Academic journal article CLIO

The Afterlife of Victorian Sexuality: Foucault and Neo-Victorian Historical Fiction

Academic journal article CLIO

The Afterlife of Victorian Sexuality: Foucault and Neo-Victorian Historical Fiction

Article excerpt

In her memoir, Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf tells an anecdote in which Lytton Strachey, one day in 1908, pointed to a stain on Vanessa Bell's dress and asked, "Semen?" Woolf tells us she thought, "Can one really say it," and then "we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down." (1) Woolf's story thus asserts the ability to talk about sex as establishing an end to the Victorian period. If the death of Victoria ended the reign and World War I ended the economic and social structure of the society, the destruction of the "barriers of reticence and reserve," in this version at least, began the end of the Victorian sexual repressiveness that plays such a large role in our understanding of their culture. It is a fitting beginning to my discussion of three works of twentieth-century Victorian fiction because I want to show the vice-like grip of this story about sexual repression on our historical narrative about the Victorians, despite its radical questioning by more recent theories set off by Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality. Given the ostensibly postmodern status of two of these works, The French Lieutenant's Woman and Possession, one might have guessed at a more skeptical approach to this old story. I will argue, however, that the turn toward the Victorian period occurs in contemporary historical fiction when the theme of a certain kind of freedom demands the story of Victorian sexuality as the image of constraint against which that freedom is measured. Perhaps more to the point, the lens of Foucault's theory will show us that the writers of postmodern Victorian fiction remain "We 'Other Victorians"' (to make a category out of Foucault's making of a category from Steven Marcus's famous title), in their attitudes toward sexuality, in their faith in it as the solution to narrative mystery, and finally, in their sense that, in speaking about it, we may explain things--if nothing else, our hoped for difference from Victorian reticence.

To displace this story of Victorian sexuality and offer a context through which to see the novels as offering us a supportive myth rather than a history, I will start with a quotation from The History of Sexuality that turns the psychological inquisition of sexuality into a Disney cartoon:

   The aim of this series of studies? To transcribe in history the
   fable of The Indiscreet Jewels.

      Among its many emblems, our society bears that of the talking
   genitals. Those genitals, that one catches by surprise and
   interrogates, constrained and loquacious, respond tirelessly. One
   day, a certain mechanism, magical enough to have rendered itself
   invisible, captured those genitals. It made them speak within a
   game that mixes pleasure and the involuntary, consent and
   inquisition, the truth of the self and of others. We have lived for
   many years in the realm of Prince Magogul: prey to an immense
   curiosity about our sex, intent on questioning our genitals,
   insatiable in our desire to hear what they have to say and to hear
   it spoken about, quick to invent all kinds of magical rings that
   might force them into indiscretion. (2)

We are, of course, under no compulsion to accept Foucault's claim in The History of Sexuality that our constant theorizing of our sexuality, our attempt to identify its true nature in order to free ourselves from repression, actually ensnares us in a project that shares a profound common ground with Victorian repression: to find a truth about sexuality. For Foucault, such a quest effectively constrains our freedom in ways analogous to those of repression by positing a knowledge of our identity that establishes our limits. But whether or not we agree with Foucault, Denis Diderot's story of truth-speaking genitals, invoked here, whether it is our emblem or not, is an emblem, more or less obscure of these post-Victorian, if not postmodern, narratives. Each of the works shares a formal feature, a theme and the articulation of the theme through the emblem of an interrogated sexuality. …

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