The Fetishization and Objectification of the Female Body in Victorian Culture

Hannah Aspinall

Aspinall herein elucidates the sexual politics of the representations of the female body in Victorian literature, providing a social context that enriches understanding of the writings of the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Braddon. Victorian sexuality is explored in the Foucauldian sense; as something very much present in the power relationships of the time.


The Female Body and its Position in Victorian Society

The Victorian age was one of great change largely brought about by the industrial revolution and the ‘historical changes that characterized the Victorian period motivated discussion and argument about the nature and role of woman — what the Victorians called "The Woman Question."’ Female writers were able to partake in discourse on their gender and writers such as the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Braddon were challenging conventions as to what constituted decent female behaviour in literature. Their inclusion of passionate heroines into their texts was controversial, the wider, ‘respectable’ public were offended by these ardent females who disregarded the traditional idea of ‘femininity’. By modern standards novels such as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ruth and Lady Audley’s Secret, are considered to be relatively modest in their sexual content. However, for the Victorian period this was as passionate as literature could be and still be allowed to circulate publicly, due to the moral and social codes and the Obscene Publications Act of 1857.

Although this was a time when the rights and opportunities for women were expanding, their representation by males was often contradictory to the increased freedom they were experiencing. The female body has long been idealised, objectified and fetishized and this can be seen particularly in Victorian culture. Social rules and guidelines on how the female body should look, and how it should be dressed, objectified the body and encoded femininity within these rules. This made the portrayal of the female body a space for expression, ‘oppression and sexual commodification.’

The convulsively changing Victorian era is traditionally represented as a society that is restrained by strict moral and social codes, yet the Victorians were not as repressed as they have customarily been portrayed. In particular this can be seen in its conflicting views on, and representations of, sexuality. On the one hand there are the ‘official views of sexuality’ that are substantiated by figures such as William Acton and perpetrate the idea that women have little or no sexual appetite, ostracising the women that do profess desires. On the other hand there is a wealth of literature, pornography and other sources that highlight the fact that the Victorians were not as sexually repressed as they have been depicted.

The Role of Hair in the Characterization of the ‘Fallen Woman’ in Victorian Culture

Hair is an important symbol in constructing identity; it is ‘one of the primary ways we tell others who we are and by which others evaluate us.’ In being a truly malleable aspect of the human body its countless ways for different presentation mean that it is ‘uniquely suited for conveying symbolic meanings.’ Although discourses on hair have always been present in culture, representations of hair in Victorian culture are especially prevalent and symbolic. No other writers have lavished so much attention on the physical properties of women’s hair: its length, texture, color, style, curliness. There is scarcely a female character in Victorian fiction whose hair is not described at least perfunctorily, and often a woman's hair is described repeatedly and in considerable detail.

This fascination with hair relates to the fact that ‘it was the only female body part – excepting the face – on constant display.’ However, the abundant descriptions of hair are not just appertaining to aesthetic characterization, but could portray the social and moral position of the woman. As with many elements of Victorian England, strict social and moral codes dictated rules on how hair should be worn. Women were expected to wear their hair bound after marriage and keep it covered at church, for visits, and in formal situations. If chaste, covered hair was considered to be the epitome of genteel womanhood, then free flowing, loose hair was considered to be unchaste and a characteristic of a morally depraved woman:

A woman’s long hair, after all, is the emblem of her femininity. More than that, it is a symbol of her sexuality, and the longer, thicker and more wanton the tresses, the more passionate the heart beneath them is assumed to be [...] Images of ‘wanton’ tresses abound in Pre-Raphaelite art of the time, and are frequently seen in works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement that challenged ‘the Academy-based training with a vision that looked back to medieval and early-Italian art for inspiration’ and held the ‘aspiration to be true to nature and moral in content.’ This morality can be seen in the image of the ‘fallen woman’ that Rossetti depicts in many of his paintings. The ‘fallen woman’ is an ideological construct that acts as a direct opposite to the chaste and feminine ‘angel in the house’; the term could cover any woman that did not fit the rigorous moral standards of domestic normality. 

Lady Lilith 

Fig. 1. Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

The painting, Lady Lilith, by Rossetti is an exemplary piece for the representation of a ‘fallen woman’, in this case taking the incarnation of the femme fatale: ‘Engrossed in her own beauty, Lilith combs her lustrous, long, golden hair. Legendarily the first wife of Adam, her expression is cold, but her body voluptuously inviting.’ The picture of Lady Audley depicted in the sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Braddon, echoes this cold and seductive painting: ‘No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets [...] my lady, in his portrait of her, had the aspect of the beautiful fiend.’

