Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art
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Cross-dressing in Victorian England

Zsuzsanna Lukács (Károli University Of the Reformed Church)


The Victorian Period, during which Oscar Wilde and Henry James lived (1832-1901), may be characterized by sexual and moral panic. Religion and social orthodoxies anchored the moral realism of the Victorians, furthermore, the thriving sub-cultural decadent movement. Starting in the late eighteenth century British society invested great efforts in reforming manners and morality in fear of moral and religious degeneration of their nation.

Britain started a crusade against immorality by proclaiming sexual asceticism, self- control, and spiritual and physical purity. Sexual purity and public morality was correlated and aligned with the nation’s body politic. It was believed that sexual purity and morality were the true formations of national honour and that the nation can be judged through the condition of the country’s morals. The moral man and woman was an inspirational image that symbolized the nation. For this reason it was indispensable for Victorian society to implant this moralistic ideology into the minds of the Victorian populace through literature, scientific studies, philosophy, religion, and organizations. British society invested great efforts in reforming manners and in fear of degeneration. I would like to demonstrate this fear by detailing attempts that were employed in the Victorian era to popularize the Christian morals through literature, moral codes and surveillance.(1)

George Mosse’s study of masculinity in The Image of Man (1996) presents the dominant masculine stereotype, the manly ideal of the "moral" Victorian society. At the focus of this was the perfectibility of the male body and soul, which was a sign of a man’s "moral superiority" and "inner strength of character." (2) The body was to be a locus of restraint. Discipline was to be encouraged in order to surmount obstacles and overcome emotional weaknesses. Furthermore, purification and purging the body of its imperfections was encouraged. Thus, this ideal masculinity demands intense effort. Firstly, the man must struggle against himself, conceiving and viewing his body as an enemy, so that he was able to repress his worldly and sexual desires. This meant that bad examples had to be shunned and avoided at all costs. These negative images of desire and decadence were images that were lethal countertypes to man’s spiritual development , therefore causing and posing an immense threat to the healthy body and mind. The nineteenth century synonym for masturbation was "self-pollution", a term that infers self-destruction leading to "enfeeblement", insanity, and even death.

The good of man, the moral ideal, is to be compared with the ideally healthy man who exercises intelligence, strength, and self-control. Thus, encapsulating morality and manliness. This moral ideal was instilled into the Victorians from a very young age.

Manliness in the public schools was seriously instilled, the enjoyment of work and an extraordinary enthusiasm for virtue and morality was encouraged. The Victorians viewed education of young boys and religion inseparable. The aim was to bring the youth to personal and moral maturity. "The application of the doctrine of godliness and good learning to the upbringing of boys in the public schools did much to create that breed of diligent, earnest, intellectual, eminent Victorians which has left its impress on almost every aspect of the age." (3) For British society, manliness meant the application and practice of religious and moral principles, gentlemanly conduct, and intellectual ability. This was what characterized Christian manliness. " Christian manliness is a wonderful thing", noted the Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, addressing the Boys’ Brigade at a convention at the Queen’s Hall, London, on 3 May 1895.(4) This quote reflects that the public schoolboy was associated with training in manliness and morality. The ideal of Christian manliness also known as "muscular Christianity" and associated with Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes was communicated through such media as the Boys’ Brigade, juvenile literature such as Boy’s Own Paper, and the writers for boys, such as George Alfred Henty, whom I will also refer to in relation to the masculine ideal. (5)

The Boys’ Brigade was founded in late Victorian Glasgow. It was said to have "the advantage of Christ’s Kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect and all that tends towards a true Christian Manliness". (6) We can see that the Brigade was a powerful instrument for the spreading of Christian manliness. Their goal was to bring Christianity down to the level of the average Victorian by emphasizing that religion was not a feminine pious affair , but a manly affair and a heroic struggle. This organization inspired its members to abstain from personal comforts and desires. They cultivated truth, self-reliance, and independence.

