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Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain (Kindle)

British History P&S History Social History Victorian Era

By Violet Fenn
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
File Size: 20.7 MB (.mobi)
Pages: 136
Illustrations: 30 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526756701
eBook Released: 25th June 2020

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Peek beneath the bedsheets of nineteenth-century Britain in this affectionate, informative and fascinating look at sex and sexuality during the reign of Queen Victoria. It examines the prevailing attitudes towards male and female sexual behaviour, and the ways in which these attitudes were often determined by those in positions of power and authority. It also explores our ancestors’ ingenious, surprising, bizarre and often entertaining solutions to the challenges associated with maintaining a healthy sex life.

Did the people in Victorian times live up to their stereotypes when it came to sexual behaviour? This book will answer this question, as well as looking at fashion, food, science, art, medicine, magic, literature, love, politics, faith and superstition through a new lens, leaving the reader uplifted and with a new regard for the ingenuity and character of our great-great-grandparents.

Despite my love of history, and the fact that the Victorian era is the bread and butter of most primary school history lessons in the UK and the backdrop of many historical romance novels, the 19th century isn’t a century I know an awful lot about. I probably know a lot more about Victorian literature than I do about Victorian politics and society.

Something I’ve become more and more interested in over the years, however, is the history of sex workers, so when I spotted this book on NetGalley I couldn’t resist requesting it. At under 200 pages this is very much a ‘does what it says on the tin’ book that gives its readers a general introduction to the various branches of sex and sexuality during the Victorian era, and while there are certain topics I’d’ve liked Fenn to have explored more I think this is the ideal place to start for readers like me who aren’t experts in this particular era of history.

Fenn’s writing is so readable and it’s clear this is a book written by a historian who loves her subject and is very knowledgeable about the research being carried out by other historians. When this book touches upon sex workers and mentions the Whitechapel murders, for example, she mentions Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, one of my favourite pieces of non-fiction, and I really appreciated knowing I was reading a book by an author who is very aware of the work of her contemporaries.

NetGalley, Jess Gofton

Fans of Ruth Goodman, Therese Oneill, and Lucy Worsley will find interest in Violet Fenn's book, Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain. Don't let the ho-hum title hold you back! This brief history of morality (not just sex) is cheeky and to-the-point, not some dry lecture. Readers will take a peek at dress codes, "fallen" women, expectations, ruin, and the occasional enlightenment. Fenn gives a good foundation for behaviors that we commonly associate with the Victorians and their supposed prudishness while striking down some long-standing assumptions. A quick, insightful read.

NetGalley, Sarrah Knight

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A very interesting little book. Would be enjoyed by fans of Lucy Worsley. Makes you reassess your view of Victorians as repressed and prudish. Society was far more nuanced.. Recommended.

NetGalley, Gillian Shackleton

This book doesn't shy away from the really gruesome end of the spectrum of what life was like in Victorian Britain, as far as the childbirth, sex, masturbation, prostitution et al were concerned. Everyone has heard of Jack the Ripper murders, but not everyone knows about the act that was aimed at bettering and protecting the lives of women but actually cost the lives of many gay men. That was a real eye-opener for me.
The many examples of lives ruined and lost because of laws, ignorance, cruelty and lack of empathy is staggering....This book reminds me how far we've come and how far we still need to go...

"Psycho Ladies Cycle" was probably my favourite bit....

Read the full review here

Natalie is a History Buff

I really enjoyed this short but very interesting book on Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain.
Violet Fenn had me engrossed from the off, I found it enlightening and thought provoking!
I would highly recommend for history lovers.

NetGalley, L. J

Dull this book is not, and it gives an insight in to the many scandals not spoken about in polite Victorian drawing rooms – prostitution, gross indecency, illegitimacy, abortion, paedophilia, veneral disease.

Glasgow and West of Scotland FHS, September 2020

Fenn clearly knows her subject inside out and has a great passion for it - her enthusiasm fair leaps off the page, as does her empathy for those who found themselves - usually through no fault of their own - on the 'wrong' side of Victorian society... Oh, and extra points for the beautiful cover and the mention of Nick Cave.