The rich auburn locks of Lady Lilith are reminiscent of another ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian culture, ‘Ruth’, the title character of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name. Ruth is a fallen woman ‘too sublimely innocent to understand the fact of her own fall’ and through her naivety Gaskell creates sympathy for this eternally humble character, challenging social conventions on what constitutes as ‘decent’ female behaviour and content for literature. The transformations Ruth’s hair undergoes directly relate to her fall and eventual rise in the novel. Her Pre-Raphaelite ‘long waving glossy hair’ which is a ‘rich auburn’ is indicative of the idea of the time of associating ‘luxuriant hair with a luxuriant sexuality’. Ruth is viewed by many of the characters, and by readers of the time, as being a sexual deviant. Sally, the housekeeper, furthers this view through her castration of Ruth’s hair upon discovering her status as a fallen woman: 

I've lived with the family forty-nine year come Michaelmas, and I'll not see it disgraced by any one's fine long curls. Sit down and let me snip off your hair, and let me see you sham decently in a widow's cap to-morrow, or I'll leave the house.

In castrating the hair Sally has removed the visual representation of Ruth’s sexual depravity. These are just a few examples out of a wealth of representations of hair in the Victorian time, yet they are indicative how hair could be utilised as a means of expression. The fetishization of female hair elucidates the wider objectification of Victorian women by both male writers and the ‘social grammar’ of the time. However, female writers like Gaskell were increasingly using descriptions of their heroine’s hair to allow them to partake in a wider social discourse upon this fetishization of their bodies. The uncovering of hair symbolises the ‘growing cultural, political and personal concerns with the difficulties of controlling, managing or channelling women’s vigour.’ The unruly locks are mimicking the unruly women who were beginning to turn the tables on their objectification.

The Wasp Waist: The act of Tight Lacing in Victorian Sexual Power Relations

The corset was a key underpinning of female attire in the Victorian era; the ‘majority of middle-class women and large numbers of working-class women’ wore corsets on a regular basis. It was vital to the creation of the ideal feminine shape, cinching in the waist but remaining ‘desirably plump in other areas of the body [...].’ This aspired silhouette was [...] enmeshed in larger constructions of femininity that emphasised the need for women’s self-regulation and the regulation of appetite and that, further, linked the small waist to affluence and high social standing.

It is this link to self-regulation that led people to see the corset as the ultimate symbol, and indeed instrument, of female oppression. In Victorian Britain, the male and female spheres were polarized between the working male and the domestic female and these roles are furthered by the ‘obvious definitions made by dress.’ Groups such as the Rational Dress Society (1881) advocated a move away from the restricted and restricting female fashions that enslaved their wearer into delicate femininity, yet no real progress was made until a considerable amount of time after this point. However, questions were raised about the role and implications of ‘this lowly piece of underwear’ and debate upon the topic ‘burned steadily throughout the nineteenth century.’  

The corset could be seen as a garment of conflicting morals; on the one hand it created the fashionable silhouette that marked out the wearer as a delicate, feminine creature and on the other hand, the lady that denied the corset was often tarred with charges of ‘sexual promiscuity or moral laxity’ – which led to the use of the term ‘loose morals’, referring to their lack of corset. Although corsets deemed the wearer to be the ideal of demure femininity, it conversely also had the effect of emphasising two erogenous zones: pushing up the breasts and flaring out over the hips and genital area. In fact, the pressure that the diaphragm and chest underwent due to the shape of the corset created the ‘peculiarly feminine heaving of bosoms so lovingly described in popular novels.’ This enhancement of feminine sexuality can also be seen in the connotations that having a slender, delicate waist would have. A slender waist suggests that the woman has not borne children yet, implying virginity and pureness – and the virginal female was idealised by Victorian men.  

In spite of all this, corsets remained popular and widely accepted in Victorian society and it was the somewhat more controversial act of tight lacing that was a more disputed topic. As the picture below shows, tight lacing is as the name suggests, a strict tightening of a rigid corset, or ‘stays’, that allowed the wearer to create the shape of a smaller and more circular waist. How widespread the practise was is widely disputed, yet the fact that it had such a large discourse around it denotes that it was a real concern of the time and as data from primary sources at the time show: ‘while average corseted waist measurements varied between 20 and 23 inches, waist sizes of 18 to 16 inches were not considered exceptional [...].’
The negative effects of tight lacing were numerous; they displaced the organs from their natural positioning, made their wearers listless and weak, constant wear meant that the muscles underneath wasted away and they were cited as the cause of consumption, amongst other illnesses. The diagram below stresses the bodily deformation that women would undergo in order to pursue the desirous feminine proportions.


figure 2 

Fig. 2. 

