Sep 23, 2009

Unauthorized Pleasures by Ellen Bayuk Rosenman (and clearing off my shelves)

Unauthorized Pleasures by Ellen Bayuk Rosenman

When we think of the Victorians and sexuality, it's likely that words like “stiff” or “repressed” are among the first to come to mind. But in Unauthorized Pleasures: Accounts of Victorian Erotic Experience, Ellen Bayuk Rosenman examines what lies beneath the surface: the voices of dissent, those who refused to accept the pathologization of sexuality, and the hidden world of Victorian pornography and court scandals.

Rosenman’s point is not quite to say that the predominant picture we have of sexuality in the Victorian age is inaccurate, but rather to point out that it doesn’t tell the whole story. With this goal in mind, she analysis several primary sources. She says:
My aim here is to enrich our map, to sketch the topography in more detail, to fill in the blank spaces, to treat the borders between normality and deviance, heterosexuality and homosexuality, masculinity and femininity as territories in themselves. In their lively, resourceful engagement with their culture, these documents reveal the complex, varied and subtle texture of erotic lives in the Victorian age.
The texts she looks at include medical documents about the spermatorrhea panic (the belief that excessive ejaculation, caused by either masturbation or unrestrained sexual activity, resulted in the enfeeblement of the body and mind), the pornographic memoir in ten volumes My Secret Life, works by Wilkie Collins, Alexander Walker and Arthur Munby, and accounts of the court case of Theresa Longworth, whose husband Charles Yelverton denied ever having married her.

Some of these were more compelling than others, but most of all I liked how she gave me glimpses of things that I’ll probably never pick up myself (Wilkie Collins not included, of course), but which were interesting to hear about. I was particularly interested in Theresa Longworth's story: I'm not likely to ever read court reports myself, but I've just recently realized that Victorian court cases are absolutely fascinating to read about, so I'm thankful for the short version presented here.

I should tell you that Ellen Bayuk Rosenman is a literary critic and not a historian – it’s not that this is a bad thing, but it means that her method was different from what I was expecting when I picked up this book. It was quite theoretical, and it's clear that the book was written more with fellow academics and researchers than with a general audience in mind. It was still interesting because the subject matter is interesting, but I'll admit that it was slower and less gripping than I had anticipated. Also, her approach has psychoanalytic leanings – not so much in her interpretation of events as in the kind of language she uses. But I know this won’t be as off-putting for others as it was for me.

But on to the good things: Rosenman is interested in what sexuality tells us about gender roles, and this is something that interests me too. As we all know, gender was extremely strict in the Victorian era, but there's still a lot to be discovered if we look between the lines. Rosenman looks at the cracks and contradictions – the belief that men were the “stronger sex” versus their constant fear of enfeeblement; the idea that women were above having sexual feelings versus the stereotype of the seductress, the temptress, the hypersexual woman (something which is far from being a thing from the past, I might add); the discrepancy between official stances and what actually went on in people’s private lives.

As you can see, Unauthorized Pleasures gave me quite a lot to think about. I did find it a bit dry at times, but if you’re interested in the Victorian era or in the history of sexuality, I’d say give it a go.

Interesting bits:
As hysteria and the rest cure did for women, spermatorrhea offered a refuge from the demands of a rigid gender role, supplying a pretext for an otherwise unacceptable self-indulgence. But the label of illness also ensured that these states would continue to be defined as deviant and undesirable. The dichotomy of sick and well underscored other dichotomies that preserved this version of phallic masculinity –soft and hard, open and closed, liquid and solid—as absolute.

What Cohen calls the “unspeakeability” of sex implies a threshold of explicitness that literature must not cross; respecting that threshold requires literary language to cultivate subtlety and ambiguity in order to express what it cannot openly declare. And, like the bedroom threshold that a bride crosses on her wedding night—or, rather, across which she is carried by her husband, to preserve her erotic passivity—the threshold of discursive explicitness marks the gulf between the virginal heroine and the sexually aware woman.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I'll be glad to add your link here.)