NetGalley, Ophelia Sings

I would say this book gives you the information on relationships, genders and very much behaviour that doesn’t usually come across in history books. Therefore this is an excellent book indeed, certainly one that more people should be aware of and learn from. What makes the book better is the author has done a great job in writing it down the middle, it’s neither tacky and bawdy or an intellectual and academic, Violet Fenn has struck a great line in between. I would fully recommend this book to others.

Read the full review here

UK Historian

Why read it?

Because it’s fun and you’ll learn something.

Also, and more importantly, because it speaks about what it is to be human with all our desires and complications. There’s nothing dry or dusty about Violet’s take on how lust and love flourish no matter what kind of obstacles get in the way. She manages to navigate a way through the telling of this following a juicy line just this side of prurience.

I read the book in the midst of the pandemonium of domestic upheaval. It was the perfect choice – absorbing and full of the faith in human nature that, for me, was temporarily misplaced under the packing boxes.

I particularly enjoyed the Hannah Cullwick story – maybe Violet can be persuaded to do a whole book inspired by her…

Read the full review here

Ellen Arnison

You can tell this book was written by someone with a genuine passion for history, and who actually enjoys researching and writing about these topics. It is one of the few history books I have found where the writing is very accessible, and although taken seriously is still written in a chatty and easy to read way!

Read the full review here

Dainty Beth

I found this book really interesting, the Victorians for me are fascinating so this was always going to be a hit with me!

The author covers quite a bit in the pages available from the different sexually transmitted diseases that were rife at this time, particularly syphilis, through to prostitution, cross dressing and the tragic consequences of homosexuality with it of course being a criminal act at this time.

The book was concise and I liked the way it was split in to the different chapters. The book was clearly focussed and the author has done a lot of research and knows her topic. I thought that it was well written too and I did find it to be an easy read and it didn’t really take me very long to read as the book is only 144 pages so more of a novella length for me.

It is 4 stars from me for this one, I thought it was full of interesting detail and it is definitely one I would recommend to people who have an interest in this period – highly recommended!

Read the full review here

Donnas Book Blog

The writing is joyous and it is clear the author enjoys her subject and is fairly knowledgeable on things Victorian.

Read the full review here

Rosie Writes

What an interesting book! Not at all lofty or superior in tone, but clearly written by someone with a thirst for knowledge and passionate about their subject. So much detail presented in a completely non-patronising way. More books like this could definitely pique my interest in history.

The chapters are all cleverly titled, (Beddings, Weddings and Bastards my personal favourite with an honorary mention for Lifting the Lid on Lust, because I have always absolutely adored alliteration) and enticing – there are even pictures! Nice to see some local places I recognised in there.

I learned a lot – Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain is informative as well as entertaining. I don’t know what the history department of my school was playing at, because no one ever told me that Queen Victoria changed her name! And English department, you can sit down as well – who knew that ‘shut’ meaning alleyway is thought to be a contraction of ‘short cut’? Come for the sex, stay for the grammar lesson!

In summary, I really enjoyed this book – it was somewhat outside of my comfort zone, but pitched at exacty the right level to make me want to learn more.

Read the full review and a Q&A with Violet Fenn here

Daisy Says

This book, Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain, provides insight into the world of the "prudish" Victorians and how that contradicts with the reality of the changing Victoria world.

NetGalley, Melisa Safchinsky

As featured on the Royal Reviewer Vlog

Royal Reviewer

Well written and accessible, this book dispels many of the myths surrounding Victorian relationships. Covering a vast range of topics (including fashion, politics, royalty and medicine) this book would be of interest to those interested in people and relationships of the past.

NetGalley, Susan Anderson

She has written a lively book which... provides a fair amount of informative entertainment.

Read the full review here

Penniless Press

This book was a quick guide to how Victorian society received the individual and their journey expressing their sexuality. The author examined class, politics, fashion, medicine, and love among the many inter sectional variables to an individual’s sexual identity.
I really enjoyed the fact that it was a quick read - I felt like I learned a lot in a short space of time!
Something very useful for library readers.

