This passage appears in Housman's autobiography, The Unexpected Years immediately before he relates his loss of religious belief. Housman created the decorated initial for his The Field of Clover (1898) — George P. Landow.
he savage imposition of ignorance under the Victorian code on virgin minds has become almost unbelievable to the present generation. Sometimes its results were only comic, but sometimes tragic.
One of our friends, a girl well up in her teens, had a rapacious interest in babies; and as soon as any of her friends married, she would begin, without proper waiting, to inquire for results. When this became embarrassing, her mother said to her one day My dear Emily, you ought to know by this time that people don't have babies till they have been married at least nine months. This information of nature's slow way of doing things greatly surprised her; but she accepted her mother's word for it, till shortly after (it happened on their at home day) some one announced over the tea-cups the safe arrival of a baby to a recently married couple. Then, from the insufficiently instructed Emily, came astonished protest: 'Oh! I'm sure they've not been married nine months! Having said it, she saw that she had dropped a brick; but she did not in the least know why.
Much more serious was the effect of ignorance on the wife of a doctor friend of mine, in her young days. He told me that she had been allowed to grow up with the fantastic notion that if she looked upon a man to lust after him (to have, that is to say, any feeling of attraction towards him) she would land herself with a baby, and become a disgraced character. The frantic holy custody of the eyes which this imposed upon her, ruined her health; she became a semi-invalid a state from which marriage only partially rescued her.
Taught by these monstrous perversions of modesty, I had become a feminist and a suffragist long before the day of battle actually arrived; and when I first heard of the device used by the Abyssinians for the preservation of pre-marital virginity, it seemed to me hardly more cruel than that stitching-up of minds which one encoun tered everywhere as regards the facts of life, until some forty years ago.
Nor did damage fall only upon the weaker sex. In my own social class, boys and girls alike were given at least some book-knowledge in languages, living or dead, other than their own; but as they approached the most critical age, the language of life in their own bodies was strange to them. Boys at school did, indeed, pick up knowledge of a kind, but nothing that could be called either help or instruction; girls were not supposed to pick up anything for them knowledge of that sort was a contamination: it made them less attractive.
It was this sanction of obscurantism . . . which started the breach between myself and the narrow Conservatism of my upbringing. I could not feel that any religious or social system, which so sedulously refused to tell and to face the truth, deserved respect [139-41]
Housman, Laurence. The Unexpected Years. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.
Last modified 19 November 2012