English, Department of



Marianne Burton

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 46 (2015)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


Readers, in my experience, often make an assumption that unmarried girls in nineteenth century novels know nothing about sex, and this seems to be particularly the case regarding Dorothea Brooke. Had she only known about sex, so the adage goes, she would never have made her disastrous marriage choice. In this article I would like to examine this assumption in closer detail, looking not just at Dorothea and Celia, but also Rosamond Vincy and Mary Garth. I do not necessarily want to turn the notion on its head - I am not going to claim these girls were closet readers of de Sade - but I would like to open up the field a little and suggest sexual ignorance among unmarried girls in the nineteenth-century novel may not be as straightforward as readers sometimes imagine.

There is a tendency to regard nineteenth-century sexual knowledge and ignorance as binary concepts, you either knew about sex or you didn't. It is much more complicated than this. Helena Michie in her 2006 monograph, Victorian Honeymoons: Journey to the Conjugal, entitles one of her chapters 'Carnal Knowledges' to emphasize the multitude of knowledges that were possible and how difficult it is to formulate modem day generalizations about nineteenth-century sexual knowledge, even after marriage. What did a Victorian wife know and what did a Victorian husband know? What did they assume each other knew? How much conversation did couples have about what they knew, felt or liked, or what their sexual experience had been prior to marriage (if any)? What did the family doctor know and what did he advise? Did he, for example, know about female orgasm, or advise couples about natural methods of contraception such as withdrawal or intercrural sex? What advice would have been given by friends, siblings and parents? Whatever assumptions we make when reading a novel, we are almost certainly not considering the full extent of our historical ignorance on the subject.