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Wedding Night Terror: the uneducated virgin and Victorian England


Impressions vs. Reality of Victorian Sexuality

In the modern lexicon, “Victorian” is used as an adjective to describe frigid or prudish attitudes. Everyone has heard the tales of Victorian sexual repression, like covered table and piano legs, lest the curvy shape of the furniture remind viewers of a woman's body. Perhaps the most cited example of Victorian prudishness is the legend of Queen Victorian telling her daughter to “lie back and think of England” on her wedding night. This second example perhaps points not at the prudishness of the time, but a larger problem—discussion of sex was so taboo, that many went uneducated about the topic of sex (down to the simple physical mechanics of the act) until their first experience (sometimes, but not always, on their wedding night). Victorians were absolutely having sex out of wedlock, especially in the upper and lower classes. The bourgeoisie were especially open about this fact, documenting their sexual escapades in letters and diaries, said Helena Michie in her book Victorian Honeymoons (110). According to Jennifer Phegley in her book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England, working-class people were having sex before marriage, as well, to the point that a premarital pregnancy was seen in some circles as a way to secure a husband (59). The middle-class population seem to be the section of Victorian England most responsible for the prudish impression held by modern users of the adjective “Victorian.”

In Victorian England, a woman was expected to be a virgin on her wedding day. Sex was thought of as a way for married couples to spiritually bond and procreate — sex without the possibility of procreation was considered sinful, and the topic of contraception was extremely taboo (Melody 21). While the bride was expected to be pure on her wedding night, it was understood that her new husband, especially if he was rich or working-class, would probably have sexual experience by the way of prostitution (Michie 25). By the late 1700s, over 10,000 prostitutes worked the London streets (Porter 22), spreading disease and sexual knowledge. Even if each woman serviced only one man every day, the numbers are still pretty impressive. While all of these men were learning about sex through the unrealistic and performative veil of prostitution, their middle-class brides-to-be were largely blissfully unaware of the sexual nature of marriage or the mechanics of their reproductive health. Women were marrying in their early twenties (Phegley 36), meaning that full-grown women didn't understand where babies came from. My research explores how these women learn what was up with their bodies: where did Victorian middle-class women learn about their “wifely duties” and the reproductive structures of their own anatomies? In short, my findings showed that women learned mostly through experience in the marriage bed.
Queen Victoria on her wedding day, 1847. Did she know what to expect in her marriage bed?
Franz Xaver Winterhalter via Wikimedia Commons