What Happened To Dr. Jekyll In The Age of Victorian Porn?

With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.

—Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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Post Mortem. 19th century, photograph. English.

As people move through the day, they plaster their faces with polite expressions and actively hide their inner conflicts. They become walls of secrecy, pillars of decency, carefully constructed lies—whatever it takes to assure outsiders of their moral compliance. But these falsehoods are only a cover for what lurks within our hearts and the strange, unexplainable ways we long to express ourselves. As an outsider looking in, it’s almost impossible to imagine most people doing anything unseemly, as they smile and laugh and feign concern, and yet their faces behind closed doors are surely anything but saintly. Even the terribly religious and soft-spoken among us are guilty of the same base jealousies, violent whims, and physical yearnings as they rest, albeit their control is held fast by fear. On a cellular level, we humans are all capable of succumbing to our baser desires. They have been deeply welded into our bones by nature, since the moment we sprang from the muck, and teased out over thousands of years to our shared horror and amazement. We work hard to hide these kernels of wickedness from those who may judge, but they remain always below the surface, running like a dark, shameful river through the bloodstream—that is, until they are given license to rise up and bare their devilish teeth, gleeful to have finally found a moment of freedom and appeasement.

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Zdzisław Beksiński. Oil painting on hardboard, 20th century. Polish.

Thematically, this truth of human duality has played out in all aspects of art, literature, music—and of course, history. The Victorians who lived over 150 years ago during the reign of Queen Victoria offer the perfect canvas for studying this social phenomenon—or history of human hypocrisy—as their abrupt societal transition from the simple to sophisticated gave them license to finally express some of their secret longings. As a frightfully repressed society, the London Victorians are a glorious example of what happens when ignorance and shame eat away at the essential fibers of humanity until there is nothing left to do but release them, no matter what. And in the case of the uptight Victorians, this release came in several forms, the most amusing being their delightfully odd relationship to pornography.

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19th century, photograph. English.

Britain became the richest and most powerful country in the world during the Victorian period, which prompted many citizens in rural villages to hop a train or boat towards urban townships, where their farming jobs were soon replaced by those of clerks, factory workers, and hard laborers. And as their conveniences grew—from piped water, gas, and eventually electricity—so did their sense of the world, their bodies, their appetites, and all that they had to offer. The Victorian population literally doubled during this time, causing a massive demand for food, clothing, and shelter—but also for more fitting expressions of amusement, identity, and sex. In fact, the Victorians have been marked by history as a glorious example of what happens when polite, civil society gives themselves license to embrace the forbidden fruit and celebrate their own inner wickedness—all while still maintaining a fierce show of societal decency. And so a magnificent display of hypocrisy was born, as these puritanical, heavily-clothed English men and women delivered some of the most prolific and devilish erotica to date.

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19th century, photograph. French.

Pornography as a form of self-expression is nothing new. Excavations of ancient Roman ruins have proven the folks who came before had precisely the same fondness for smut as those who live today. But the ancient admiration of joyful sex was rooted in something a bit more poetic, like the appreciation of the god Priapus, the protector of livestock, gardens, and male genitalia. Most noted for his oversized erection, this beacon of male fertility gave rise to the term priapism, otherwise known as the condition where a man’s penis remains erect for hours without any form of outside stimulation. While this marvel may sound appealing to some, it was a problem for poor Priapus who had been cursed by the formidable goddess Hera from ever using his giant boner for pleasure. But troubled Priapus was not the only symbol of this conflicted state—almost every documented civilization on earth, modern or ancient, has engaged in some form of erotic depiction through paintings, sculptures, photographs, writings, and other art. Some early cultures felt so strongly about the importance of sex, they credited its joy to supernatural forces and weaved it into their religions. They were thankful for its glory, its release, and its ability to bring them physical happiness.

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Priapus. 1st century, wall fresco. Casa dei Vetti, Pompei, Rome.

But we are not talking about toga-wearing perverts out celebrating Lupercalia—we are talking about Victorian England where women were expected to wear gloves in public, cover their ankles, and pray to God they never brushed up against scandal if they hoped to successfully marry. Women were banned from riding bikes or horses and were even institutionalized for masturbating too much. Medical journals from the period were riddled with sexual misinformation and offered very little in the way of education, suggesting orgasms depleted a person’s energy and ability to think straight. But despite these deterrents, Victorians managed to adopt a highly complex and broad sense of human sexuality while simultaneously touting its overall indecency. This devilishly dark and romantic sense of human duality fueled much of the Victorian culture and provided a valuable way to entertain the undeniable nature of even the most respectable members of society.

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19th century, photograph. English.

