Society and Its Expectations

The high social expectations of the Victorian era forced the outward appearance of virtue and purity upon men of the upper and middle classes.  However, this forced repression of their less acceptable desires, notably those of a sexual nature, had a tendency to cause those desires to come out on the streets at night.  These ‘good’ men, expected to basically ignore their sexuality by the norms of the Victorian era, would head to the streets to find relief from the expectations of society.  These men would head to the less reputable districts to drink and find prostitutes.  Most of these prostitutes were willing women, but rape was also not uncommon; male prostitutes were also to be found, as was child prostitution, involving young boys as well as girls.  Mrs. Jeffries owned a brothel in London of which it was said:

(It) had been in business for over 20 years across the road from a police station.  It was also widely reported that among Mrs. Jeffries customers were some of the very men who had in parliament opposed raising the age of consent at which sexual congress with a child was legally permissible from thirteen to sixteen.   Mrs. Jeffries access to masculine power and influence seemed confirmed when at the trial ‘before any evidence could be produced, the defence pulled off what must have been a pre-arranged coup.  Mrs. Jeffries pleaded guilty to keeping a brothel, had her £200 fine paid by a wealthy friend and drove off in a brougham supplied by an earl.’ (Clemens 126)

 

The wealthy upper classes were involved in the prostitution business even though they would never publicly admit it.  This hypocrisy is only made more evident when those involved are members of parliament.

This contradiction in society was brought up by Robert Louis Stevenson in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, causing the work to be especially unsettling to the many men for whom it hit close to home.  In Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the case was more that the men were leading double lives in an attempt to meet and marry the women with whom they have fallen in love, but it is still a double life brought about by their desires which were such that they could not show them in their normal personas.

Victorians were not supposed to be attracted to the violence described by Stevenson in Jekyll and Hyde but they were.  Victorians, for all the pretense of polite and passive behavior, were actually quite bloodthirsty.  Rosalind Crone writes in her book, Violent Victorians, how they attended executions, went to morgues to see naked dead bodies, attended wax museums to see re-creations of recent murders, read stories about gory brutal murders and the like.  For example, in a script for a street show, Mr. Punch, the official script is much less violent than the actual showman’s version: “In the showman’s performance, violent domestic quarrels continue to characterize Punch and Judy’s relationship.  Judy strikes the first blow against her husband…the couple reconcile only to fight once more when Punch demands that Judy fetch his child.  After Punch playfully throws the baby out the window, Judy finds a stick and beats her husband.  Punch snatches the stick and brutally beats her.  While the violence has been toned down in this script – Punch does not kill his wife – important continuities exist in the use of violence” (Crone 64).

In the modern works Fight Club and American Pyscho, the expectations of society have changed, but conformity remains an expectation.  In both cases, the men involved create split personalities to explore their darker desires, which they could not act upon as themselves.

 

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