Some common misconceptions about Victorian morality  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Various misconceptions exist on Victorian morality and more specifically on Victorian sexuality. Part II of Schnitzler's Century neatly summarizes them.

Contents

Saying "limb" instead of "leg"

It has often been said that Victorian prudery sometimes went so far as to deem it improper to say "leg" in mixed company; instead, the preferred euphemism “limb” was used.

Covering piano "legs"

There is a myth that furniture such as tables were covered with embroidery and tablecloths so that table and piano legs were hidden from view, and covered with tiny pantalettes or shawls. No historical evidence suggest that this was actually practiced. If the shawls hid anything, it was the cheapness of the furniture. There are references to lower-middle-class families covering up their pine tables rather than show that they couldn't afford mahogany. The piano leg story seems to have originated in Captain Frederick Marryat's 1839 book, Diary in America ("a square piano-forte with four limbs"), as a satirical comment on American prissiness. Other sources state that this myth was started by Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832).

Bathing machines and nude swimming

Those going for a swim in the sea at the beach would use a bathing machine. However, historians Peter Gay (Schnitzler's Century) and Michael Mason (The Making of Victorian Sexuality) both point out that we often confuse Victorian etiquette for a lack of knowledge. For example, despite the use of the bathing machine, it was still possible to see people bathing nude.

Queen Victoria's male nude collection

Another example of the gap between common preconceptions of Victorian sexuality and historical record is that, contrary to what might be expected, Queen Victoria liked to draw and collect male nude figure drawings. In 1857, she even gave the monumental photography The Two Ways of Life to her husband Prince Albert as a present.




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