When a book gets the coveted RT GOLD rating, we editors tend to sit up and take notice! So of course we wanted to hear more from Melissa Lenhardt, author of this month’s historical fiction Sawbones. It’s the Victorian-set story of Dr. Catherine Bennett, on the run to California. Melissa’s with us today to talk about the perceived attitudes about Victorian sex — and how things really were.
Victorians were prudes.
At least, that’s always been my impression. Strict, moral, unbending, patriarchal and in a constant state of mourning, the mid-to-late 19th century is not an era I’ve ever chosen when asked “if you could travel back in time…”
Which of course makes it the perfect setting for a historical series.
One of the greatest challenges of a historical novelist is creating characters true to their time. As backward or abhorrent the novelist may think their characters’ views of the world are, she must remain loyal to the time lest her book lose all sense of legitimacy. In regards to Victorian love, romance and interpersonal relationships that means sex for women was something to be endured, as infrequently as possible, for procreation purposes only. Enjoyment of sex was the mark of low-class women and prostitutes.
Or was it?
The texts on sexuality available from that time period were written by men, and were more instructive than relative, a case of, ‘this is how you should behave’ versus how human beings did behave. This advice was based on the science of the time, which was erroneous more often than not, especially in relation to the female body. The discovery of a Victorian sex survey of 45 women in the Stanford University in 1973 archive bears this out. Though a small sample, and consisting primarily of upper-class, educated white women, it contradicts the widely held belief that women were asexual beings, who dreaded or even hated sex.
I had these contradictory ideas in mind while constructing the main character of my novel Sawbones, Dr. Catherine Bennett. Catherine’s patients include sex workers, and she experiences a passionate romance over the course of the book, so she naturally would have had decided opinions about sexuality. How could I make sure those opinions were authentic both to the historical time period and to Catherine’s character?
We have a tendency to look back on history with generalities. Generalizing comforts us, gives us a framework for understanding our world, and more often, our own point of view. We conveniently forget that we aren’t all alike, that there are as many gradations for personality and opinion as there are grains of sand on a beach.
Were there women in Victorian times who enjoyed sex? Of course there were. Rather than look upon the dearth of primary sources for this perspective with consternation, this gap is the fiction writer’s playground. The relationship in Sawbones between Laura and Kindle is the result. Maybe with the idea that Victorians were not all one thing or the other, readers will be able to see past the generalities of our own time.