This awakening of socially repressed feelings and behaviors welcomed in the pursuit of physical pleasure while maintaining a firm grip on the need for respectability. This struggle between inner demons and outer godliness led many members of the upper class to assume a sort of double identity, a phenomenon most eloquently summed up in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The book’s theme of a public vs. private personae, or dual existence, created an artistic forum to examine the dark and hidden desires of people and how they manifest themselves in a disapproving environment.

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Actor Richard Mansfield as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1887, photo manipulation. German.

The protagonist, Dr. Jekyll, spends his days trying to repress the unacceptable urges beating in his blood and eventually becomes so vulnerable to their call, he creates a serum to transport his mind into another state where he assumes the identity of Mr. Hyde, a diabolical man who knows nothing of guilt, remorse, or morality. But after he repeatedly lapses into this nefarious alter ego, Dr. Jekyll’s personality becomes haunted by the mysterious and violent tendencies of Mr. Hyde, who grows steadily in power and eventually manifests whenever Dr. Jekyll shows signs of physical or moral weakness. Dr. Jekyll soon finds himself drinking the potion regularly as a way to escape the increasing strength of the vicious Mr. Hyde, who has already murdered at least one person. And soon, Mr. Hyde takes over entirely, at which point Dr. Jekyll must drink the potion to simply return to himself. But the serum somehow loses its potency, and Dr. Jekyll finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a permanent state of malevolence. At last, he surrenders to his fate and commits suicide to protect polite society from the dark deeds of his secret personality.

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Steven DaLuz. Self Portrait Duo. 21st century, oil painting on metal leaf. American.

While regularly treating the topic of sex as taboo, the Victorians simultaneously began to embrace their baser instincts through a unique pornographic display. As a society, people recognized prostitution, masturbation, homosexuality, and drunkenness as four great evils, which of course made them the perfect fodder for sexually explicit material. Because English society saw absolute poverty living alongside supreme luxury, one in six women turned to prostitution at some point for their survival. In 1887, there were believed to be 80,000 working whores in London alone—or three percent of the city’s population. With this kind of mixed messaging, it’s no wonder the average Londoner commiserated with the troubles of Dr. Jekyll—keeping it all in their pants must have been a challenge indeed. But much like the people of today, Victorians were not able to accept this duplicity in nature and continued to insist there were only two kinds of women—the highly sexual and the frigid. Anything more nuanced or complicated was dangerous territory and blurred the accepted definition of a normal, respectable female.

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19th century, photograph. English.

In the mid to late 1800s, a well-known gynecologist and surgeon named Isaac Baker-Brown suggested masturbation in women was, in fact, a form of epilepsy and began performing a rampant number of clitorectomies around London. Although his procedures to treat “hysteria” and “mental instability” were nothing more than genital mutilation, the good doctor managed to drum up quite a booming business for himself in the upstanding neighborhood of Notting Hill. After using his scalpel to slice away the soft, pink clitoral hood and relative glans of his female patients, Baker-Brown would then decide if the outer labia needed attention as well. In extreme cases, he may have also gutted the inner labia and vulva in a procedure known as infibulation and replaced the organs with a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid. No one really knows what he did in the privacy of his operating room, because his methods were unchecked and propelled by a misogynistic obsession with female arousal. Quite predictably, the highest concern for everyone involved was for the vagina to be left open for intercourse and future childbirth.

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Maygrier, Nouvelles. Vaginal examination. Etching, 1825. Wellcome Library, London.

This ferocious and cruel approach ensured there would be no feel-good effect of masturbation and provided a “quick fix” for men looking to control or alter the behavior of women. Baker-Brown was eventually banned from the London Obstetrical Society and went insane, but not before he ruined the lives, both sexual and otherwise, of countless young females. Despite—or perhaps because of—these terrifyingly limited viewpoints, Victorian porn took a rather liberal view of women’s bodies, often showing them in positions of natural dominance and freedom, capable of harnessing their own joy for maximum pleasure. So, as women on the streets of London were trying to skirt society’s diabolical medical beliefs, they were simultaneously being enticed to embrace their own hidden sexuality behind well-closed doors.

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19th century, photograph. French.

Although this artistic medium was intended to titillate and amuse others, there’s no denying its innocent nature and almost tentative approach to sex—as if the performers are not entirely sure they are doing it right. As a period of sexual awakening, Victorian porn shed new light on women as natural benefactors of their own physical pleasure, without fear or concern for their appearance or reputation. Like Dr. Jekyll, there is a hint of polite society within the images, from the top hats to the gartered legs; however, the dildos and birch rods and scenes of shooting cum are all Mr. Hyde. Of course, mischievous sex is a far cry from Hyde’s alleged crime of murder, but the parallel is engaging in the way it confirms the universal truth that humanity’s darker inclinations will always find an escape, no matter how thoroughly they are denied. (Hear that, religion?) And it also bolsters the fear-based idea that if we readily give into them, we will somehow end up like Dr. Jekyll, incapable of controlling our slow descent toward the perverse. It is a theory without checks or balances. But this reality did not stop London shoppers on the infamous Holywell street from hovering outside certain shop windows to ogle the lewd photos within, the shopkeeper ever watchful of an undercover policeman.

