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Victorian Gentlemen: Racist, Sexist SOBs

I've always known that the time and place I live in now is a lot nicer than in bygone eras. Racial and religious minorities can vote. Women can attend universities. You can pretty much marry anybody you want without becoming a social outcast for it (marrying a convicted serial killer you've been exchanging letters with for a month notwithstanding). However, having grown up with all of these freedoms, I have difficulty imagining what it would be like to live without them. It wasn't until yesterday, when I sat down to peruse some of the popular literature of the 1890s for my own purposes, that I really understood how oppressive and idiotic Western society used to be.

First, when I was researching the norms and etiquette of courtship just before the turn of the century, I stumbled across a gem of an advice book: The Mystery of Love, Courtship, and Marriage, Explained by Henry J. Wehman (1890). Since it's open source, you can download the full text from This little booklet is chock full of practical advice for the pining gentleman or the lovelorn lady, with summaries on such issues as flirtation, pet names, gifts, marriage proposals, etc. Some of the definitions are quite charming, for example:

Wooing: Wooing, which is sometimes confounded with courting, goes before courtship, as sappers and miners before an advancing army. It is the John the Baptist of the kingdom of love, which goes before to make the way plain for all the delirious endearments that follow in the career of courtship.


Embrace: Embracing is vulgarly called hugging or squeezing, and is an operation of endearment that lovers are very apt to fall into when sitting alone by the side of each other...[It] is a situation in which the arms unconsciously draw the yielding bodies into closer proximity than is absolutely necessary for the ordinary purposes of conversation.

Unfortunately, the rest is one long treatise of misogyny. Of reconciling after quarrels, the author states:

Except in cases of jealousy, a quarrel generally begins on the side of the woman. She is angry at first with herself, or because familiarity with you begins to produce ennui, or because she is too sure of you...Where a young lady is shrewish and overbearing towards her lover it will not answer for him to yield too far to her caprices. Some girls find fault and quarrel just for the pleasure of a reconciliation.

Then there's this little admonition:

"We love a girl," [Goethe] writes, "for very different things than understanding. We love her for her beauty, her youth, her mirth, her confidingness, her character, with its faults, caprices, and God knows what other inexpressible charms; but we do not love her understanding...." Nor would a woman respect a man that told her he courted her on account of her understanding. It is her nature to look up to him. Hers is comparatively a fixed, secluded, and meditative life..."Woman's lot," so taught Washington Irving, "is to be wooed and won."

By far, the most enjoyable bit is on manipulating one's wife into submission:

To make your wife love you, and yourself feel happy, you must exercise towards her kindness, and let her feel that you do not look upon her as an inferior being, but as one who should share your joys, your sorrows and troubles...Even if you have reason to think she would not do to trust with any important secret, tell her something which is in reality not of much importance, but tell her of the affair in such a way as to make her believe it is of vital import.

Should she then tell it, and you hear of it, you can with great propriety tell her that she has betrayed your confidence, and also done you an injury, but do not scold her or quarrel with her about it, but tell her in the kindest manner possible that it was your love and a confiding heart that prompted you to entrust her with the keeping of that which should have been as interesting to her as to you; but eventually tell her you forgive her for it, hoping she will do better next time. If she is a woman of any sentiment, she will feel this more keenly than any other course you could take, and will be very apt to come to you, like "an erring child," fall upon your neck, asking you not to think hard of her, and promise to be more careful in the future, at the same time lavishing many a warm and precious kiss on you, her own dear husband.

I dare Sweetie to try that one.

After I'd skipped the manuals on parasol and top hat flirtations and perused the sample introduction, love, and proposal letters with varying concentrations of exclamation points, I moved on to greener pastures. Indian ones, precisely, as the next stop in the tour of 1890s literature was the ever-popular stories of Rudyard Kipling in The Jungle Book. I'd heard before that it was vaguely racist, but could only detect a background buzz of imperialism through the first set of stories about Mowglie's adventures in the jungle. The prose is digestible and the descriptions rich and enjoyable, with many fewer commas than one would expect for the times. Then I met Kotick, the Great White Seal.

Kotick, you see, was the first white seal born in seal memory. Every year his clan migrates to a certain beach to tend their nurseries, and every year the Aleut huntsmen slaughter them in droves for their skins. "Aleuts," you must realize, "are not clean people." Kotick the white seal is horrified, but his grovelling nonwhite kinsmen just shrug and say that's the way it's always been, and he can't do anything about it. But the dirty Asian huntsmen fear the white seal, and an old seal hints that Kotick might be the white savior of legends. So Kotick sets off on a series of journeys to find a new beach for his kind. After many years and trials, he finds a pristine island uninhabited by men, and he shares this news joyously with his comrades. They are too stupid and ungrateful to follow him, so he has to beat them into compliance in a virtuous rampage. Finally they see reason: "'We will come,' said thousands of tired voices. 'We will follow Kotick, the White Seal.'" And Kotick leads their idiotic nonwhite hides to salvation, where he watches over them peacefully, "getting bigger and fatter and stronger each year."

Touching, no? I don't even need to get into the fun times of Little Toomai the elephant herder and his worship of "the greatest white man in the world," Petersen Sahib, a.k.a. the "Protector of the Poor." There's even more fun to be had in The Second Jungle Book, in which Mowglie sends buffaloes and elephants to trample the village of heathens who label him a sorcerer and, in their barbarous ignorance, try to stone his adoptive mother to death.

Oddly though, Kipling's portrayals of women are the opposite of what you would expect, given the previously cited attitudes. Often they're frail and fawning, but they're sometimes stronger than the menfolk too. Mowglie's Father Wolf admires and concedes authority to Mother Wolf, who "was not called The Demon for compliment's sake." In "Rikki Tikki Tavi," the cobra Nag's wife Nagaina is ten times more dangerous than her husband, and in contrast to the "feather-brained" Tailorbird Darzee, his wife is "a sensible bird" who helps Rikki-tikki save the day.

Of course, I can't assume that what people wrote and how they acted were perfectly in synch. I know plenty of people who are "enlightened" enough to say that women are equal to men and skin color means nothing. However, their social circles are entirely made up of people with the same heritage, background and speech patterns, and they base their ultimate opinion of a female on whether she's "fat" or not. Likewise, there is an excess of bigots on both sides of the political dichotomy who write outrageous things about their enemies, but treat them with perfect civility when they meet them on the street. The author of that dating advice book probably wouldn't dare to carry out his devious plans on his own wife. Female writers and activists of the period certainly weren't afraid of utilizing their "understanding." I can't say the same about racism with any confidence, but I will remark that this was some forty years after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Powerful white people may have seen other races like infants or proto-humans in general, but they were probably perfectly comfortable with the individuals they met who were somehow different from "the rest of them."

Regardless, every time I feel nostalgic for the bygone pre-WWI era of Anne of Green Gables or Meet Me in St. Louis, I need only look fondly on materials like this to remind myself how lucky I am to be living a century later.


Apple Banana Cherry (June 14, 2012, 8:08 pm)

I agree with you about the novel being 'open source' although I feel that label is imprecise.

Open source usually refers to software and is related to free software.

In written work, the concept copyright leads to works falling into the public domain once author/owner rights expire.

Like Project Gutenberg does for text, efforts to share cultural products (educational or entertaining) have separate curation and advocacy proponents. Putting it all together you do get the 'open source' effect to which you refer in this blog entry.

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