NetGalley, Lara Marshall

This book is an interesting and lively introduction to the real Victorians, not the severe, buttoned up people they are made out to be. Numerous topics are covered including prostitution, homosexuality and riding bicycles! This probably isn't the book for those looking for a detailed examination of Victorian life but it does give a fantastic overview for those wanting to gain some knowledge of the period.

NetGalley, Jen Lynch

This book was really fun! Everything from riding bicycles, petticoats, sex before marriage to the seedier side of Victorian sex- Jack the Ripper, prostitution and STDs. It was exactly what I was looking for in a book like this. It didn’t change my life, but it was interesting and educational enough to bring up in many conversations. I feel like I know more but I also feel like I had fun. I would definitely recommend this.

NetGalley, Becky Gaiovnik

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I absolutely adored this look at sexuality in the Victorian period. I’m very interested in sexual history and the perceived notions people had over the so called prudish nature of the Victorians which this book proves is a myth!
Loved the writing and can’t wait to read more by the author.

NetGalley, Sara Marsden

A factual and informative look at the sex lives of people living in a time assumed by many nowadays to be quite prudish, at least outwardly. This book was interesting and easy to read. Topics were engaging.

NetGalley, Mary Willis

I was delighted to see this book, as I hate the stereotype that Victorians were all buttoned-up prudes. Thank you, Violet Fenn, for helping to disperse that myth!

Fenn says in the introduction that someone could write entire books based off the materials in some of the chapters, and she isn't lying. The sections very much feel like introductory overviews. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to be aware of. This isn't a deep delve.

While there may not be much depth, there certainly is breadth. Fenn covers courtship, fashion, gay relationships and pornography among other topics. Even though she doesn't go very in-depth on many of the topics, the book doesn't feel light on research. It's clear that Fenn has done some serious researcj, but she wears the weight of her research lightly, and it means that the book skips along nicely while still being informative.

The only thing that keeps this from being 5 stars is the length. It is a very short book, and I was left wanting more. Hopefully this book will be revised and additional material added.

A quick aside: This book disproved the 'Victoria didn't believe in lesbians' theory I've heard (and repeated!) so many times. Thanks for stopping me from spreading that misinformation about!

Many thanks to Pen & Sword History for an advanced review copy of the book via Netgalley.

NetGalley, Emily Houlston-Jones

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are interested in Victorian times and how sex was treated then, this is your book! Along its pages you can find references to homosexuality, prostitution, contraception methods, sexually transmitted diseases, fidelity… and of course it tackles the role of women in Victorian society.

An excellent read, I strongly recommend it!

NetGalley, Carmen L

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book was a quick guide to how Victorian society received the individual and their journey expressing their sexuality. She examined class, politics, fashion, medicine, and love among the many intersectional variables to an individual’s sexual identity. This book lays the groundwork to how the Victorians conceptualized sexuality and give an everlasting impression on the importance of that era in British society. I enjoyed this book thoroughly and commend its use of prose in speaking candidly concerning intellectual concepts, and appreciated the authors' intellectual curiosity. I felt this was a brief yet conclusive examination at what Victorian society believed regarding sex and sexuality but showed importantly the humanity to which they lived. Overall I gave this book five out of five stars on Goodreads and highly recommend it.

NetGalley, Emilio Alaniz

Quite an interesting read I must admit. Delved deeper into a subject that is quite fascinating in general and during a time period that isn't very often spoken of in terms of sex.

NetGalley, Makenzie Erickson

I did find it fascinating and written in such an engaging manner. Violet Fenn discusses topics ranging from homosexuality to sex toys to contraception and everything in between. I found the story of Edith Lanchester the most interesting. Edith decided she would never wed her lover but still live with him. Her father found out and had her committed to an asylum. I won’t spoil the end of her story, but you must read this well written book on the society thought to be the most prude.

NetGalley, Amy Downes

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book proved to be everything I expected it to be and more. Enlightening, entertaining and charming in equal parts, it will give many hours of pleasure to its readers, which will want more after reading its end, in which we get to know some of the most groundbreaking discoveries made during nineteenth-century Britain. It’s a delight for the brain.

