Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 June 2021
Though the history of sexuality has diversified and enlarged our understanding of Victorian culture and practices, literary criticism, influenced by the courtship plots of canonical novels, has lagged behind. Even as we denounced a generation of historians and scholars for thinking Victorians were repressed, we canonized a literature based on heteronormative courtship narratives and traditional gender roles. We then critiqued that literature for adhering to – or championed it for subverting – those traditional narratives. In fact, Victorian fiction was always wilder and woollier than we gave it credit for being. Drawing on multiple novels, including examples by Wilkie Collins, William Ainsworth, and George Meredith, as well as the history of sexuality, including texts by Elizabeth Blackwell and Havelock Ellis, this essay surveys instances in which non-reproductive sexuality – pre- and extramarital flirtations, same-sex eroticism, desirous ephebes, and other kinds of non-genital or unconsummated sexual activities – are presented as typical behaviors within the novel. Just as conventional marital plots provide form for instances of what scholars have understood as managed desire, these texts suggest other formal possibilities and properties – rather than arcs of crisis and resolution, they may offer more episodic structures of sustained, oscillating, or unresolved tensions.