Tom Hardy, known for playing rough antiheroes with unintelligible accents, doesn’t immediately come off like a typical Victorian gentleman. Even if you put him in a top hat and account for his considerable acting chops, his crazy-eyed intensity and swaggering aggression contrasts with the stiff-upper-lip archetype most of us picture during the stuffy time period.
Unsurprisingly then, in his new miniseries Taboo, which he co-created with his father and Peaky Blinders’s Steven Knight, Hardy’s character doesn’t exactly fit into 1800s British society. He’s trailed by accusations of madness, lusts after his sister, consorts with brothel owners and tattooed street thugs, and possibly practices some kind of magic. The show is compelling and fun, but surely it can’t be an accurate depiction of 19th century Britain, right?
To find out, Inverse spoke to Sharon Marcus, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the editor in chief of Public Books. Marcus is an expert in 19th century British and French literature and the history of gender and sexuality. Her book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England won the Perkins Prize for best study of narrative, the Albion prize for best book on Britain after 1800, the Alan Bray Memorial award for best book in queer studies, and a Lambda Literary award for best book in LGBT studies. She is currently finishing a book on the history of celebrity. When asked about Taboo, Dr. Marcus said the Victorians were as sexually complex as we are today.
What’s the most common misconception we have about Victorian society?
We now have several primary sources, such as diaries, in which 19th-century people recounted their sexual fantasies and their crushes, but that has done little to dislodge the common misconception that Victorian women did not experience or know about sexual pleasure. The misconception comes from people reading works by a handful of Victorian medical men who would say, “Respectable women do not experience sexual pleasure.” People today treat that as a truth rather than as something a couple of doctors said — because it made them more comfortable to think that women did not experience sexual pleasure, or because the women they spoke with said they didn’t experience sexual pleasure, which might be the answer they felt comfortable giving to a male doctor and not the truth.
It is probably the case that some Victorian women did not have orgasms with their husbands. That is the case of many women having heterosexual sex today, too, but we don’t then extrapolate to conclude that women have no concept of sexual pleasure. There are a lot of documents of women who kept diaries where they recount their sexual fantasies and their crushes.
That extends to another common misconception, which is that lesbians couldn’t exist in the 19th century. The deep-rooted misconception is that women were sexually ignorant.
Is there a particular example of a woman living a life contrary to what many think of as “Victorian?”
There was an actress named Charlotte Cushman who was a star in England and the United States. She played either very powerful women, like Lady Macbeth, or male roles. In her youth, she played Romeo. Women enamored of her would come to her dressing room and give her flowers. In middle-age, she became involved with a very young woman named Emma Crow.
Charlotte had to figure out a way to keep her young lover close to her, so she decided that Emma should marry her nephew, who was also her adoptive son. The two women continued the affair. We know this because they exchanged passionate letters that Emma bequeathed to the Library of Congress. They would spend nights in Paris hotels together — all this while each was married to somebody else. When Emma Crow became pregnant with Charlotte Cushman’s nephew’s son, they had a whole fantasy going about how Charlotte Cushman was somehow also the parent of this child; Cushman referred to herself as “big momma.” It’s definitely not typical, but it’s an example of something that we know actually happened. Charlotte Cushman was an unusual person, but she was a person of her time. She was a 19th-century woman.
Oh the show, Hardy’s character and his sister have an unusual, charged relationship. Was incest more accepted back then than it is now?
It was very similar today in that it was utterly taboo and yet a very common practice as a form of abuse most of the time. I have not come across many instances of consensual sex between family members. I read a lot of Victorian pornography for my book Between Women, because it seemed like an obvious place to test how much the culture did or didn’t acknowledge that sex between women could exist. And I did find that Victorian pornographers wrote a lot about sex between women, and a fair amount about sex between men. But what’s interesting in Victorian pornography is that everyone’s doing everything all the time. You don’t have gay sex and lesbian sex. You have people who just have sex with everybody. It’s as though once they enter the world of pornography, there are no limits.
That certainly does not mean that people were doing this in real life. Then and now, there’s always a real difference between what people are imagining about sex, and what they’re actually doing. It’s important to remember that the Victorians were as complex about that as we are.
Were they more accepting of queerness than we often believe?
Victorian men and women did not have our self-conscious awareness of homosexuality or queerness. By queerness I mean not conforming to gender type, or not conforming to the gender choice associated with your ascribed gender. Certainly, though, if you were a woman who liked wearing pants or wasn’t interested in men, people noticed that. But because there wasn’t the same organized set of categories for classifying different types sexuality that became widespread by the 1920s, there was not the same kind of hostility to queerness. A respectable straight couple might say, “Oh, Frances lives with Mary. Let’s have them over to tea.” We can’t necessarily know if that couple was also thinking, “Let’s have that nice lesbian couple over to tea.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Taboo, with all its sexual eccentricities both historically accurate and anachronistic, premieres on FX January 10.