19th century marital studies

My studies of 19th century French literature have led me to the following question: did 19th century Frenchmen have sex with their wives? My researches so far have not turned up any evidence that they did. They seem to have preferred house servants, tubercular working girls, prostitutes, courtesans, opera singers, actresses, other men’s wives, and 17 year old virgins.

It may be, however, that the Frenchman of that era did have sex with their wives, at least occasionally, but either were ashamed to admit it, or else believed that marital sex is not a suitable topic for decent conversation.

Published in: on June 1, 2010 at 6:54 pm  Comments (9)  

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  1. Not just Frenchmen — James Branch Cabell, to take one American example, wrote lots of risque-for-the-time material about authorial surrogates having sex with all of the above (except, since he was a fantasist and more in the mode of Sir Walter Scott, add princesses and queens, and take out the tuberculosis). And he wrote quite a bit, some of it quite good, about his author-surrogates’ relationships with their wives. But actually having sex with them? Never occurs, even in ellipses. I think that the basic problem is that it just wasn’t considered transgressive enough.

  2. Yeah, I think that’s it. I just blocked out a porn novel about some 25 year old guy sitting at work waiting to go home to his hot, enthusiastic 19 year old wife, and there’s no way that could work. In literature sex is a piece in some other kind of game.

  3. Cabell did at least acknowledge that women felt sexual desire, in general, and that wives did want sex with their husbands (among other people). That may not seem like such a big deal, existing as it does in e.g. The Canterbury Tales, but there are some succeeding generations of male authors who seem to have managed to not talk about it.

    Here’s a section from one of my favorite Cabell books, The Silver Stallion. Balthis, a middle-aged woman, has just discovered that her middle-aged husband is actually a literal demon. And, since she’s a noblewoman, she addresses him with a sort of stilted yet gallant speech:

    “And Balthis said also:’For it is a great wrong and treachery which you have played upon me, Ninzian of Yair, getting from me such love as men will not find the equal of in any of the noble places of this world until the end of life and time. This is a deep wound that you have given me. Upon your lips were wisdom and pleasant talking, there was kindliness in the gray eyes of Ninzian of Yair, your hands were strong at sword-play, and you were the most generous of companions all through the daytime and in the nighttime too. These things I delighted in, these things I regarded: I did not think of the low mire, I could not see what horrible markings your passing by had left to this side and to that side.’

    Then Balthis said: ‘Let every woman weep with me, for I now know that to every woman’s loving is this end appointed. There is no woman that gives all to any man, but that woman is wasting her substance at bed and board with a greedy stranger, and there is no wife who escapes the bitter hour in which that knowledge smites her. So now let us touch hands, and now too let our lips part friendlily, because our bodies have so long been friends, the while that we knew nothing of each other, Ninzian of Yair, on account of the great wrong and treachery which you have played upon me.’

    Thus speaking, Balthis kissed him. Then she went into the house that was no longer Ninzian’s home.”

  4. I’ve been working on that Christian porn idea. A virginical slender blonde jiggly 17 year old marries the 22 year old she’s been in love with ever since she was little, big church wedding, the whole nine yards, they go home and then BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM for the rest of the movie, with little breaks for the viewers to change Kleenexes.

    Somehow I think that this violates one of the structuralist rules of fiction, but I doubt that Propp or Barthes put it in their books. And not because of the BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM part, that’s a porn obbligato.

  5. This is true of some major mid-20th-C. American novelists too. I remember being mystified at how often the main character of Something Happened has sex without there being a sexual component to his relationship with his wife. It made Mad Men ring a little false to me, because of the frequency of marital coitus.

  6. I think it’s a subtle misreading to look at most of the 19th century French material that I think that you’re referring to as porn. If I remember it rightly, most of it seemed to have erotic goings-on not so much as porn as to show off the protagonist as an exciting bad guy.

    For my series on Lew and Pru (did you ever read that one?) I investigated porn novels through history — had you ever encountered Thérèse Philosophe? That’s earlier (from 1748) but it’s undoubtedly a porn novel. Basics at wikipedia, together with links to text.

  7. It was a definite leap from novels to porn, but marital sex hardly figures in either. Apparently to be interesting, sex has to be illicit.

    Lew and Pru link? Don’t remember it.

  8. I’m sort of surprised that this wasn’t always obvious to everyone. The nineteenth century (and twentieth century one too) marriage was entirely a creation of Rousseau as part of his political project. Let’s remember that Rousseau’s novels both have love affairs before marriage, but had no depictions of any type of successful marriage.

    In fact, for marriage to play the role that Rousseau needed, he heavily emphasizes modesty. He loathed the liberated ladies of the eighteenth century precisely because he considered them immodest. That’s why marital sex is invisible (i.e., modest).

    The function of the marriage pre-Rousseau is reproduction, simply. The extended family unit and it’s political functions are what are important. It was actually entirely beside the point how the relationship of wife to husband existed, just so long as it produced male children. For those type of families, the father-son relationship is what is critical, not that of wife and husband (the son inherits the father’s titles, achievements, property and profession as well those of his male ancestors before his father. The son’s political career will often be closely related to the political things his father has done. In some cases, there is a family “political position” which generation after generation will espouse).

  9. I’m still working on my Christian porn idea. What I see now is starting off with the two meeting somewhere, chatting in a non-committal and gnomic way, flirting a little indecisively, showing some hesitation, and in general behaving in a hard-to-interpret way, and then going home together and BOOM BOOM BOOM. This could be very sensitive. Then a lot of jumping around from her job, his job, going to and from work, always with hard to interpret pensive expressions and weird flashbacks, and gradually they circle back to the same place and BOOM &c. Then you gradually find they their toothbrushes are in the same bathroom &c. Images of them as little kids flirting. Separations. Who are these people and what is the mysteriousu bond between them. More confusion and mystery. Then in the last scene they get married with the priest, the parents, and the whole church leering down at them saying, OK, begin the movie.

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