Desire and voluptuousness: The representation of women in the Victorian Era

By Béa Aaronson


William Holman Hunt Isabella and the Basil Pot 1868

I had the joy and privilege a few months ago to be in Paris, my native city, while the Jacquemart André Museum, on Boulevard Haussmann, was offering a different kind of art exhibition. In a world harassed by noise, violence, angular visions, suicidal installations and stress, here was a collection of Victorian paintings depicting amorously languishing women all dressed up in Greek, Roman, medieval and other exotic apparel. The title of the exhibition was Désir et Volupté à l’époque victorienne, which I almost kept intact for this new lecture. How refreshingly ravishing, I thought, all these hairless slick whitish-pink skins, in flowing pastel silks, flirting with the surface of life. How resting for the gaze, these bouquets and skies unfolding a dreamy landscape of escapism. I truly enjoyed the exquisite Alma-Tademas, Leightons, Goddards, Millais, Rossettis, to name but a few. But for whom was this desire and voluptuousness intended? After savoring this eye candy self-indulging superficial tour of delicate Victorian erotica, I then looked more closely at all these women, and noticed an insidious melancholic, depressive mood, which made me feel ill at ease and startled my curiosity. I could not stop thinking of their state of mind in an era during which women were objectified, used and abused for the pleasure, comfort and security of a deep anchored patriarchal society.

Desire and voluptuousness: The
representation of women in the Victorian Era
Wed, Feb 12, 4:30 and 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde Annex
San Jorge 45
Colonia San Antonio (off Refugio)
130 pesos
Reservations: 121-1026 or


How deceiving were these paintings of saccharine coy femininity. The exhibition was either poorly researched, or worse, willingly ignoring the social and political contexts. So, I decided to give you the true story behind these portraits of longing—despondent, estranged, love-stricken women. I passionately re-acquainted myself with the history of the Victorian Era, and lo and behold, here it was, a total double-standard ideology, a raving hypocrisy, a cruel society, which chose to depict the pleasures of elitist upper class hedonism, far removed from the gruesome reality the rest of the population had to endure.

I have divided this presentation in two parts. First, I shall disclose to you the inner workings of Victorian ideology and social infrastructure, the “upstairs-downstairs” syndrome,

through visits to aristocratic estates and their “slaves,” the staff. I shall also guide you through the stifling world of the rising “Bourgeoisie,” high and middle, the plutocratic, often uneducated emulators of the aristocracy. Women belonging to these three “privileged” social classes were fashion addicts, trophy wives suffering from suffocation, physical and mental —the corset and the home-bound domesticity—but also from a “restricted” sexuality, which drove them near insanity. A “good marriage,” motherhood, playing the piano, needlepoint, pot pourri, flower arranging and dinner parties were the only future they could aspire to, as serious studying was considered “dangerous!”

Then, I shall take you to the other side, the poor side: the lower middle class and working class, whose women had the choice between entering domestic service, becoming nurses or governesses, selling food at the market, or slave labor in factories and sweat shops. No time for melancholic moods here, it was sheer survival. I shall not forget the poorest of the poor and the homeless, for whom there was only one way out: the Work House —a facet of Victorian society which will sting you with horror. I shall also take you to the infamous Asylum, where women of all classes were locked up for reasons ranging from postnatal depression and melancholy, from a simply flirtatious personality to hysteria and insanity, or for even more sordid reasons involving inheritance money and property. I shall open the world of high and low prostitution, child labor, both revealing the immorality of the industrial revolution (the Victorian Age with its flaunting incarcerating morality was a most immoral society.) Women belonging to these underprivileged classes suffered from hunger, domestic violence, rape, disease, having to resort to awful and dangerous activities in order to survive—that is if they had not been already sent to the asylum. Three key words will emerge from this panorama: hierarchy, separation and profit, not necessarily in that order, but totally enmeshed with one another to create a rigid societal code, which I shall probe in all of its repulsive destructive consequences.

In the second part, I will contrast the representation of women in Victorian paintings against this ominous historical back drop, focusing on Victorian sexuality, the Madonna-Whore complex, the virgin mother, the femme fatale, to show you how art, by choosing what to represent, not only allows for monumental misunderstandings, but also creates a collective amnesia from which we still suffer today. Victorian artists will delight you with their delicious palette of colors, with their exquisite draftsmanship, their iconic portrayal of submissive, feminine beauty. But do not be deceived. I will show you how to scratch the surface and you will discover the other side of women’s reality. I invite you to meet these women, through numerous archival photographs and art works, and realize that rich or poor, they all suffered, one way or another, from a total lack of self. One startling painful revelation will be to acknowledge that independent prostitution was one of their ways out to freedom, the beginning of women’s free enterprise!


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