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The Victorian Guide to Sex*

Desire and Deviance in the 19th Century


Fern Riddell


Barnsley (Yorks): Pen and Sword Books, 2014

Paperback. 144 p. ISBN 978-1781592861. £12.99


Reviewed by D.C. Rose

The Oscholars




In the half century since Steven Marcus published his groundbreaking The Other Victorians : A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England, much has changed in the world of Victorian social studies. Victorian pornography has not merely been unbanned, but made the subject of academic study; the on-line discussion group Histsex Network is hosted by the University of Michigan. What can Fern Riddell, completing her PhD at King’s College, London but already described by her publisher as a cultural historian, tell us that we do not yet know? The answer is not very much, unless we accept Ms Riddell’s premise that we do not know anything, not even how to distinguish a Victorian Guide to Sex from a Guide to Victorian Sex.

It is the latter that is on offer here, despite the book’s title. Despite its subtitle, too, for ‘Desire and Deviance in the 19th Century’ more resembles that of an academic work than the main title. Yet scant trace of the doctoral candidate’s disciplined approach can be discerned. The book is set out in six chapters, absurdly called volumes, each ‘narrated’ by a different character as if each was a separate guide to a different sexual practice, published in the nineteenth century, their names ranging from the pedestrian (‘Dr Dimmick’) through the arch (‘Lord Arthur Cleveland’) to the ridiculous (‘Lady Petronella Von-Hathsburg’), all members of ‘the Society for Social Morality’. Were this merely a jeu d’esprit – a satire on academic writing or even a spoof, one might leave it at that (or just leave it), did not the acknowledgments thank ‘the community of scholars round the world, who have continually sent me references’. Three of these are named,‘whose help and support were incredible’, a somewhat two-edged commendation. The author, however, takes the work seriously, apparently in the belief that her thoughts on Victorian sexuality have not been previously formed by other students of the period.


We are left with only one certainty: this text will not form Ms Riddell’s doctoral thesis.


* This is the title given on the cover, the title page substituting ‘a’ for ‘the’.




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