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19th-Century Sexual Politics

By Merle RubinMerle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor. / January 7, 1991

SEEKING for an explanation of what was wrong with the ``Man-Made World,'' as she called it, the pioneering feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) suggested that the 19th century had been ``oversexed.'' Although this may sound familiar to 20th-century ears inundated by ``adult'' films and videos and bombarded by ads relying on sex to sell everything from toothpaste to cars, Gilman's primary meaning was not that Victorians thought too much about sex, but that they exaggerated the differences between the sexes. But the more obvious meaning of ``oversexed'' can also be applied to the Victorians, whether we are thinking of the ``double lives'' led by seemingly respectable pillars of society; or of the high value Victorians placed on love, romance, sex, marriage, and family; or of the 19th-century ``discovery'' of sexual behavior as a topic for scientific - and quasi-scientific - investigation.

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Ruth Brandon's book, ``The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question,'' reminds us of the extent to which the political questions of women's right to vote, receive a higher education, and enter a profession were tangled up with the cultural, biological, and psychological questions about love, marriage, and the relations between the sexes.

Brandon, a freelance writer and journalist who's written three previous books on 19th-century topics (``Singer and the Sewing Machine,'' ``The Dollar Princesses,'' ``The Spiritualists''), prefaces this one with a quote from W.H. Auden:

To the man in the street who, I'm sorry to say

Is a keen observer of life,

The word intellectual suggests right away

A man who's untrue to his wife.

The gist of her argument (hardly a new one) is that, while the men of ``advanced views'' - revolutionaries, Fabians, New Thinkers, and so forth - advocated greater freedom for women and equality between the sexes, in practice, this turned out to mean greater sexual freedom for the men and a very difficult life for the New Women.

Brandon examines a group of interrelated case histories. The most appalling is the tragic story of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl and a dedicated follower of his teachings, who became involved in a kind of common-law marriage to fellow radical Edward Aveling. A selfish - and according to his contemporaries - sinister figure notorious for his continual womanizing and his propensity to wheedle money out of everyone, including people poorer than himself, Aveling made Eleanor's life a virtual nightmare. She tolerated his behavior for the sake of appearances (the lack of a legal bond may have rendered her less willing and able to make a clean break) and found satisfaction in working for the socialist cause. But when she learned that Aveling, contrary to his so-called principles, had married another woman, her spirits broke and she committed suicide.

Eleanor's friend and contemporary, the South African novelist Olive Schreiner, fared better as a free spirit, but she was never to feel that she had accomplished what she'd hoped to, either in her love life or her career. A magnetic personality, according to her contemporaries, Olive wanted the intellectual and economic independence enjoyed by men, but she also expressed a craving to be dominated by a strong man.