Those naughty Victorians who got us all spanking

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Spanking and erotic stories are no stranger to each other, but where did it all start? We asked Violet Fenn to give us a glimpse into the saucy reading habits of the naughty Victorians and why they enjoyed a good thrashing between the pages.

Spanking and flagellation were popular topics in erotic literature of the nineteenth century, almost certainly encouraged by the very Victorian belief that any sexual desires that didn’t fit the ‘norm’ probably deserved to be punished.

It would be unwise to put one’s own experiences down in writing during an era in which one could be declared mad and locked up for not following society’s rules, so it’s little wonder that evidence of nineteenth-century thrashings is restricted mostly to fiction (even if some of it is almost certainly based on thinly disguised reality).

Algernon Charles Swinburne was a novelist, playwright and would-be deviant, his poetry covering topics such as sadomasochism and lesbianism, then considered totally taboo in polite society. Famous mostly for Poems and Ballads, published in 1866, he also wrote rather more inflammatory erotica under the pseudonym Etonensis (‘of Eton’).

One of the most notable of these poems was ‘Arthur’s Flogging’, a lengthy paean to the joys of flagellation which was published as part of The Whippingham Papers, a collection of sado-masochistic writings, in 1887. Up against competition from such wonderfully named authors as ‘Allan Bummingham’ and ‘Castigator’, Swinburne certainly didn’t hold back on the detail:

‘[…] Arthur, with cold trembling fingertips.
Stood fumbling at his waistband and braces,
Then bared the fleshy parts about his hips,
And let his trousers fell about his heels.
And showed a pair of buttocks full of weals
A pretty pair of buttocks, round and plump,
With red points here and there, that seemed to dot ‘em,

Despite his clear knowledge and experience of corporal punishment, Swinburne was widely considered to be all talk and no trousers, eager to promote himself as a sexual deviant without necessarily having the real-life experience to back it up.

George Augustus Sala was a renowned newspaper journalist and writer, who was often commissioned by Charles Dickens. In 1882, however, Sala’s mind had clearly been swimming rather lower in the culture pool, with the publication of The Mysteries of Verbena House, or, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving, co-authored with James Campbell Reddie.

Old photo of naughty Victorians enjoying spankingThe eponymous Verbena House is, in Sala’s story, an exclusive girls’ school in Brighton which is overseen by headmistress Miss Sinclair, a lady who is not a fan of the ‘solitary vice’ – masturbation, to you and I. She gradually learns the delicate art of chastisement with the help of the Rev. Calvedon, an old Etonian who believes that no sin should go unpunished. Calvedon himself is clearly motivated by the voyeuristic aspect of flogging.

However, human sexuality being what it is, not everyone in the story sees suffering as a bad thing. Clara Bowley is an ex-pupil of Verbena House, whose father removed her from the school when Miss Sinclair refused the ‘caleçon preventif’ – a chastity belt, in effect – which he had sent for his daughter’s use. Cara was thrashed soundly on her return home, which her father believed had ‘cured’ her of her nocturnal habits. He might not have been as successful as he’d hoped, as this excerpt from a later conversation between Clara and her husband illustrates:

‘“I should like you a great deal better if you flogged me,” thinks Clara. The knots of the old admiral’s cat-o’-nine-tails yet tingle on her rump, and set her thoughts on fire. In destroying one devil of lubricity her father had only awakened another.”

But back to Verbena House. The author talks at some length about the different ways of punishing a young lady who strays from the proper path, alongside discussion of spankings and thrashings and how they not only differ but also somehow lack class, in comparison with true flagellation. We hear of the daughter of a Yorkshire baronet who is thrashed as punishment for soiling her bloomers and as a result, ‘never dirtied them again.’

Old photo of naughty Victorians enjoying spankingBy the time we get to the sorry tale of Catherine Bellasis – senior pupil, lady and thief – we can be confident that Miss Sinclair is prepared to thrash to a professional level when so required. Upon the discovery of her crime – stealing from another pupil and laying the blame on a third – Catherine is sent to await her fate in the Red Room, a bed-chamber lined with crimson baize which one can only assume Christian Grey would have given his amateurish whipping hand to have owned.

Miss Sinclair becomes feverish with unaccustomed excitement at the thought of thrashing such a beautiful young woman.

‘[…]her blood was in a ferment. She felt hot between the thighs. She had detected, by touch, a slight dampness there; so straddling across her bidet, she laved the hot, moist parts with water […]’

Many pages are devoted to Miss Sinclair’s erotically charged conversation with the Rev. Calvedon as to the correct way to administer Catherine’s punishment, the headmistress clearly struggling to control her hitherto undiscovered urges.

As for Catherine, the victim-hero of this tale? She is forcibly stripped and restrained in front of her peers and thrashed seemingly endlessly by an increasingly excited Miss Sinclair, who doesn’t even notice the houseboy masturbating in the corner, unable to control himself at the sight. The young lady’s plight is too much for the onlookers, who are each driven into paroxysms of confused desire, with no real knowledge of why. Our happy (for some) tale ends with Miss Sinclair and the Reverend joining forces in their sexual indulgences, ruling Verbena House with an air of kindly sadism and an eye for any young lady in need of ‘correction’.

Cultural pressure to fit a very strict ‘norm’ and no outlet for those naughty Victorians with more adventurous desires – one can only begin to imagine how many new and illicit fantasies were sparked by a Victorian reader’s happy discovery of some of these tales.

by Violet Fenn

Violet Fenn has always been fascinated by the psychology behind human behaviour and sexuality. She specialises in frank and straightforward investigations into the wilder areas of sexual practices and the changing cultural attitudes towards sex and mortality. Her first nonfiction book, ‘Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain’, came out in March and her second, ‘The Vampire in Popular Culture’ will be published in early 2021 (both via Pen & Sword Books). She firmly believes that black is the happiest colour and that there is no such thing as too much red lipstick.

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