‘Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain’ by Violet Fenn: a brief review

Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2020


In a review earlier this year of Sue Slack’s ‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’ (2018), I extolled the benefits of publications that are free from academic jargon. There are times, however, when authors can come across as too chatty, perhaps in an attempt to connect with a wider audience. Fenn’s overly casual tone and lack of comprehensive citations in, ‘Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain’, is a case in point. At least she has an index, which Slack does not.

This is not to say that Fenn’s book is uninteresting but is does have significant drawbacks. An early red flag can be found in the Preface where she states, ‘The nineteenth century was just so sexy.’ (Fenn’s emphasis), signifying a certain lack of discernment in her approach to this complex topic. The chapter headings are:

Hustle and Bustle: The Unwritten Rules of Fashion and Courtship
Beddings, Weddings and Bastards: Virginity, Pre-Marital Sex and the Curse of Illegitimacy
Liberty, Fraternity, Fidelity: Marriage, Divorce and Adultery, Nineteenth-Century Style
Lifting the Lid on Lust: Libido, Kinks and Sex Toys
Gentleman’s Relish: The Rise of Commercial Pornography
One Night with Venus, A Lifetime with Mercury: Sexual Health and Contraception
Dark Desires: Prostitution, Philanthropy and Murder
A Walk on the Wilde Side: Homosexuality in Victorian Britain
Hidden in Plain Sight: Sexual Subtexts in Art and Literature
Postscript: What Have The Victorians Ever Done For Us?

The headings are borne out by the main text, which suggests that Fenn is aiming at providing a more general perspective by giving her readers a broad scan of the subject matter in her short book. If so, she must have been standing well back, for she fails to account for a number of critical issues, including those relating to consent and to race.

From the outset, Fenn declares, ‘We must be careful to view previous eras through a contemporary lens, rather than with the judgement of modern insight’, but then does exactly that in several instances, albeit inconsistently as she appears to pick and choose which issues to remark upon, with ‘remark’ being the operative word. This is problematic. Whilst the contemporary context is important, critical analysis from today’s perspective is surely needed, especially on a topic such as this, as we attempt to get to grips with the way in which the abuses of past have, and continue, to shape the abuses of the present. It is certainly preferable to simply reproducing the contemporary perspective with little or no analysis, or worse still, glib comments that serve to reinforce the exploitation.

I would say that the book reads like a sixth-form essay but that would be doing sixth-formers a disservice, as no doubt, they would treat the evidence and its sources more critically. Take the issue of erotic photography. Fenn writes, ‘A brief internet search for ‘Victorian erotic photography’ will bring the happy viewer endless vintage images of explicit poses not much different in presentation to those one might see on the most hardcore of modern porn websites… Rather amusingly, the models have the bored half-smile so often seen on people in early photographs.’ This is inappropriate – on many levels.

Whilst ‘Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain’ is essentially light reading, I do wonder what Pen and Sword were doing in publishing it, and can only surmise that they were attracted by Fenn’s social media following; 4.2k Twitter followers, 1.2k followers on Instagram and a combined following of 3.9k on Facebook (as at 19 August 2020).

I appreciate how much effort goes into writing and producing a publication and understand that Fenn is now working on a history of the vampire in popular culture. Hopefully, she will take a more thoughtful and thorough approach next time.

This review was written for the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History.

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