NetGalley, Alan D.D.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book was very enjoyable and eye-opening to read. My wife and I have recently become very interested in the Victorians and this book shines a perfect light on them. To discover that the staid and uptight Victorians were not really that different from us was fun to discover. Ms. Fenn paints a clear picture and opens up the world of the Victorians better than other books I have read on the period.

NetGalley, Dale Dewitt

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Interesting and informative with engaging writing, if you want to learn about the history of some of your own sexual hangup read this book!!

NetGalley, Heather Bennett

I really liked learning more about how things were different back in the Victorian era... I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to know more about different times.

NetGalley, Emy Girard

Highly detailed look at Victorian Britain covering every aspect of life from the upper classes to their servants. Filled with anecdotes and busting widely held myths this book explores Sex and Sexuality and how Victorians coped with society's restrictions.

NetGalley, Jenny Dunne

This was an interesting read and I liked how it explored sex and sexuality from different areas of Victorian Britain. The sources and arguments presented were interesting and I thought the writing style was clear and easy to follow for your average reader with enough detail for those more advanced in the topic to still learn about the time period.

NetGalley, Bethany Younge

I've been waiting to read this kind of book in ages. The subject matter has interested me all these years and there are no such books that really tackle sexuality in Victorian society, some just go over it shortly. Informative, fun to read, highly recommended if you're interested in this sort of thing.

NetGalley, Jimbo Pantas

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Far too many people associate the Victorian period with a largely sexless dour period, and it's great to have a reminder that history is often much more scandalous than we think. Even with all the laws prohibiting homosexuality, same sex couples lived and thrived, as well as causing scandal and being persecuted. Sex life wasn't just about procreation, and women, even against society's dictates, did find ways to explore their sexuality. This is a well-researched look behind the stiff-upper-lipped, prim-and-proper facade of Victorian life that I would give to any history buff.

NetGalley, Courtney Tonokawa

One of my favourite period in history has to be the Victorian era. I will actively read books set during this time – fiction and non-fiction – just because the world was so fascinating. The changes that were occurring not just industrially but also socially – it always makes for an interesting read.

It was due to this that I was intrigued to read Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain. What made it even more interesting for me is that it isn’t focused on London which to be fair is usually the location for a lot of books on Victoriana. This book had links to my hometown of Liverpool. Hurrah.

Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain was fantastic. It was an academic book without the need of academia to be able to read, understand, and enjoy it. It was eye-opening and titillating all at once. Fenn has researched her topic well and added the element of heart – something that sometimes lacks in other texts of this ilk. I hoovered this book, relishing every page and any fan of history should find enjoyment between these pages.

NetGalley, Lisa Bentley

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I found it to be a very good primer that more than lives up to the title and discusses what the topic of sex and sexuality in Victorian England from the point of view of societal expectations toward women, but also how they were enforced, and the legal acts that went along with them. Particularly for an era in which it is difficult to get accurate statistics, it is an important source for researchers looking into this area. It talks about prostitution, as well. They also (rightly) bring up the tricky challenge of studying the era, which is to discover photographs that were "titillating" for lack of a better term and could be considered embarrassing (or in some cases illegal), and so it's difficult because they would not have been an official document or record. Not to mention because the camera was still a relatively new invention and while there were advances even into the 1890s, it was definitely not a societal situation in which everyone had a camera in hand or ready access to one.

The Romanticism movement is discussed and its roots in the French chivalry moment that preceded it centuries before. Queen Victoria's own marriage is also discussed and analyzed. Overall, the discussion of the social life and customs of Victorian-era women written in an accessible way is of great interest for anyone interested in the period.

NetGalley, Eva Seeraq

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve never read a more interesting book, let alone a book on sexuality during the Victorian era! Definitely unforgettable and full of amazing facts and examples. Would recommend to any history buffs out there.

NetGalley, Amanda Mae

It was an interesting and informative read that kept me hooked till the last page.
I discovered a lot new information and how the approach of Victorian age people was different from what we thing.
The book is well researched and well written.
An excellent read, highly recommended.

NetGalley, Anna Maria Giacomasso

I found this book absolutely fascinating! If you read ‘The Curious History of Sex’, then you should really enjoy this book! It’s not too academic but is so insightful, I found myself completely immersed in the period and subject. Will be purchasing for my library!

