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REVIEWS Françoise Barret-Ducrocq. Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality, Class, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century London. Trans. John Howe. London and New York: Verso, 1991. 225. $29.95 US (cloth). Over the past decade or so, scholarship has yielded revelation after revelation about the sex lives of the Victorians. Indeed, I had just about come to die conclusion tiiat there would soon be little, if anything, left to say on the subject. Until, that is, I encountered Love in the Time of Victoria, which provides both new source material and a fresh perspective on the romantic and sexual relationships of working people in Victorian London. The autiior has taken an extensive sampling of records from London's Thomas Coram Foundling Hospital, established in 1741 to care for unwanted children. The sampling covers die decade 1860 - 70 as well as die years 1851-53 and 1871 - 73; it consists of petitions from mothers seeking the admission of dieir infants, letters between petitioners and die fathers of their children, and testimonies from employers, friends, and relatives as to the good characters of die mothers. (These files and all others for die years after 1840 have recently been closed for fifty years to guard die privacy of die petitioners' descendants.) With die evidence of the hospital's archive, the author sets out "to reconstitute the logic and the detail of amorous encounters" and above all to "emancipate" the urban poor "from the label of brutal animality behind which diey have habitually been confined" (4). She begins by reproducing the picture painted by middle-class social reformers and other contemporary observers ofthe supposed indifference to squalor, generalized immorality, and sexual depravity of Victorian London's working classes. The women who figured in this stereotypical scenario were similarly reduced in dimension: diey were either helpless victims or sexual profligates. In contrast, what actually emerges from the collective record of tiiose who petitioned die hospital is an image of romantic and sexual experiences as varied as die individuals who lived them. Some women recounted stories of rape (usually by an employer) and their attempts to prevent it: "I tiirew a basin of water over him, and scratched his face and otiierwise resisted him all I could. ... He succeeded in effecting his purpose" (50). Others voluntarily exchanged sexual favours for presents and money from men of more privileged background than themselves. Some entered into such liaisons with 78Victorian Review the hope of marriage; several others simply and pragmatically sought shortterm alleviation of their material hardship. The majority of die total sampling confined tiiemselves to nonmercenary relationships with men of their own class. Most of these women wanted marriage and believed in its eventuality; thus, they consented willingly to what they deemed to be prénuptial sexual relations. And, as die author reminds us, for all die practical overtones and absence of romantic detail in such accounts, they are nonetheless love stories. As one of the young women expressed it, "I gave way to him because I was fond of him" (113). Their variety notwithstanding, die women's individual experiences together give evidence of an estabUshed moral code governing die social and sexual relationship between working-class men and women. This code differed from tiiat of the middle class—notably in its relaxed attitude to premarital sex—but it was a far cry from the stereotype of die anarchic, depraved behaviour of die urban poor. In reality, courting was generally a prolonged and measured progress tiirough several stages of intimacy, a carryover of the long courtships typical of preindustrial society. The otiier commonality which characterizes the collective voice of the hospital petitioners is perhaps even more striking. Whether they had survived rape or, as was most often die case, found tiiemselves deserted by a craven or irresponsible fatiier after an otherwise well-regulated courtship, diese women were active agents in determining die subsequent course of their lives. They took charge of their destinies, adapting to their situations and developing the strategies necessary to ensure their own and their infants' welfare. As an example ofthorough and enlightening historical analysis, this book is difficult to fault. In its writing style, moreover, it is, refreshingly, a pageturner . I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 77-78
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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