now, when I first read that I didn’t know what locomotor ataxia was — I figured it was some kind of degenerative nerve disease — but Philippa, Jonas, and Anne would all certainly have known, as would their contemporary readers. Locomotor ataxia is a symptom of third-stage syphilis. It’s an interesting part of the subtext of what really is a pretty funny story that two up-to-date young single women had more information about syphilis than an elderly widow.
I’m not sure why it’s taken me three weeks to get this finished and posted, except that I am a devotee of St. Procrastinatus (who doesn’t have a feast day because no one’s gotten around to assigning one yet). I don’t even have a profound point to make, except that there is naughty stuff in unexpected places, and the very best of it will fly right by anyone who isn’t prepared to deal with it.