To accompany this moral attitude juvenile literature , present in the forms of magazines and novels, was also promoted by society to denote sturdy traditional English manliness and morality. One eminent writer of such literature was George Alfred Henty (1832-1902), who published such novels as Held Fast for England (1893). Henty thought himself to be the messenger of manliness, morality, and steadfastness, thus carrying out a similar task to that of the Boys’ Brigade. Almost half of his output included a manly schoolboy who wins victory over his enemies in a far-off British colony. Henty aspired to encourage moral and straight living implementing the public schoolboy hero as the ideal medium.

Supervision, the other means of control, in Victorian Britain worked on multiple levels. The level that I would like to emphasize in a little more detail is surveillance. Surveillance was implemented by societies that quickly spread throughout London and beyond. These groups looked to each other for support and advice. Furthermore, they formed correspondence among themselves to uphold Christian ethics. His enforcement mediated between the Church, the law, and the public sphere. The populace was policed and unethical acts were reported and were taken to legal enforcement. The effect of this coordination on the popular representation of sodomy and transvestitism is graphically demonstrated in documents describing a series of trials that resulted from raids and surveillance on London’s molly houses where homosexual activities took place behind closed doors. These raids were initiated by the societies for the reformation of ethics. The representation of these cases not only reveal the strict moral codes imposed on British society ,but the existence of a highly developed London subculture within which men engaged in physical intimacies with one another. The document entitled SelectTrials indicate that informers went regularly to the London pubs where these men congregated and passed themselves off as sympathetic to their activities. Doing this the informers documented the elaborate rituals that accompanied these transgressive practices. For example, The Select Trials version of the proceeding against Gabriel Lawrence for sodomy indicates what one of the informers testified:

Mother Clap’s house was in Field-Lane, it was notorious for being a molly-house. I have been there several times in order to detect those who frequented it. I have seen twenty or thirty of them hugging and making love in an indecent manner. Then they used to go out by couples into another room and when they had come back they would tell me what they had been doing, which in their dialect they call’d marrying (SELECT TRIALS)(7)

This account highlights the activities of the molly house as a parodic re-enactment of the sacramental and legal affirmation of marriage. The accounts go even further into depth referring to the inner room where sexual relations took place as "the chapel", thus, indicating that the partners involved in the sexual act were designated as "husbands" and "wives". After the intercourse some men enacted childbirth sometimes even baptizing their newborn. The source Select Trials focus is depicting the transgression against the laws of man and the laws of ethics in Victorian England, which gives the readers a great insight into the Victorian social context.

To present in more detail the moral codes of Victorian society I would like to draw attention to a notorious legal case in London during the 1870s of Boulton and Park, two young men who were arrested under the Vagrancy Act as they left the Strand theatre on 28 April, 1870 because they were dressed in female attire. Their case was heard at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court where the Prosecution alleged that they and other accomplices had frequented the Strand Theatre with the intention of committing a felony. Their case, which was often cited as the forerunner of the Oscar Wilde trials has received great attention and scrutiny.

The appearance of Mr. Boulton and Mr. Park before the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court was quite something extraordinary and eccentric indeed. Boulton wore a cherry coloured evening dress made of silk; his arms were bare and he wore a wig and plaited chignon. Park’s ensemble consisted of a dark-green satin dress , low-necked and trimmed with black lace. Boulton and Park had been under surveillance for over twelve months. The problem was that the police had not been certain whether they were women who occasionally dressed as men or men who dressed as women. They had frequented multiple theatres in both men’s and women’s clothing. When they were apprehended they were accompanied by two gentlemen. Boulton and Park visited other public resorts like music halls, in female clothing, but their most conspicuous appearance was at amateur theatricals, which was later to be the reason for their acquittal in 1871. Performing as an amateur actor on stage provided the only excuse for the existence of such a large wardrobe of female attire. Park had played a female role in a piece entitled RETAINED FOR THE DEFENCE.(8)

The Strand Theatre where Boulton and Park were arrested had been a leading place of burlesque in London. The Daily Telegraph indicated that the burlesque and the androgynous actors appearing on stage is a grave ethical question and indecency since it leads to the appearance of drag in public places, note the Boulton and Park case as the example (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, 31 May, 1876).

