In "Having Emotions the Manly Way," Stefan Collini raises important questions about the degree to which people of the Victorian years in fact had rigid notions of masculinity and heterosexuality. Too often those who write about Victorian idea of gender just assume that all Victorians accepted a single, rigid idea of masculinity, but did they? Pointing out that Trev Lynn Broughton's study of Leslie Stephens purports to show "contradictions within the ideal of 'late Victorian heterosexual manliness,'" Collini suggests that this approach depends upon our unquestioned assumption that there was in fact a clear norm:

For, if the supposedly "normative" is in fact much more diverse, flexible and just plain ragged than that imperious and tidy term suggests, then the self-generated drama of challenges to and subversions of that allegedly controlling power largely loses its frisson. . . . It is, of course, true that we need organizing concepts, and at present concepts such as "hegemonic masculinities" offer to help us to order our perceptions of the past in telling ways.

Valuable as they may be, concepts such as "normative masculinity" and "hegemonic masculinity" produce several problems. First, they begin by accepting as proven a question that has yet to be investigated. Second, "in inviting us to treat its inhabitants more as victims than as agents, such concepts can also risk building a kind of condescension into the very structure of our scholarly engagement with that past."

Another complicating factor arises in the fact that the words heterosexual and heterosexuality, which many, particularly those with socially conservative views, now take to signify normality, originally denoted perversion, or as Richard Davenport-Hines puts it, "the concept of 'heterosexuality' was linked with fetishism or sexual activity driven by the desire for pleasure rather than the drive for procreation, and given dictionary definitions as 'abnormal or perverted appetitite towards the opposite sex'" (38). The point here is that until quite recently in Western history, those who discussed sexuality emphasized that it was entirely for purposes of producing children, and so any interest in sexual pleasure for its own sake was considered both sinful and perverse. Which is not to say that what those in power wrote about sexual behavior had all that much to do with what people actually did.

Leading questions

1. What different notions of masculinity do you find in Browning and Tennyson, Dickens and Thackeray, Eliot and Hardy?

2. To what extent do differences in conceptions of the masculine vary between male and female novelists?

3. To what extent do differences in conceptions of the masculine vary during the six decades of the Victorian period.

4. To what extent do understandings of "the masculine" depend upon notions of gentlemanliness?

4. To what extent do understandings of "the masculine" relate to issues of class? In other words, did the aristocracy, squirearchy, millowners, professional classes, factory workers, yoeman farmers, and so on share essentially the same basic notions of male nature, or did each group have its own characteristic ideas and attitudes? What kind of research would be necessary to begin to answer such questions?

Related Material


Collini, Stefan. "Having Emotions the Manly Way," Times Literary Supplement June 4 1999, p. 6. [A review of Trev Lynn Broughton, Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and literary autobiography in the late Victorian period.

Davenport-Hines, Richard. [Review of] J. D. Katz's The Invention of Heterosexuality, Times Literary Supplement August 24 and 31 2007, p. 7..

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Last modified 2 September 2007