HISTORY APRIL 6, 2011
by Deborah Lutz
W. W. Norton & Company, 320 pp., $27.95
WHEN “Walter,” the anonymous author of the encyclopedic and pornographic Victorian memoir My Secret Life, propositioned a passing woman with the offer of a shilling, he tells us that within “half a minute,” he had his “hand between her thighs.” Would she go further, he wondered? “‘Too glad,’ said she…. We went still further off, and found a vacant seat near an out of the way walk…. I sat down, and turning her back towards me, she pulled up her petticoats….” Foggy nights encouraged such dalliances, according to Walter: “Harlots tell me that they usually do good business during that state of atmosphere.”
My Secret Life is just one of the texts that Deborah Lutz leans on in her new book, but Lutz seems to have taken Walter’s meteorological insight to heart. When in doubt, she rolls out the fog. “Intense fog set in,” she starts one chapter; “Spring brought on a soupy yellow fog,” begins another. Black smoke mixes with “London’s choking fog, full of bad smells” and a young artist enveloped by urban mists sees faces swimming “up out of the fog.” The perpetual fog-machine is about as unsurprising in a book about Victorian England as a close-up of a clattering horse carriage is in a Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, and her reliance on such clichéd crutches underlines the occasional triteness of her text.
To be fair, London was foggy and full of “bad smells,” but if Lutz is allowed this repetitiveness and imprecision in her descriptive tissue, we should at least expect an inventive skeleton for her argument. But here, too, she treads on familiar ground, writing that she “wanted to steadily question certain assumptions we have today about the Victorians. We have the tendency to think of them as being at an earlier stage, sexually speaking, than we are at today ...” This might be true in the most general sense, but decades of scholarship have already complicated the overly simplistic idea that the Victorians were completely sexually repressed—from Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians (1966), to Mary Poovey’s Uneven Developments (1988) to Roy Porter and Lesley Hall’s The Facts of Life (1995). I doubt a current college student could escape a course on Victorian literature without some conception of subversive subtext; some students probably cover this ground in high school.
Beyond this, Lutz’s other imperatives sound, if not familiar, both loose and academic at the same time: “How might Victorian locales be thought of as places to do passionate things in?” Lutz writes in her introduction. Or, in a passage describing the structure of her work that is even more loaded with seminar-speak, she writes: “With each of these themes I created a dual movement.” One “stroke” of the movement deals with “a very particular historical moment,” the other looks at historical legacy. All this multi-directional movement takes place before one finishes the introduction.
Still, from behind the rolling mists and Lutz’s knots of interconnected inspirations, the subject speaks for itself. It is undeniably fascinating, and Lutz has done an admirable job of assembling juicy examples of Victorian eccentricity (Walter, of My Secret Life, being a prime example). Consider the story with which Lutz begins her book: the suicide of Lizzie Siddal Rossetti. A one-time bonnet-maker and aspiring artist, Siddal became the wife of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1860, after a nine-year courtship. The imminent threat of her death led to marriage; she appeared “ready to die daily,” said Rossetti before he finally decided to wed her. Mysteriously afflicted by an array of problems, Lizzie was prescribed laudanum (an opiate), to which she became seriously addicted and which she eventually used to poison herself. Distraught at her death, Rossetti threw a manuscript of his poems into her coffin. Seven years later, spurred by nagging regret, he enlisted a friend to exhume the coffin and retrieve the wet and worm-eaten poems.
Or consider the psychological evolution of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (perhaps best known for promoting the maxim “art for art’s sake”), who cultivated a taste for flagellation that, Lutz implies, started young. Subject to regular beatings at Eton, Swinburne later wrote about them with a “troubled nostalgia, in words of fear and fondness.” His tutor, he wrote, would “perfume the flogging-room with burnt scents; or choose a sweet place out of doors with smell of firewood.” In another incident, a tutor conducted an outdoors beating so protracted that “the grass was stained with … blood.” In his twenties, Swinburne would seek out similar treatment, frequenting London flagellation brothels where he was treated to lashings from “golden-haired and rouge-cheeked ladies” in school-teacher costumes.
If the dark side of extreme sexual proclivities hangs around Swinburne’s story, it is fully present in the tale of Simeon Solomon. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Solomon had been something of a wunderkind, entering the Royal Academy at fifteen, and quickly establishing himself through his illustrations of Old Testament scenes and nineteenth-century Jewish life. In the 1860s, he became one of the central figures of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; he was friends with Rossetti, Swinburne, and Walter Pater, and in English Painters of the Present Day (1871), he merited his own chapter (in which he was commended for his “peculiar genius”). In 1873, the then thirty-three-year-old Solomon, who often cruised the ripe grounds of London’s Leicester Square, picked up an older, illiterate stable worker. Caught attempting to “commit the abominable Crime of Buggery,” as the police stated at the time, the two men were thrown into jail. Released after twelve days (the stable worker remained in jail for eighteen months), Solomon was nonetheless made into a pariah, shunned and exiled by even those who indulged in similar behavior. “As the moral climate changed,” Lutz writes, “the danger of being associated with such a notorious figure increased.” Progressively impoverished, Solomon spent the last years of his life in a London workhouse.
The full pathos of Solomon’s story does not quite emerge from Lutz’s book, but she does admirably use her curatorial skills to evoke certain scenes. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Tudor House—a mansion in central London—is one such environ. Bought just a few months after his wife’s suicide, Lutz describes how the house became home to Rossetti’s brother, as well as Swinburne and the writer George Meredith. It was surrounded by an acre-large garden and decorated with materials reflecting Rossetti’s eclectic tastes: mirrors, velvet, lacquer.
In occasional stretches like these, Lutz lets her material shine, and the book feels like something that, if not as “new” as the subtitle claims, makes a particular time and a group of people vivid and alive. In the best stretches of this uneven but occasionally delightful work, no clunky clichés or convoluted arguments weigh down the atmosphere she creates—an atmosphere that is, miraculously, free from fog.
Chloë Schama is assistant managing editor of The New Republic.
Please read a note from Isaac Chotiner, executive editor of The Book.