NetGalley, Sinead Noonan

I found this book really interesting, the Victorians for me are fascinating so this was always going to be a hit with me!

The author covers quite a bit in the pages available from the different sexually transmitted diseases that were rife at this time, particularly syphilis, through to prostitution, cross dressing and the tragic consequences of homosexuality with it of course being a criminal act at this time.

The book was concise and I liked the way it was split in to the different chapters. The book was clearly focussed and the author has done a lot of research and knows her topic. I thought that it was well written too and I did find it to be an easy read and it didn’t really take me very long to read as the book is only 144 pages so more of a novella length for me.

It is 4 stars from me for this one, I thought it was full of interesting detail and it is definitely one I would recommend to people who have an interest in this period – highly recommended!

NetGalley, Donna Maguire

Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain is a phenomenal piece of non-fiction written by Violet Fenn. As a true history junkie, I was beyond excited when I got approved to read this book! I was a bit suspicious that I wouldn't like it before I started reading. And I was wrong. I sincerely enjoyed this book. It was educational and well-researched, so that didn't disappoint me. What I enjoyed most were the real-life examples and experiences of people from the Victorian age. I found it really interesting to read their letters and diary entries.
My favourite chapter is Lifting the Lid on Lust: Libido, Kinks, and Sex Toys . The sassiness of the author toward other authors was very entertaining. I really like how Violet Fenn broke some of the misconceptions people have about the Victorian age, especially those concerning women and their intimacy.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, human condition and sex.

NetGalley, Ivana de Bona

A short and entertaining book about sexuality in Victorian society. The author presents the joyful aspects of people's intimate relations as well as the darker sides like prostitution, STDs and criminalisation of homosexuality. The book gets rid of some old myths and gives various examples of people and court cases that invite to explore the subject further. As an introduction to the topic I highly recommend this.

NetGalley, Anja Kwiatkowski

A really interesting overview of sex and sexuality in Victorian Britain. It's not a dry academic book but rather a broad overview that dispels common myths about the Victorian's prudish views and expands on the ways in which they were very similar to people today but also were very informed by the time they lived in with regard to how their behavior was expressed. Easy read that acts as a gateway to exploring the Victorians mentioned in the book.

NetGalley, C.R. Elliott

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book! I devoured it so interesting, and well written, it was!
Informative books can be, sometimes, clinical in their explanations, in my opinion, which makes me loose interest halfway in. But this one was approachable, easy and enjoyable to read. There was clearly a lot of research done for this, and it shows. I had some knowledge of the Victorian Era, but learned so much more!

I’d strongly recommend this book to any lover of this period in history.

NetGalley, Cynthia Troncquo

I'd say this was an engaging book for those new to the topic. It is well written and ranges widely to pick up some really interesting things, from the trend for cycling to the subtext of 'Dracula'.

NetGalley, Kate Baty

This was a very good, well-researched, and highly readable look into the truth behind sex and sexuality in Victorian England. Violet Fenn looks behind the starched facades to the reality beneath- which is that anything you've thought of doing, it's been done before. She explores the dark realities of prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases and the tragic consequences of criminalizing homosexuality, but also introduces lighter elements and knocks down traditional stories like Victorians covering piano legs to prevent anyone from getting too excited. One of the things I loved best about "Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain" was how often I found myself saying: "so that's where that comes from!". From word origins to myths to facts of daily life, it was fun to discover their basis in Victorian life.

Overall a delightful, witty, and fun read, "Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain" is perfect for history lovers who want to learn more about the real lives behind the era, and women's roles-as victor as well as victim- in particular.

NetGalley, Anne Morgan

About Violet Fenn

VIOLET FENN has always been fascinated by human behaviour. She specialises in frank and straightforward investigations into the changing cultural attitudes towards sex and mortality and was once turned down for a job at an undertaker’s for being ‘too interested in death’.


She lives in Shropshire with her children, a menagerie of pets and endless beautiful but pointless clutter. She firmly believes that black is the happiest colour and that there is no such thing as too much red lipstick. To find out more, visit sexdeathrocknroll.com

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