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Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism Hardcover – February 14, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Lutz (The Dangerous Lover), a professor of Victorian literature and culture at Long Island University, explores that era as one of sexual and erotic experimentation, when an artist like Dante Gabriel Rossetti used a prostitute as a model in a painting of Mary Magdalene, and even "respectable gentlemen" sought "young grenadiers" for anonymous sex in public toilets. Artists and writers produced sexually themed writing and painting that unsettled Victorians by evincing radical ideas about sexual freedom, women's rights, and religious doubt. Rossetti brought sensuality to his paintings of sickness and death. His devout yet daring sister Christina's work reforming prostitutes inspired her own lush sensual verse. Richard Burton, the secret agent and explorer, wrote how-to manuals on sexual positions; and Algernon Charles Swinburne published verse on hermaphrodites, bisexuals, sexual sadists, incest, and the femme fatale, and loved being flogged by prostitutes dressed as schoolmasters and mistresses. Lutz's long-winded meanderings often erode the sexiness of her subject matter, but this is a perceptive, thorough assessment of Victorian erotica and those defiant ones who crafted it. 8 pages of color and 5 b&w illus. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

Think of Victorians: what comes to mind? Chairs swathed with fabric so that their wooden legs or “limbs” did not suggest sex? Uptight men whose wives were “angels in the house”? Certainly, but what about Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, Richard Burton? Lutz argues that they defined the period as fully as Victoria herself, draped in endless mourning for her Prince Albert. In this compellingly written multiple biography, Lutz explores two groups that formed themselves around strong personalities: the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood gathered around poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the Cannibal Club founded by explorer Burton. These groups, she argues, created an opening for today’s more sexually tolerant society, especially in terms of acceptance of homosexuality. While many of the more flamboyant characters of the period are relatively unknown today—artist Simeon Solomon, for instance, or hedonist Bunny Arbuthnot—those more familiar (William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, Ford Madox Brown) were just as sexually adventurous, with partner exchange, rough trade, and other unconventionalities abounding. Filled with raw and raucous detail, this book is a lasting contribution to understanding a complex and dynamic era. --Patricia Monaghan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (February 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393068323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393068320
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,456,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Deborah Lutz lives in Brooklyn. She is an Associate Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture in the Department of English at Long Island University, C.W. Post. Her scholarship focuses on material culture; the history of attitudes toward death and mourning; the history of sexuality, pornography and erotica; and gender and gay studies. She is working on her fourth book, and her writing has also appeared in numerous journals and collections, including Novel: A Forum on Fiction; Victorian Literature and Culture; The Oxford History of the Novel in English, and Cabinet. She has been interviewed by the New York Times, Salon, New York Post, Dublin's News Talk Radio, The John Batchelor Radio Show, and The History Channel.

Her current book is entitled The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects and will be published in 2015 by W. W. Norton. Hundreds of artifacts and manuscripts associated with the Brontë family--hair jewelry, desk boxes, walking sticks, needlework, letters and more--sit in archives in the United States and Europe. The accumulation of these "relics" grew out of a reverence for the Brontës as sacralized figures, a "faith" found in other authors of the period, especially Keats, Shelley, and Dickens. Cultural forces such as enlightenment individualism, sentimental intimacies between women, and craft fellowship led to a belief that materiality associated closely with the body had evidentiary and narrative powers. Taking an important Brontë artifact as the focal point for each chapter, this book uses precise biographical facts relating to the objects--many gleaned from close study of the artifacts themselves--and their place in the Brontës' writing to investigate the cultural history they illuminate. What results is an account of women's work in the home (including the labor of writing) and of close, collaborative relations between women.

Her third book, which was supported in 2011 by an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture mines the seam where literature and material culture meet. This book analyzes the collecting and revering of the artifacts and personal effects of the dead as affirmations that objects held memories and told stories. The love of these keepsakes in the 19th century speaks of an intimacy with the body and death, a way of understanding absence through its materials, almost lost to us today. But more importantly, these practices show a belief in keeping death vitally intertwined with life--not as generalized memento mori but rather as respecting the singularity of unique beings whose loss needed to be always remembered.

Her first book--The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Ohio State UP, 2006)--traces a literary history of characters whose eroticism comes from their dark past and rebellious exile from the comforts of everyday living. A much-revised version of her dissertation (directed by Eve Sedgwick and Avital Ronell), The Dangerous Lover explores a constellation of ideas that cluster around 19th- and early 20th-century Byronism, such as Heidegger's theories of proximity and the ontology of death and Benjamin and Barthes's understanding of the "outside," melancholy and radical forms of love. In his review of the book for the TLS, Michael Caines called it "a rhapsody of erudition."

