A Few Universal Victorian Truths That Aren’t Actually True

Woke up feeling a little contrary today, so here’s some things that are often repeated about the Victorian era that aren’t true:

Sometimes people were buried alive.   Not that anyone can discern, but there were rare cases of people who’d been declared dead reviving a few hours later.  Eventually the urban legend arose that folks were routinely pronounced dead, sealed in their coffin, and left to scream and scratch at the lid until they gave up the ghost for real.  This led to all sorts of anti-buried-alive devices, like a wire on the (presumably) deceased person’s finger that led to a bell above ground, so they could ring for rescue.  Many such devices were sold — it was a public obsession for awhile — but none were ever used.

The women saved themselves for marriage.  Of course, we’re talking middle and upper class women.  The lower classes did as they pleased, or as circumstances demanded.  But the idea that Victorian women all went to their wedding nights as virgins, like a 1970s Barbara Cartland romance, has been statistically disproved.  According to public record, the average firstborn arrived 7 months after the wedding.  Reminds me of the old proverb: Babies usually take nine months, but the first one can come anytime.

Marriage was forever.  Only if you were female.  It was virtually impossible for a woman to obtain a divorce.  Simply proving her husband cheated on her wasn’t nearly enough; she had to prove he also beat her excessively (ponder that) or was cruel in some other way.  If she succeeded in her petition, she would lose not only all social standing but also access to her children, who always went to the father.  But men could and did obtain divorces when their wives stepped out of line.  In general, however, many married couples did one of two things: (1) the man kept a mistress and the wife kept to herself or (2) they lived apart for the rest of their lives.  Sometimes in different houses.  Sometimes on different continents.

Females deformed themselves with corsets.   In a few cases, they surely did.  (There are famous photographs.)  But in general, the terror of “tight lacing,” of unnatural wasp waists, of ribs and organs dislocated in the pursuit of perfection, was another urban legend.  More like an urban fetish, actually.  Pamphlets were written about it, describing the “natural” female form and then its “perversion” quite breathlessly.  The Victorians may have been hypocrites about sex, but they never missed a trick when it came to finding a new way to get off.

It was a simpler, more innocent time.  Review the following and decide for yourself.  Children over the age of eight were expected to work full-time unless their family (usually middle or upper class) kept them in school.  And work was necessary, since there was no such thing as Juvvie — a child could be hung for stealing, say, food if the judge deemed him or her “incorrigible.”  Certain services we take for granted, like the fire department, existed by subscription only.  In other words, if your house caught fire and you weren’t paid up, the brigade wouldn’t scramble and your house would burn down.  (But they would arrive on the scene and watch if you lived close to neighbors who were paid up, so they could spring into action for the subscriber.)  And if you were unlucky enough to be born with a disability, you were destined to be a beggar, even if your parents were middle or upper class.  Why?  Because they would send you away the moment your disability was known.  A “baby farmer” or some other lower class family would take your imperfect child and raise them up to be a beggar, or else lock them in a room or even hang them (by a harness) on a wall to keep them out of trouble.  Jane Austen (not a Victorian, I know, but the practice continued beyond the Regency) had a sibling who was mentally challenged and lived apart from the Austens all his life, too imperfect to be associated with them.

7 thoughts on “A Few Universal Victorian Truths That Aren’t Actually True

  1. The thing about the corsets…some men wore them too and deformed themselves as well. Not a large percentage by any standard but I've seen those pictures as well.GEEEZZZZZLove the Victorian clothes but the corsets would not work for me.As for simpler, more innocent times…anyone who has ever read any Victorian porn knows that ain't so!I am so glad you posted these. It is always fascinating to see what really lies behind the myths of an era like this.

  2. @mewofford: I will have to look into men wearing them. Outside of actors trying to look younger onstage, I wouldn't have expected it. And I am shocked, shocked that you've read Victorian porn!

  3. These are great! "Deformity" in the realm of corsets is relative. I have seen photos of modern women who corset whose waists might be considered to be deformed by mainstream standards. I love tight-lacing, but it is good to live in an era where it is a choice, not a social convention.And the Republicans would have these times returned to us, with abolishing child labor laws, and destroying social programs for people who can't help themselves.I don't know when the simple and innocent time actually existed…. maybe the 50's?

  4. I love "stuff you didn't know posts", great job!If you're interested, there's a book called Fetish written by a fashion anthropologist (I didn't even know that was a profession before I saw this book) that talks about the misconception about the corset and has some great examples of corset literature of the time.I don't know too much about Victorian England but in America around the same time half of all weddings were shotgun weddings because the woman got pregnant and the phrase "rule of thumb" was created because it was legal to beat your wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than your thumb. Thought you might find that interesting 🙂

  5. @celebrationoflifeblog: fashion anthropologist? I love it! (You really do learn something new every day!) @Jenx: when I started researching Victoriana in the 1980s, it was presented that most upper class females were permanently harmed by tight lacing, rather like the old Japanese practice of foot binding. Even out of their corsets, they couldn't breathe or move normally. But of course if that were the case, childbirth would have killed even more of them, right?

  6. Hi Stephanie, MEW is right. I've seen many pictures concerning men in Corsets. There was a famous Civil War General that wore one so tight he had something like a twenty inch waist. How he could function is beyond me. The Chinese were th ones with foot binding. The Japanese not so much but they did it too. I have always thought women's clothes were designed by someone from the Inquisition. Between the high heels, corsets, skirts, low cut blouses, shoes that kill for fun and profit, makeup that takes hours to put on and hairdos that take hours to do, it is a wonder women get out at all. Fashion is really the pits. I ask, :Is it worth it?"

  7. @Duke: thanks for the info! Again … learn (or unlearn) something new every day. As for Chinese vs. Japanese, thanks, I had no idea. And as for women's clothes … AMEN.

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