Rewriting Victorian Sexuality in Swift, Carey, and Byatt

Jane Fronek '97, English 168, Brown University

Like Michael Foucault and Gayle Rubin, Possession, Oscar & Lucinda, and Waterland all condemn Victorian attitudes toward sexuality, managing to include almost all the activities Victorian medical, legal, and social forces deemed improper: chastity is broken (all three), masturbation occurs among the young (Waterland), there are obscene literature and nude paintings (Oscar & Lucinda), and abortion occurs or is rumored to occur in both Waterland and Possession. Clearly, Carey, Byatt, and Swift are invested in contesting the domination of a "Victorian regime" of sexuality.

Although Waterland, Oscar & Lucinda, and Possession each assume a certain degree of familiarity with Victorian literature, the rich material descriptions of even the grotesque elements of nineteenth-century social life, including Victorian sexual life, is indisputably modern. Indeed, Byatt, Carey, and Swift's modes of modern address render their texts significantly revised versions of Victorian literature, even when their subjects are strictly Victorian. Granted, material specificity is a descriptive style that was often utilized by the Victorians; however, the detailed descriptions of incest in Waterland, the focus on gambling and sexual organs in Oscar & Lucinda, and the adulterous relationship in Possession would all be considered moderately perverse or deviant regardless of the time period in which each novel was set. The fact that the novels are, in fact, fictionalized accounts of Victorian life that rely on narrative representations of perverse or improper sexual activity suggests that either the authors are pointing up the hypocrisy they believed characterized Victorians or that they are in some way taking pleasure in discursively (re)inserting sexuality into the repression of the period, repeating precisely the error that Foucault identified as symptomatic in modern discussions and progress narratives of sexuality.

An instructive example of one especially anti-Foucauldian historical reconstruction of the Victorian period occurs in feminist historian Bonnie G. Smith's discussion of the period's namesake. By quoting Queen Victoria's "premarital advice about getting through sexual intercourse by 'thinking of Britain,'" Smith almost gleefully documents the hypocrisy in Victoria and Albert's "marital stability and prudent rule" when she reports that Victoria "disliked infants; they reminded her of frogs, constantly flapping their arms and legs. In public, however, she gave the impression of maternal devotion" (Smith 194, 181, 182). The sort of pleasure taken from Smith's feminist project seems to be similar to the pleasure undergirding the revelation of sexuality in Possession, Oscar & Lucinda, and Waterland. The fact that each of the novels both thematize and, to some extent, narrativize this pleasure further suggests that Carey, Swift, and Byatt may lean more toward the anti-Foucauldian end of the spectrum that historians such as Smith inhabit.

Postcolonial OV Gender OV Possession Waterland Oscar & Lucinda

Last Modified: 14 March, 2002