How drag originated we do not pretend to know. But it appears that for some years past it has been the fancy of some empty headed, effeminate young men to play female parts in amateur theatricals. The public stage may have suggested, by contrast, to the theatre-going youths, the idea of such a transformation. The modern burlesque relies for success on the adoption of male costume by handsome and well-made young women. The leading actresses all want to be young Princes, and so forth. An assiduous study of this noble form of drama may, perhaps, have put it into the heads of one or two of these young men that it would be a clever thing to turn the effeminacy of their own features to account by playing women’s parts, just as women on the regular stage made up as young men. This seems to have been the beginnings of a course of disguises which, on the assumption most favourable on the prisoners, seems to have gone beyond the bounds of decency…They went to the theatre , took private boxes, talk with this man, and that, and whether dressed as men or women, contrived , it would seem, to convey the impression that they were women. (DAILY TELEGRAPH, 1876)

Their behaviour sets a tension between spectatorship and performance. Their inclination for exhibitionism and their ambiguous impact of their appearance signifies hat they were not concerned with passing in one gender or the other , but their desire was to question mid-Victorian parameters of both gender and moral codes of behaviour. Boulton’s and Park’s cross-dressing occurred both on and off the stage (in theatre foyers, at boat races, and in restaurants). The amateur stage was a legitimate site, but parading on the streets and in public spheres was just unbearable for mid-Victorian society and very unethical. Their cross-dressing off stage was a disturbing critique of peceived gender, conventionality, and morality. They wished to erode the boundaries of gender performance , but society caught them and made them stop their ‘plot’. Why were they a threat to set moral standards of Victorian society? They represented unfathomable desires and offered surrogate gender alternatives. Their behaviour sheds light on the rigidly stratified notions of gender and morality held by the Victorian public.(9) They wilfully wanted to confuse distinctions of gender and class, which it was imperative to keep distinct in their society. Therefore, such men and women who expose themselves in this manner in public embody a foreign infection which is linked to a social disorder. It is controversial because it raises disturbing questions about desire and social representation, which Victorian society meant to restrain and keep intact. Park’s and Boulton’s endeavour in transgression was a celebration of deviance. Their cross-dressing involved the inversion and displacement of gender binaries. It transgressed the natural and fixed order of things. We all have the desire to do this perhaps because it is a stimulus for thought, and hollows out the deep self. It is a release from the correlatives of dominant morality. Boulton and Park recognized this and found pleasure because it gave rise to fantasy. Sexual anger was their stimulus. An angry repudiation of sexual repressiveness enforced by normality.

© Zsuzsanna Lukács (Károli University Of the Reformed Church)


(1) Binhammer, Katherine, "The Sex Panic of the 1790s" In The Journal of History of Sexuality, 1996 (6:3), 1996 Jan., pg.209

(2) Mosse, George, The Image of Man: the creation of modern masculinity (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), pg. 30

(3) Warren, Allen, "Popular Manliness" In Manliness and Morality (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pg 51-53

(4) ibid, g. 52

(5) ibid, pg. 52

(6) ibid, pg. 53

(7) Davis, Jim, "Androgynous Cliques" In Nineteenth Century Theater ,1998 (26:1), 1998 Summer, pg. 49-50

(8) ibid, pg. 53

(9) Dollimore, Jonathan, Sexual Dissidence (Claredon, Oxford University Press, 1991), pg. 32

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art

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Zsuzsanna Lukács (Károli University Of the Reformed Church): Cross-dressing in Victorian England. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_5/lukacs16.htm

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