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge
You've probably seen me say a that I'm getting tired of reading challenges and that I'm not going to join any more at least a dozen times. And it's true! I mean it when I say it! Until, that is, the next irresistible one comes along. Such is the case with S. Krishan's Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge. The goal is to read from your tbr pile, and so it goes with my book buying ban like honey goes with lemon tea.

And plus I love that instead of listening books we want to read, we decide on a percentage. I'm going to go with 80% - I'm not meant to be reading anything but books from my tbr pile, but I want to make allowances for the new library card I mean to get.

I don't know what it is about challenges. Perhaps it's the fact that they allow me to pretend I'm accomplishing something. I may by twenty-*cough* and unemployed and clueless in a thousand different ways, but hey, I'm doing something! I'm reading those books on my shelves!


  1. You ARE accomplishing something!!! Just because something is pleasurable, that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing, right? And reading is definitely worth doing! BTW, I've been so very impressed with the way you've been flying through your TBR pile must be to 20 books by now, aren't you?

  2. Really, I'm so, so bad at reading nonfiction. I don't know why. But a story like this - well, I'm ashamed to admit it seems like it would be more interesting as a documentary than as a book. That's how I've felt about a lot of nonfic books I've tried lately.

    As for that challenge, I misread it before and thought 1) it had to be all books that'd been on your shelf 6+ months, and 2) it was a percentage of the books on your shelf, not of what you read, so I really need to take a look at it again! It sounds like a good one for keeping me on track.

  3. Victorian sexual angst is fascinating; I had a professor in college that studied it almost exclusively and he was fond of pointing out that Victorian's were just as sexual as everyone else, they just hid it a lot better. But if you look closely, you can see a lot of it in their literature and the stuff they weren't saying.

    From the passage you posted, the book sounds fascinating, but really dry. I feel like it's one I'd have to read over a period of time in order not to get overwhelmed -- literary theory can be thick stuff.

  4. Oh, I am all about this. I always said if I were to become an academic, I'd study Victorian sexuality and erotica. I've read a lot of books about homosexuality in the Victorian era, but not very much about sexuality generally. Of course my library catalogue isn't working this morning, but hopefully I will be able to get hold of this soonishly. :)

  5. ROFL. I love it, you are a challenge addict. :)

  6. Okay...this makes me miss grad school. Sigh. Funny that I thought that, eh? :) That whole time period was very interesting to me, in all its repression was this underlying hysteria that caused everyone to fear. I don't know if I have time to hit this book, but I love that you gave me an overview. I'm going to put this on my "source" list for my teaching, so I have another great resource on this subject. Thanks!

  7. What an interesting topic. Where do you find these books? I am generally interested in the Victorians since your post about Victoriana books, but I am not sure if this is one for me.

    Although I am now interested in reading court cases from that period. I imagine them to be real eye openers. I wonder if there is a book with cases in.

    Good luck with your challenge. I am doing the Fall Into Reading one, purely to read my own books and I don't want to buy any more until I have finished all 30 by Christmas.

  8. Good review of what sounds like an interesting book--I read part of the The Crimson Petal and the White a few years ago and abandoned it because I found it utterly depressing. However, I think this book's approach is better than fictionalizes the topic.

    BTW, I have nominated you for a Let's Be Friends award--visit my site for details!

  9. Ooh, interesting. A local women-owned sex shop in San Francisco has a huge collection of vibrators, including Victorian-era... fascinating!

    I think I've read most of the books on my shelves (unfortunately). I did such a massive book-clearing when we moved, I'm left with just the old favorites. Not that thats' a bad thing!!

  10. This would be an amazing research material for a novel I plan on writing one day, although I might take some liberties for after all the world is entirely different from ours, but as a steampunk enthusiast I would pick it up.

  11. Ooo, la la! Those Victorians! ;p

  12. Hee hee! This is what Michele at Reader's Respite would call diversifying your bookshelf! I would never think to pick something like this up and read it, but you did and it just confirms how prolific you are! As for those challenges, we do what we must to make ourselves feel like we are contributing! I feel twenty pounds lighter when I finish one of those damned challenges!