The arguments for and against tight lacing raged in the pages of the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine between 1867 and 1874; they were reputedly sent in by tight lacers themselves, women opposing tight lacing, ‘doctors and dress reformers [...].’ However, many of these letters were written with a ‘pronounced sadomasochistic tone’ which suggests that these prurient letters may have been fraudulent and say ‘more about the obsessions of its devotees and its opponents than about actual practice.’  

If the corset in it its usual sense highlights sexuality, when it is tight laced it highlights it inexorably more; the virginally small waist provides erotic appeal through being a symbol of ‘physical weakness and vulnerability, especially when juxtaposed with man’s strength.’ This highlights the ‘submissive-masochistic role symbolized by the corset’ that haunts the Victorian female; it represents ‘both the sensual female body, and the chaste virgin; the female control over male desires, and the male’s control over the female body [...].’ The corset can be seen as one of the most apt symbols for the Victorian woman, oppressed by society and sexualised under male dominance.

The Female Genitalia as a Metaphorical ‘Purse’ and its Representations in Literature

In 1857, William Acton stated that ‘Prostitution is now eating into the heart’ of Victorian society. The prostitute is the ‘fallen woman’ personified, often pushed into this profession through the inability to gain work, poverty and circumstance, she is made into a social and moral pariah by society. However, whilst the prostitute was seen as morally depraved, for the Victorian man the use of prostitutes was widely acknowledged as a way to vent their animalistic sexual desires that they would not be able to express with their chaste wives. This double standard can be seen through the passing of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864, and its amendments in 1866 and 1869. The act ‘legalised prostitution but entailed legislation enabling police to arrest woman suspected of being prostitutes and the subsequent examination of them for signs of venereal disease’, it was hoped that by controlling the prostitutes the spread of disease would be slowed, yet no measures were put in place to inspect or chastise the man.

In light of the focus on prostitution in the Victorian period, it is perhaps unsurprising then that the female genitalia was likened to a metaphorical ‘purse’ as for the prostitute, it was the lure of the vagina that was proffered as bait to potential customers rather than the proverbial beggars hat. This slang word also correlates to the literal and euphemistic meanings of the word ‘spending’. In the first sense the man who pays for the prostitute literally spends money on sexual intercourse, and in the latter sense ‘spending’ was a term for orgasm and ejaculation. For the two euphemistic terms the fact that the man is dropping his payment into the purse of the prostitute remains true. 

In the poem Jenny, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as the narrator describes the sleeping woman, the ‘purse’ metaphor is used throughout. His cold and misogynistic view towards her is seen when he muses: 

Whose person or whose purse may be
The lodestar of your reverie?

He believes that she is a prostitute purely to become rich – disregarding the fact that she may only be in this situation because she has no other choice. However, Robin Sheets suggests that ‘given the association between purses and female genitalia, the young man's account of Jenny's fantasies probably represents a displacement of his own.’ 

Furthermore, the use of the euphemistic ‘purse’ can be seen in the vitally important text Fanny Hill. Considered to be one of the first pornographic texts, Fanny Hill was actually published mid-eighteenth century, yet it is such an important text in the discourse of sexuality because it was ‘revolutionary in its open message to enjoy sex and sexuality [...].’ The novel is important due to the controversy it sparked that crossed over the centuries; cataloguer of pornographical material, Henry Spencer Ashbee listed twenty prohibited editions of the book between 1749 and 1845 alone. In a typically voyeuristic scene, the reader garners a graphic view of the character Mrs Brown’s genitalia.  

As he stood on one side, unbuttoning his waistcoat and breeches, her fat brawny thighs hung down, and the whole greasy landscape lay fairly open to my view; a wide open mouthed gap, overshaded with a grizzly bush, seemed held out like a beggar's wallet for its provision.

Whilst bringing to mind the metaphor of the ‘purse’, Cleland portrays the character of Mrs Brown through this description; it is not the feminine and delicate ‘purse’, but a ‘greasy’, gaping and masculine ‘beggar’s wallet’, evoking an unattractive image of leatheriness. This objectification of the female genitalia into a non-sexualised and inanimate object is a view that endorses the female as a non-sexual being: the vagina here is perpetrated as being used for financial gain only, not for sexual pleasure. ‘Respectable’ Victorian society largely disregarded the female sexual drive. As science and knowledge of the sexual anatomy was furthered it was discovered that it was the male sperm that chose the female egg, moving the woman from the centrifugal role as creator, to being simply the host for the man’s child. In this shift in sexual thinking, the female orgasm was left behind and considered defunct. Significant doctor of the time, William Acton, had stated that ‘the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’ and the ‘sad exceptions’ to the rule were considered depraved or hysterical. 

