Sex, Secrets, and Foucault: Rewriting Victorian Sexuality in Waterland, Oscar & Lucinda, and Possession

Jane Fronek '97, English 168, Brown University

...around and apropos of sex, one sees a veritable discursive explosion. (Foucault 17)

Three novels written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Graham Swift's Waterland, Peter Carey's Oscar & Lucinda, and A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance, utilize non-normative sexuality to write modern renditions of Victorian life. Each novel, in different ways, exploits what is popularly received as the defining characteristic of the Victorian period: sexual reticence. This exploitation, which takes the form of a pointed inclusion of unexpected forms of sexuality, functions to create and sustain the narratives of each novel. In fact, sexuality occupies the fulcrum point in the plots of all three novels. However, the kinds of sexuality that Swift, Carey, and Byatt each represent manipulate the modern reader's assumption about Victorian sexuality. Representations of incest, a hyper-awareness of the body, including the sexual organs, and adultery are some of the departures from the sexual norm that these novels use to rewrite Victorian sexuality. If Byatt, Carey, and Swift act as post-Foucauldians, their novels are pointing to the fact that, in actuality, Victorians were not as repressed as we or they represent. If instead, Swift, Carey, and Byatt are anti-Foucauldian or non-Foucauldian, then their novels are a performance of the very pleasure in revealing the repressed that Foucault describes.

Any questioning of Victorians, history, and sexuality quickly leads to the formulations of Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, which is premised on revising the notion that from the nineteenth century until the recent past, in the Western world a repressed silence surrounded the subject of sexuality. He opens the first volume of The History of Sexuality, in a chapter entitled "We 'Other Victorians,'" sarcastically narrating: "For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality" (Foucault 3). Foucault labels this set of cultural attitudes about and beliefs toward "our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality" the "repressive hypothesis." Foucault swiftly undercuts this widely-held belief in Victorian repressiveness with both documentation and theorization that in the nineteenth century there was the multiplication of discourse concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself:

an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail. (18)

This Foucauldian notion of a constant "incitement to speak about" sex is the result of what he names a "discursive explosion" (Foucault 17). Although this "explosion" was often produced as a means to contain and control sexuality, Foucault adamantly asserts that the idea that Victorian sexuality was repressed or silent is a modern invention (Foucault 36-49). Many contemporary scholars and theorists of the history of sexuality have accepted Foucault's claim that the repressive hypothesis is invalid; however, Victorian morality remains the beacon of asexuality and prudishness in much of the popular imagination.

Gayle Rubin, in her widely-cited essay, "Thinking Sex," condenses the modern critical perception of the social history and heritage of the Victorian period in the following passage:

There were educational and political campaigns to encourage chastity, to eliminate prostitution, and to discourage masturbation, especially among the young. Morality crusaders attacked obscene literature, nude paintings, music halls, abortion, birth control information, and public dancing. The consolidation of Victorian morality, and its apparatus of social, medical, and legal enforcement, was the outcome of a long period of struggle whose results have been bitterly contested ever since. (Rubin 4)

Rubin's position is clearly Foucauldian: she understands the "apparatus of social, medical, and legal enforcement" as that which functioned to create a set of morals rather than morality being produced out of a repressed silence about sexual matters. However, in her condemnation of the Victorian goal of eliminating the sexual activities she lists in some ways reinscribes the idea that the Victorians were repressed by their morality. She recognizes that they were by no means silent on sexual matters, but it is clear that she regards their attitudes as barbaric.

Postcolonial OV Gender OV Possession Waterland Oscar & Lucinda