  13. What an interesting sounding book! I think this is something that I will definitely be putting on my list, as it is a subject that I have often thought about. I am not sure if the fact that she deals with the subject matter in less than a historical way would bother me, but I am willing to take a look and find out. And congrats on getting into this challenge. I really need to do this one, since my house is filled with tons of unreads!

  14. Wheeeee, the Victorians and sex! Actually, I do enjoy books like this--I will have to see if my library has it.

  15. This looks really interesting. :-)

  16. This sounds neat! I've always wondered if the Victorians were quite as comepletely repressed as they're always represented. Does sound more than a bit dry though.

    Good luck with your challenge!

  17. I think I'm going to give this a miss. But thanks for the review, Ana! I enjoyed reading it. :D

  18. I'm not a challenge type usually, but that one does sound good! What I really need is a "clear off your virtual shelves" challenge to clean up my TBR list. :)

  19. Victorian sexuality is where it's at! I had to read a whole bunch of these kinds of books when I was writing my thesis thingy about D.H. Lawrence. I absolutely love hearing about the way sexuality was portrayed in public versus in private (I mean, they sure had a lot of children, didn't they? And not to mention the whore-houses...)

    It makes me super happy that someone else is also reading books like this.

    (BTW, love the twenty *cough*) :):)

  20. I considered that challenge, but I have too hard of a time committing to things... Plus, I always have too many books out from the library that I want to read. So, I am going to chicken out and watch other people attempt it!

  21. Debi: That's the bright side of unemployment: lots of time to read :P And yep, I reached the first 20 books mark and rewarded myself with Bluestockings :D And I know you're right...reading IS doing something, but I wish I could be moving my life forwards more.

    Amanda: You know, I think you're right. This would have made a better documentary and book. And about the challenge, yep, it's percentage of books you read :P I'd never read 80% of my tbr pile in two months :P

    Kim: It IS fascinating, but yes, it's a good idea to read it slowly. It took me about 3 weeks, and I could have taken even longer easily.

    Jenny: That's such a fascinating area of study. I think I remember reading somewhere that Sarah Waters did her PhD on that, actually.

    Janicu: lol. I am :P

    Becky: It made me miss school too! And yes...the fact that things were so understated makes the Victorians all the more interesting.

    Vivienne: I actually can't remember how I found this one...maybe one of those "if you like this, try..." Amazon suggestions? I'm with you on court cases. Have you read The Suspicions of Mr Winchester? It's about a real Victorian murder and everone's been praising it!

    JaneGS: Thanks again for the award, it was very kind of you :D I've heard mixed things about The Crimson Petal and the White, but I'd like to try it sometime.

    Daphne: Those do sound fascinating! It's so neat to think of this Victorian subworld that most people wouldn't have imagined but which was very much there...

    Harry Markov: Oooh, steampunk! And yes, this would be great research material!

    She: lol!

    Sandy: I like reading something a little different every now and then :P And lol, it's amazing how accomplished finishing a challenge can make you feel, isn't it?

    Zibilee: It's definitely worth a try! The theory IS interesting, it's just that I was expecting something different.

    heidenkind: I hope it does!

    Stephanie: It was!

    Ladytink: I'm willing to bet they weren't!

    Alice, I'm glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts even if the book is not for you :)

    Kelly: I could do with one of those too.

    Lena: I can imagine! I wrote a paper on Lawrence and female sexuality too, and giving the matter some serious thought made me appreciate him so much more. (And lol...I grow old :P)

    Kelly: You need a library ban if you're ever going to catch up :P But who can resist all those FREE BOOKS?

  22. This book sounds fascinating to me, given how much I enjoy historical fiction - especially that set in Victorian times. The only thing is that I'm just very bad about picking up non-fiction books! I'm not sure this is something I'd really read but I enjoyed your review and who knows maybe I'll be compelled to pick it up one day!

    Good luck with your new reading challenge. I should so join that. My TBR shelves are out of control :)

  23. This does sound fascinating. You always pick the most unique reads.

    And good luck with the challenge :O)

  24. 80% - WOW! Good luck, and thanks for joining!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.