The Virginal Bottom: Flagellation and Pornography in the Victorian era

The Victorian age marked the era when pornography became an industry as the ability for mass printing meant that pornography could be made widely available. The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 made distributing this material harder, yet it did not stop the flood, it merely pushed it underground. Of the many sexual practises portrayed in pornographical material, there is one that became so prolific in England that it became known as ‘Le Vice Anglais’ (the English Vice): the act of flagellation. Although flagellation stems from religious penance, it became entangled with sexual desire and flagellomania was rife in the Victorian era. The significance that flagellomania had can be seen in the existence of flagellation brothels where customers could pay to undertake a flogging for sexual gratification. One brothel in particular held a reputation for flagellation: the brothel belonging to Theresa Berkley. Berkley created a special apparatus, named the Berkley Horse, to assist the flagellation of her customers. 

Flogging was not only important in the sexual sense as the issue was also discussed in relation to the ostensibly non-sexual flogging of children for punishment. However, similar to the issue of tight lacing, the discussions within the public forums, such as the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and the Family Herald, were often originating from ‘prurient or [...] questionable motives.’ These spurious letters were sadomasochistic and pornographic in tone and were often related to the punitive nature of girl’s boarding schools. 

The idea of the boarding school as an arena for flagellation and punishment can be seen in the flagellatory story The Mysteries of Verbena House. At last the bottom of the Bellasis was really exposed to view. It was a real perfect posterior. It swelled out grandly, properly, and gradually from a sloping small of the back that would have satisfied a Grecian sculptor. There were two lovely dimples just above the top and below a couple of sharply-defined creases, caused by the over powering swelling of the hemispheres, now that the thighs were tightly pressed together. [...] They showed health by their hardness, and terror by the goose-flesh look they had [...] It was a regal bum, yet tough withal. One that would take a fair amount of punishment [...]. 

Important here is the portrayal of the Victorian female bottom in flagellatory literature. Pornography was based on the pleasures and sensations of the body, as opposed to the realm of the mind seen in Victorian high art. The Victorian age was also concerned with the cataloguing of bodily parts and, disguised as it was by layers of petticoats or crinolines, the female bottom became a shining beacon for flagellation fetishists.

Whilst it is true that being the flagellator or the receiver of the flagellation brought pleasure to both sexes, it is this fascination with objectifying the female body that shines through in much flagellatory work. The Experimental Lecture by Colonel Spanker (1878) is a prime example of this. The Experimental Lecture is an obscene sadomasochistic text that revolves around the fictional Colonel Spanker and his idea that ‘the punishment and degradation of a refined young lady produces more exquisite pleasures that flogging consenting lower-class women and prostitutes [...].’ Throughout the text the tortured female’s bottom is referred to as being ‘tight looking’ and the desire is expressed for it to ‘“blush like her face!”’ The fetishization of the virginal, white bottom that needs to be tarnished by the rod is all too reminiscent of the position of the female in society. This sexual idea links to the nineteenth century pornographical trope of the masculine breaking in of the horse, exacting power over the female in order to ‘tame’ her wilder tendencies and turn her into the pinnacle of domesticity. 


The Erotic Ankle: The Myth of the Sexualised Piano Leg 

The Victorian era has often been termed as repressed both socially and sexually, however this is clearly not the case and the myth of the covered piano legs is metonymic of this fact. The traditional view of Victorian sexuality is that they ‘were so afraid of the power of sexuality that they felt compelled to cover up the legs of their pianos; they obscured signs of the body even where they existed only by inference.’ Certainly the strict dress codes of the time denote that female legs and ankles remain covered under swathes of fabric and to bare them is considered wholly indecent. Yet the idea that the Victorians covered the legs of their pianos as they were too provocative and evocative of the hidden female form is a common misconception.  

The real sexualities of the Victorians can be seen through the discourse that surrounds them, such as sensational novels, pornography and prurient letters in respectable magazines. One book that is particularly relevant in this sense is My Secret Life by ‘Walter’. My Secret Life was an epic eleven-volume text written under the pseudonym ‘Walter’ and was published in 1888. Although it can never be verified that all of the events in this text really took place, it is one of the most extensive and comprehensive accounts of Victorian sexual experience. Throughout the text he meets and copulates with countless women, and portrays these women as having sexual desires and finding enjoyment in sex. It is clear to see that Victorian sexualities are complex and contradictory, yet the discourse that surrounds them proves their existence - despite the ‘official’ social and moral viewpoints that would state otherwise. These divergent sexualities manifest themselves upon the canvas of the female body, showing the conflicting sexual status that she holds in society.


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Hannah Aspinall


brightONLINE student literary journal

10 Aug 2012