Her second book was published by Norton in 2011. Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism dives into 1860s and '70s London and the political freethinking and gender play of two intertwined bohemian groups--the Cannibal Club headed by Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelites with D. G. Rossetti as leader. Truly interdisciplinary, this book considers the collaborative work of poets, painters, designers, politicians, and scientists and their impact on the nascent feminist movement and the just-developing awareness of sexual identity rights. The book brought numerous glowing reviews, such as Ariel Levy's essay for the New Yorker and Jonathon Yardley's review in The Washington Post. Deborah Rogers remarked in a London Times review that "Lutz provides a compelling exploration of the centrality of sexuality in defining identity and of the importance of Victorian art in shaping the social norms that would lead to our more sexually progressive society."

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Tracy Rowan TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 23, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This was not the book I expected to read. Now mostly I don't like reviewers who criticize a book for what they thought it should have been, but in this case I feel it bears mentioning that "Pleasure Bound" is not so much an academic study of the sexual mores of Victorian England, but rather a kind biographical study of the figures Lutz identifies as sexual rebels.

In all honesty, the goings-on in this group don't seem all that rebellious given that the Victorians were notorious for honoring the form of propriety over the actual fact of it. The age of consent was surprisingly low, and prostitution was staggeringly wide-spread. It's true that there were laws against homosexual behavior, but they focused on sodomy -- anal intercourse -- and were also subject to something of a double standard. The rich and well-connected would have to rub the noses of the public in their sexual antics in order to suffer unduly for them.

What I think Lutz was aiming at -- and it's always awkward to try to second guess any author, so take this with a grain of salt -- is to show how the artists of the day were exploring beyond the limits society placed on their sexual expression. Which is what artists do. And certainly Lutz succeeds in this, with a lot of detail about both Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, Swinburne, William Morris and his wife, Jane; Simeon Solomon, who was one of the least known artists in the Pre-Raphaelite sphere; and Sir Richard Burton and his wife, Isabel. In fact, in some cases it seems to be a bit too much detail, not in the sense of being salacious, but in the sense of having very little to do with the central focus of the book.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Charlus on February 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Despite the mildly salacious subtitle, this is a sober, intelligent retelling of the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, adding on the Arts and Crafts movement and the life of Sir Richard Burton, the explorer. And while the author does examine at length the contribution these personages made to the sexual undercurrents of the time (sexual writings such as the Kama Sutra and flagellation literature, paintings that could be interpreted either as religious or sexual ecstasy), the social, cultural and historical framework extends the picture beyond the libidinous.

Although well researched, there is little new here that hasn't been documented by previous writers such as Steven Marcus or Peter Gay, who helped effectively explode the myth of the prurient Victorians. And Ms. Lutz's writing style, while clear, is often uninspired. The organization by theme rather than sequence allows for some repetition.

Nonetheless the story she has to tell is consistently interesting, especially if the reader comes uninformed, even when it doesn't wander within the realm of the erotic, and serves as a good introduction to some fascinating personalities.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Chris Ward VINE VOICE on April 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Deborah Lutz gets full marks for writing an amalgam of intriguing stories about some of Victorian England's most free-thinking sexual spirits, larded with an overlay of light analytical commentary. It's pretty clear she had a swell time reading all she could about the underbelly of Victorian society, and she revels in relating all the best tidbits she found. Surely it is no secret that there was a juicy subculture of pornography, brothels, and sexual experimentation going on at the time (or any time in history, for that matter), but the personalities she chooses to illustrate her thesis are very entertaining exemplars.

The book serves as an excellent introduction to characters who've been memorialized by scores of more thorough biographies: Richard Francis Burton, A. C. Swinburne, Henry Spencer Ashbee (whose bio, "The Erotomaniac," by Ian Gibson, is a work of remarkable research), Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, and a number of others. It's evident that Lutz admires these free-thinkers and adventurers, and she ably shares her enthusiasm for them. Soon you'll know all about "fladge porn" and the heartbreak of spermatorrhea and dozens of other erotic oddments-- it was a time of tremendous ferment and taboo-breaking, and there's much to praise in the actions of those who flouted the conventions of the era to open new doors of honesty and scholarship. To truly be yourself in any age is an act of courage. Lutz salutes these men (and several women) who broke the shackles of repression to be true to themselves and their desires.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Anne Rice on February 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title of this book: "Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism" sums up the contents very well. The writing is eloquent and readable. I recommend this to anyone trying to understand the remarkable and revolutionary undercurrents of sexuality in Victorian society. I especially valued the account of Swinburne. Also the discussion of Simeon Solomon, his family, his friendship with Swinburne, his remarkable paintings --- all of this I found extremely valuable. Lutz calls Solomon our first gay painter. I had read nothing about Solomon before this and want to study his work. This is a book I will keep in my library.
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