19th-Century Sexual Politics

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.

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.

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:

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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.

She was romantically and intellectually involved with the pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis, whom she found insufficiently virile; hopelessly in love with a brilliant, humorless mathematician; briefly fascinated by arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and eventually married to a South African farmer who took her name, but may later have resented his own decision to allow his famous wife to take precedence.

Following the early and spectacular success of her first novel, ``The Story of an African Farm,'' Schreiner did little to fulfill her youthful promise. Brandon suggests that this was because Olive was not naturally a novelist, but a politician, prohibited from realizing her destiny on account of her gender.

On the matter of Olive's unfulfilled love life, Brandon's somewhat contradictory insight is that Olive needed a child (she gave birth to one who died almost immediately). What Brandon does not seem to perceive is the extent to which Olive was the victim of having hungrily devoured a heady mixture of the intellectual brews of her time - feminism, liberalism, Darwinism, Romanticism, male chauvinism - with the result that her understanding of what she wanted was at best confused.

Rejected by his beloved Olive, Havelock Ellis married Edith Lees. Although there was little if any passion, both partners hoped to find companionship and freedom in their ``rational'' union. Edith was predominantly homosexual, and her husband seemed more than content to let her find satisfaction outside their marriage. But, as Brandon points out, Havelock's toleration may also have been a means of disclaiming responsibility for his wife's happiness and of denying her the children she wanted. When Havelock later fell madly in love with Margaret Sanger, who fought to educate her fellow Americans about birth control, Edith made several attempts at suicide.

The classic New Woman/Old Man story Brandon tells is the saga of H.G. Wells, who had a habit of getting younger women pregnant, then leaving them to cope with the consequences, while he returned to the comforts of his own home and family and complaisant wife.

With his combination of charm, intellectual energy, and cheerful self-justification, Wells suits Brandon's argument down to the ground. And in the fate of Amber Reeves, the brilliant young girl who married someone else to give Wells's child a father, and of Rebecca West, who sacrificed a place at the heart of London's literary society to lead a hole-in-the-corner existence bringing up her child by Wells, it is all too easy to see how very different the practice of free love was from its theory.

Only Margaret Sanger - and to a lesser extent, Brandon believes, Olive Schreiner - succeeded in their quest for a freer, better life. Brandon credits their success to the fact (as she sees it) that they were untrammelled by the guilt felt by their less fortunate sisters. Thus, they lived like ``buccaneers,'' going after what they wanted as boldly and assertively as the men of their time.

As even a brief overview makes clear, Brandon engages her subject with a passionate intensity that makes for lively reading. But she sometimes gets so caught up in the swirls of arguments and counter-arguments, speculation, analysis, moral judgment, and conflicting interpretations, we may often feel that after reading her account of a given relationship, we know less about it than we did at the beginning.

Her insights are sharp, but not always penetrating; she argues with more vigor than coherence. The result is a book that starts off with a burst of genuine excitement, but ends in a flash of fireworks that seem forced and showy.

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