Quick, Jeeves, Cover the Piano Legs!
The Brits thought Americans prudes. But then the table turned.
Nothing sums up the Victorians’ freakish attitudes on sex as the notion that they were aroused by cabinetry. The author Matthew Sweet has shown that this fanciful story actually began with an English tourist in the United States. In 1837, a pompous Captain Frederick Marryat visited a seminary for young ladies in Niagara Falls, where he was astonished to discover the piano legs sheathed in “modest little trousers.” These covers, a local guide confided, were necessary to preserve the “utmost purity of ideas” amongst the impressionable young girls. On another occasion, a Yankee girl told Marryat that even saying the word leg was considered too risqué in America; “limb” was preferred at a pinch. Captain Marryat dutifully recorded these factoids in A Diary in America.
There are no other records of this conservative New York habit; possibly the piano legs were really covered at the seminary to keep off dust. Americans at the time were heartily sick of the endless numbers of gullible English travel writers penning ignorant and patronizing books about their country, and Sweet speculates that the guides and young women at Niagara Falls were just pulling Marryat’s credulous “limb.”
But the British press seized on Marryat’s story with glee. Jokes about idiot Americans hiding their piano legs were repeated in Music Hall songs and newspaper stories for years; eventually, the story became shorthand in the press for America’s pathological prudery. But the story rebounded on the British. In a rare case of historical justice, when Victorians became symbols of uptight sexuality in the 20th century, the same piano story was used about them in plays, novels, and newspaper stories.
Today, despite the lack of evidence, it is still “common knowledge” that Victorians were feverishly hiding anything curved from impressionable eyes.
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians, (London, 2001); Wilson, A.N. The Victorians, (London, 2002).
The Victorians can’t win: Either we see them as sexually repressed kill-joys or pathetic hypocrites — lascivious aesthetes addicted to pornography, child prostitution, and opium. But are the strangest stories true?
“Lie back and think of England”
This pithy advice was supposedly given by Queen Victoria to her 17-year-old daughter, Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, on her wedding night in 1857, and has become a catch-phrase for frigid marital congress. But it is unlikely that the Queen ever said it; the phrase appears to have become common only after her death in 1901. The earliest found use is actually in the unpublished private diary of a certain Lady Hillingham, written in 1912: “I am happy now that (my husband) Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs, and think of England.” As it happens, Queen Victoria appears to have had a healthy interest in sex: Her diary as a young woman, before her figure ballooned and she swaddled herself in lace, is filled with frank references to her husband Albert’s masculine attractions.
Fear of pubic hair
One of the era’s greatest thinkers, John Ruskin, is said to have been so shocked by the discovery of his wife’s pubic hair on his wedding night in Venice that he ran from the room and refused to consummate the marriage. Apparently he had only ever seen ancient Greek statues of the naked female form and assumed that his wife’s nether regions would be as smooth and polished as Ionian marble. We do know that the marriage night did not go as planned: His wife, Effie, eventually accused him of “incurable impotence” and had the marriage annulled in 1854. In a letter, Ruskin later explained his reaction to his wife’s body: “Her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.” In 1965, biographer Mary Lutyens speculated that this must have been his first glimpse of Effie’s delta, but there is no evidence for it. More recently, biographers have suggested that his new wife must have been menstruating on her wedding night, which shocked Ruskin to the core.
Was Prince Albert into genital piercing?
Victoria’s German-born, whisker-bedecked husband is rumored to have had a ring through his foreskin in order to secure his manhood via a chain to either side of his pant leg, in order to control its large size in tight-fitting britches. Actually, the adornment is a modern piercing option today, and happens to be called the Prince Albert. The name’s origin, which dates only back to the 1970s, may have been confused with the German-style watch chain the prince favored, which was commonly called a Prince Albert. • 18 December 2007
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Hall, Leslie, Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain Since 1880 (London, 2000); Sweet, Matthew, Inventing the Victorians (London, 2001).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.