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  • Celibate Marriages
  • Martha Vicinus (bio)

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George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Payne-Shaw. Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Shaw Photographs/1/53/7175.

Reproduced by permission of the Society of Authors on behalf of the Bernard Shaw estate.

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Victorianists all know examples of celibate marriages: there is the annulment of Effie Gray’s marriage with John Ruskin for non-consummation; in his biography, J.A. Froude hints that Thomas Carlyle’s impotence may well have been the cause of Jane’s misery; George Eliot suggests the sexual failure of Dorothea Brooke’s marriage to Casaubon in Middlemarch (1874) as she portrays Dorothea’s slow awakening to her own desires. All these examples involve male impotence, but I urge the consideration of self-chosen celibacy. Nineteenth-century advocates argued that it could foster greater equality between partners and thus would avoid the pitfalls of traditional domesticity. Ties between women and men were strengthened because celibacy demanded such civilized virtues as personal self-control, faith in the power of love without passion, and hope for a better future. It also privileged the needs of the couple and its friendship networks over the larger unit of the family.

The idea of a mutually agreed upon refusal of sexual intercourse recurred throughout the nineteenth century among advanced thinkers. Practical reasons, such as a fear of pregnancy or an incompatible marriage, were the most common reasons, but by the 1880s and 90s, educated young people began to speak publicly about cross-gender friendship, sexual equality, free love, and alternative marriages. What had previously been a private decision was now a subject for open discussion and debate. Radical political theorists and religious thinkers, searching for ways to honour women’s priorities, suggested a range of different forms of heterosexual intimacy, including continence. Since celibacy was so closely tied to Roman Catholicism and the controversial new Anglo-Catholic sisterhoods, the mainstream religious were never major contributors to this public discussion. Reformers began from a fundamental belief in the importance, even superiority, of a woman’s wishes. Male desire was a weakness that made equality impossible. Drawing on the ideas of Auguste Comte, British radicals suggested that the creation of a sexless society would end the subordination of women. Feminism, in a variety of forms, was intrinsic to the idealistic goal of celibate intimacy.

John Stuart Mill had a profound belief in the superiority of reason, and most especially women’s reasoning powers. A marriage of true minds, he felt, was infinitely superior to one degraded by sex and fears of pregnancy. Scholars still debate whether, after so many years of waiting, he and the crippled Harriet Taylor ever had sex; they had crafted so perfect a relationship without it, why take risks? George Bernard Shaw, a generation later, in his many flirtations, ignored a woman’s body for her mind. In a world that was uncertain whether women could be friends with men, it was a flattering change that the rational New Women welcomed. To be treated as an intellectual equal, or at least near equal, in an erotically tinged exchange [End Page 25] was a rare delight. Later, Shaw was to say, “I found sex hopeless as a basis for permanent relations, and never dreamt of marriage in connection with it” (qtd. in Gibbs 216). Forty-five years of happy marriage confirmed his confident decision.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw considerable intellectual, social, and political ferment, with numerous marital experiments. Speculation was widespread among the educated middle class about how marriage might meet the needs of the individuals involved rather than those of the family, community, or religion. Relations based on companionship rather than sexual intimacy might overcome the gender inequality that characterized traditional Victorian marriage. Reforming couples downplayed sex and emphasized shared political goals. Courtship was often conducted in terms of moral or social improvement rather than emotional compatibility (MacKenzie and MacKenzie 246–47). Family was to be a political party or reform organization. While some radicals made the principled decision not to marry, others, including George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Payne Townshend, Havelock Ellis and Edith...


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