“When I First Met the Father…”: Love and Lust in the Time of Victoria

by | July 18, 2021 | General | 1 comment

Last month, we learned about the secret erotic portrait Queen Victoria presented to her beloved husband Prince Albert for his twenty-fourth birthday. This month, we’ll leave the hushed grandeur of the royal boudoir and take a stroll through the gritty “drawing room” of the streets to explore the erotic life of the workingmen and woman of Victorian London.

A recurring theme of this column is the difficulty of finding reliable information on the erotic lives of those who lived in centuries past. We must rely on the exaggerations of period pornography, the occasional explicit diary, sociological data about marriages and births, and our own imaginations to read between the lines. Now and then, however, we come upon a treasure that satisfies our desire to know the truth about our ancestor’s intimate experiences.

So if you want inspiration for your tale of Victorian-era lust and love, or are just interested in the history of sexuality, I have just the book for you: Francoise Barret-Ducrocq’s Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality and Desire Among Working-Class Men and Women in 19th Century London.

Barret-Ducrocq’s book provides us with a rare treasure–the amorous experiences of nineteenth-century working-class women told in their very own words. Barret-Ducrocq brought the past alive by studying the application files of the Thomas Coram Foundling Hospital in London from the 1850s through the 1880s. While it may at first sound dry and scholarly, the results of her research are fascinating.

The founder of this groundbreaking charitable institution, Thomas Coram (1668-1751), was a wealthy English sea captain who spent some time in colonial America and served as a trustee of the Georgia colony. While doing business in London, he was appalled to see babies left to die on the side of the road. Coram felt this state of affairs was not worthy of a civilized nation like Britain. After seventeen years of effort, he finally received a royal charter to open a hospital to care for children at risk for abandonment and raised funds from many wealthy donors. Children were first admitted to temporary quarters in 1741, and the main hospital was completed in 1745. Famed artist William Hogarth donated the above portrait of Thomas Coram to the hospital and Handel gave performances as fund-raisers in the mid-1700s. An estimated 25,000 children were cared for over a period of 200 years. The hospital closed when the last child was placed in family foster care in 1954.

By the way, Hogarth’s portrait is said to portray Coram’s seafaring endeavors on the left side and an unwed mother and child veiled by a curtain on the right to represent his charitable work. I’m unable to discern the hidden mother and child—so let me know if you see anything. On the other hand, it might be fitting that the figures are indeed invisible to the probing eye!

The Foundling Hospital had a good reputation as place where illegitimate children were well treated and got a decent start in life, but in spite of its name, an unwed mother couldn’t just leave her child on the doorstep. The institution most certainly didn’t want to reward the prostitute’s profession in any way. Rather the hospital directors sought to help women who had been taken against their will or tricked by a false promise of marriage. Accordingly, the unwed mother who sought a place for her child had to undergo a rigorous application process to assess her circumstances and character. The most important element was a detailed, handwritten (or dictated) confession, which always began with the words: “When I first met the Father….”

The woman was then required to:

“… give the exact circumstances of her encounter with the child’s father; bring the smallest memories to life—the intensity of her feelings, how long they lasted, where the act of love was performed; protest her innocence or admit her connivance and, sometimes, her own desire; give the names of relatives, employers, notables, family doctors, parsons, and ask for their corroboration. Finally, she had to produce any material evidence that would help pin down the truth about sex and amorous relations: letters arranging meetings, love letters, farewell letters, letters to and from friends and relatives.” (Love in the Time of Victoria, 42)

There is no doubt this process was invasive and voyeuristic, although the interviewers at the time no doubt saw it as their moral duty to select the deserving poor for their charity.

What their snooping has left for posterity is a wealth of explicit confessions that give us details of how working-class people of the nineteenth century flirted, what sort of man young women found attractive, where couples went to make love, and how their community responded to pregnancy out of wedlock when the man could not or would not marry his lover. (It is estimated that 40% of working-class women were pregnant when they married in 1850). The majority of these confessions are in fact stories of love, at least for a short duration. A very few even have happy endings—the child was collected from the hospital because relatives agreed to raise her, or in one case, the mother married the child’s father five years later and the family reunited. (Love in the Time of Victoria, 164)

The preciousness of such a resource is confirmed by the fact that soon after the archives were opened to scholars like Barret-Ducrocq in the 1970s, the directors decided to close them again in 1980 to protect the privacy of the living descendants. In her book, Barret-Ducrocq wrote that the records she studied would not be available again until 2030. I see that the gatekeepers are apparently less protective today: the Foundling Museum now reports that records over 110 years old are available at the London Metropolitan Archives.

Have I piqued your curiosity about these first-person accounts of ill-fated Victorian lovers? Then join me next month for some highlights from the vault! In the meantime, you can explore poignant stories from more recent former “pupils” on the Foundling Museum website.

Write on!

(Portrait of Thomas Coram by William Hogarth courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/  

1 Comment

  1. Lisabet Sarai

    A rich trove indeed!

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