Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Victorian Values

Curmudgeons who moan about bloggers and Wikipedia argue that the democratic nature of the web has allowed ill-informed, ordinary people to flood the internet with their half-baked ideas. The age of the expert is behind us. We now live in a pseudo-democratic, dumbed-down world in which everyone's opinion has value ("And Colin from Nuneaton has texted us to say that he thinks that the way to stop sexual offences is for women to dress less provocatively.")

I disagree. I've tried spreading my half-baked ideas and discovered that there's always some smart alec out there who is ready to correct me. As for Wikipedia, if I dare to edit any articles without copious references to source material, it's altered within a couple of days by someone in Canada. Why Canada?

The late Victorian era was the true age of the charlatan, when anyone with a passing interest in phrenology and an impressive beard could make sweeping pronouncements about any subject that took their fancy.

Yesterday I found a wonderful book called "Vital Force, or Evils and Remedies of Perverted Sexuality" by "Prof" R. B. D. Wells, the "Practical Phrenologist" and proprietor of a "hydropathic establishment" in Scarborough. It is an utterly mad book.

The book begins with a brief description of Mr Wells' establishment which could be "reached with facility in a few minutes' walk from the Railway Station". We are told that this building has a "commanding view of the surrounding scenery" and can accomodate 250 patients and visitors. "Those ordering Mr Wells' books should make postal orders and cheques payable to R. B. D. Wells. The telegraphic and postal address is Professor Wells, Scarborough."

What sort of people did Professor Wells treat? Certainly not this gentleman:

In my day, these people were called students. In the Professor's time, louche characters like this were beyond his help, as were these sorry specimens from the underclass:

However, Professor Wells was able to offer treatment to paying gentlemen like these:

It's not all mad. In his more enlightened moments the Professor encourages men to ensure that their wives also experience sexual pleasure and he argues that scolding and hitting small children is counter-productive. But these moments of sanity are few and far between.

Here is a random selection of the wisdom of Professor Wells:

  • Novel reading is stimulating and should be avoided inasmuch as it excites the imagination and fills the mind with voluptuous ideas
  • Fat women have inflamed passions, but the sexual act has not so electrifying an effect on them as it has upon those who are more naturally constituted
  • An effeminate man should marry a masculine woman; but it would not be advisable for this contrast to be carried to an extreme, by a very effeminate man marrying a large, stately, fleshy and masculine woman.
  • Has the reader ever thought how it is that sailors' wives so long retain their youthful charms of good looks? It is because they have long periods of rest during their husband's absence, which enables them to recruit their sexual energies.
  • Men and women of strong sexual natures have generally powerful and deep voices. It is a sign of impaired or disturbed sexual vigour when the voice becomes husky and rough, or shrill and piping.
  • Men who have thick, full necks and penetrating eyes are generally strong in their sexual nature.
  • Extra large men are not so well sexed, which accounts for the fact that giants have very little sexual power.
  • When we look around us we find that strong, robust men, who are full of life and vigour, usually become parents of sons rather than daughters, especially at the commencement of their married life; and as their life advances and vigour decreases there will generally be found a preponderance of daughters.
  • It is the bounden duty of every man to marry before he is thirty years of age; especially considering that there are so many women in the land whose hearts yearn for sympathy, and who need the protection and advice of the masculine gender.
Nine sweeping statements that seem utterly absurd to the modern reader. But I will finish with one very sane and forward-thinking statement from Professor Wells:
  • Husbands too frequently consider that the marriage ceremony gives them a free license to indulge as frequently as they like in sexual enjoyment. Many a married man has virtually committed rape upon his wife, and although the crime may be unrecogised as such by the law, it is none the less a fact.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if many Victorian readers found the concept of marital rape one of the more fanciful ideas, compared to the sound, commonsense statements that arose from the "science" of phrenology. But I couldn't back-up my opinion with facts.

Like Professor Wells, I'm not an expert.


Thomas Hogglestock said...

"In my day, these people were called students."


Anonymous said...

I am going to find myself sniggering every time I hear a particularly deep voice now!

An interesting find - the Professor seems to be a little like Lord Kitchener, who verged on being barmy. I can't remember who it was, but someone described him as being like a lighthouse: with a keen beam of light that comes around every now and then and stuns you with its brilliance but the rest of the time it is just pitch darkness. That last quote was clearly from one of the good professor's illuminated moments.

Mrs M said...

Talking about "sorry specimens from the underclass", have you seen this recently rediscovered rogues gallery - an intriguing photographic record of our Edwardian forbears? Plenty of raw material here for the professor's phrenological research and musings on morality....

JRSM said...

My life has been changed by this fine advice.

I wonder if you know the Odd Books site:

If nothing else, I'm sure the owner of that site would be willing to take books like these off your hands.

The Poet Laura-eate said...


I'm cultivating that impressive beard as we speak if a licence to pontificate and profess is guaranteed!

Though I fear I am probably the unfit progeny of tainted parentage ill-equipped to do so. And beyond help obviously, not being from the moneyed classes.

The description of his premises' location is as funny as any of his declarations, though as you say, he has a couple of enlightened shafts of light emanating through the bonkersness.

A posting to squeeze into your already overcrowded top ten mehinks.

Brian Busby said...

So much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of novels that excite the imagination and fill the mind with voluptuous ideas.

Unknown said...

A fascinating post which I was directed to by a friend who knows my passion for all things Victorian. Great to see yet another glorious charlatan - so many of them in that era. I've just written a book about a woman con artist who fleeced rich and gullible women out of large amounts of money for her bogus cosmetics and beauty treatments. See 'Beautiful For Ever' - just out. All best. Helen

Steerforth said...

And here's a link to Helen's website:

Alienne, I love the Kitchener quote and will be using it in the future. It applies to many people I can think of!

Simoom - thanks for the link. I would urge everyone to pay a visit, as it's wonderful rogues' gallery of extraordinary faces. Has the Daily Mail started being outraged by the past as well?

James - I hadn't seen before - what a great site. I look forward to sublitting a contribution or two.

Laura - given the Professor's warning about novel reading, I think that you should desist from the even more fanciful occupation of writing poetry and turn to the more wholesome activities of knitting and baking.

Brian - these voluptuous ideas will lead to ruin. The Professor advises a hot and cold "dipping bath" twice a day, accompanied by frequent walks. It isn't too late to save yourself.