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19th century, photograph. A crowd of shoppers pore over the “sin-crammed shop windows” of Holywell Street in the late 19th century. London.

Much like a tramp wearing a cheap, ill-fitting dress, Victorian pornography often evokes more empathy than it does lust. This is partly due to its all-too-human effect, complete with soft tummies and wild pubic hair, which seem to highlight the more vulnerable side of human sexuality. Again this brings up the delicate image of Dr. Jekyll who felt weak in the face of temptation and tentatively relinquished himself to the role of Mr. Hyde. And as his evil pleasure grew, much like a physical climax, Dr. Jekyll was unable to resist any longer and eventually surrendered to its call—a decision that gave him supreme pleasure and vast amounts of guilt. While the pornographic images themselves are not angry or violent per se, their love for a sound whipping conjures up memories of a repressive Etonic upbringing, where the threat of violence ushered in the sexual awakening of adolescence.

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20th century, photograph. American.

These “punishments” also likely felt like fitting treatment for anyone filthy enough to partake in such shenanigans—like a child who has done something terribly wrong. And as the inhuman practices around masturbation and female hysteria continued well in the early 1900s—even as the medical world began to dissent—the sweet freedom of Victorian porn began to take on more of a rebellious feeling, where women were liberated to claim their bodies as temples rather than ghettos. Given the medical antidote to this “moral leprosy” included treating genitals with blistering agents, acidic solutions, and even bloodletting leeches on the penis or labia, Victorian porn must have felt like a safe haven from the evils of morality.

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19th century, photograph. French.

Of course, Dr. Jekyll’s condition could also easily be likened to that of a homosexual male in Victorian times, whose sexual proclivities were legally targeted by statutes like the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Strangely enough, this law did not apply to women, however, as Queen Victoria refused to believe such a thing existed and would not sign a law to that effect. As a result, lesbianism became something of a myth, which was often explored in Victorian porn. So, while gay men could be incarcerated, subjected to hard labor, or even executed, gay women were considered nothing more than “companions.”

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Lesbians. 19th century, photograph. English.

To exist as a homosexual male in Victorian times was paramount to living as a human abomination and posed an overt threat to everyone involved. Prior to 1861, homosexuality and sodomy were capital offenses punishable by public execution. When seen in this way, Dr. Jekyll’s temptation toward the dark side was not really a lewd and immoral desire, but rather a genetically hardwired inclination made more painful by society’s refusal to accept it. Whether or not Jekyll actually was gay is beside the point—it was fear of his unidentified “desires” that made him lapse into Mr. Hyde, whatever they may have been. As such, Dr. Jekyll became a perfect symbol for all the men and women in Victorian society who either lusted after the wrong person, pleasured themselves too readily, or refused to be held hostage by the sexual puritanism of the age. And further, his final suicide was a blazing reminder of just how serious it was to give in to such urges while still attempting to live a respectable life. The line between human truth and human pretense was tenuous at best, and to cross it willingly was both dangerous and thrilling.

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19th century, photograph. English.

More than anything, Dr. Jekyll’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens to man when he allows the dark side to triumph—as his suicide suggests there is no clear path of return for such sinners. Its very existence violates the definition of civilization. Violence, greed, shame, ignorance, and all of our other base qualities must be held at bay if we hope to advance… toward the light, towards God, towards progress. The messaging has always been, we are better than that. But the lingering question is, are we? Both Dr. Jekyll’s story, the rise of Victorian porn, and frankly a bazillion other dark history tales would suggest we most certainly are not, as fighting our inner demons only makes them stronger and more resilient. We can pray, we can pretend, and we can hide from our dark desires, but at the end of the day, they must be accepted, both in ourselves and others. Rather than blinking in horror and defeat, human beings must consent to their own nature and find ways to lighten their load through self-absolution. And fortunately for us, the more we allow the truths of who we are to surface, the easier they are to understand—to control. Pretending they don’t exist or settling for bizarre reenactments is just a one-way ticket to misery, as the truth cannot be suffocated or denied. And just a like a good old-fashioned mind-bending orgasm, surrendering to the universal truths of our own human nature will set us free.

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19th century, photograph. French.

And the rest is history.

*This article is dedicated to my dear husband on our 20th wedding anniversary! You are the king of dirty and my very best friend. I love you!

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