Thursday, May 14, 2009

Professor Strange: Victorians, modesty and piano legs

Following his thoughts on trainspotting and normality, here is another contribution from Professor Strange. It was first published in Clinical Psychology Forum in February 2004.

Victorians, modesty and piano legs

The Victorians do not get a good press these days. A random trawl of the Internet finds the American AIDS Czarina complaining of a ‘Victorian society that misrepresents information, denies sexuality early, denies homosexuality particularly in teens, and leaves people abandoned with no place to go.’ A sermon tells us that ‘Thanks to the 1960s, we have given up Victorian hypocrisy when it comes to ourselves.’ And a journalist announces that ‘Victorianism today is generally interpreted to mean little more than an atmosphere of sexual repression and hypocrisy’.

Well, I knew Victorians; I worked with Victorians; Victorians were friends of mine. (Indeed, I cannot wholly rule out the possibility that I was a Victorian myself.) And I do not believe that they were any more repressed or hypocritical than we are today.

Yet this libel persists. So much so, that many otherwise intelligent people are convinced that the Victorians were so afraid of the power of sexuality that they felt obliged to cover up the legs of their pianos. Perhaps you believe it too?

You are not alone. An Australian website on sexuality and modernity is convinced they did. Another on culture and colonisation reports that ‘An era that could wrap table and piano legs with frilled covers that men may not harbour “certain” ideas is incredible, to say the least.” How true! For something does not fit when a website on the Victorian pantomime tells us that “audiences were not accustomed to viewing the legs of a pretty actress, especially in an era when even piano legs were cloaked for modesty's sake! However, in a male or ‘Breeches’ role, the actresses were allowed to display as much leg as they dared.’

So piano legs have to be swathed but, in certain circumstances it is fine for human legs to be displayed? The Victorians I knew were odd, but not that odd.

The truth – and I am indebted to Matthew Sweet’s 2001 book Inventing the Victorians for what follows – is that the Victorians did not cover the legs of their pianos at all, unless it was to keep off the dust or children’s boots.

The idea that anyone would worry about the eroticism of furniture first surfaced in Captain Marryat’s A Diary in America, published in 1839. He reported that the word ‘leg’ was not used in polite society across the Atlantic, and that when he visited a ladies’ seminary his guide informed him that the mistress of the establishment, in order to demonstrate her ‘care to preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!’

No doubt the guide was making fun of Marryat’s credulity, but the story soon caught on in nineteenth century Britain. How those Victorians enjoyed poking fun at the straitlaced Americans! Nothing so absurd would ever be seen over here.

Somehow the story remained in circulation, and when the publication of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians made it fashionable to scoff it was recycled to make fun of the people who had originally found it so funny. In my experience the Victorians had more go that the Bloomsbury types who came after – Virginia Woolf was particularly hard work – but the mud has stuck to this day.

Just as the Bloomsbury lens distorts our picture of the Victorians, so the Swinging 60s have given us a false view of the 1950s. But they want to close the College Library and there are macaroons for tea, so that story will have to wait for another day.

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