Artistically speaking, the upsurge of prudery in English culture during Victoria’s reign was a boon to its comic poetry and song. So says J S Bratton anyway, in her now-venerable work The Victorian Popular Ballad (1975).
Before inhibitions about sexual display and discussion were on the rise, hack writers put out broadsheets aplenty (home-printing jobs on single sheets of paper, offered to passers-by by roving sellers in the street), full of baldly bawdy jokes in verse. But with greater reticence came greater ingenuity. Public prudery ‘put at an end to the threadbare reiteration of old jokes about sex in the old words and with the same old range of innuendoes and variations’, Bratton says. It forced writers ‘to look for new ways of making their point’.
The rich range of sexual allusions which became part of the Victorian music hall’s comic songs would not have developed absent this growing restraint. Nor would audiences would not have found suggestive songs so delightfully risque. The prohibitions on overt references to sexuality fostered the conspiratorial rapport which developed beyween singer and audience, making it hilariously naughty when Champagne Charlie popped his bottle in an ejaculatory burst of froth, or when a girl was said to have ‘never had her [bus] ticket punched before’, or when erotic meaning was invested in a commonplace word and a raise of the eyebrows.
Advertising today still frequently trots out lines about being ‘sinfully indulgent’ or deliciously ‘devillish’ or ‘naughty’ – usually by buying chocolate or drinking ice tea, or something equally banal. But since there aren’t the same restraints on public discussion of sexuality, those suggestions are hackneyed and meaningless. There isn’t the same conspiratorial allure or comic mileage to be had from the risque anymore, not in an age of gross-out comedy and the bald literalness and acessibility of porn. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that there is a growing fascination with Victorian sexual mores and the allusive comedy of the music halls (I’m mindful here of the slated docu-series on Victorian sexuality said to feature Rupert Everett as narrator, and of course the range of scholarly literature touching on the relationship of public prudery to sexual practice in the era, from the work of Peter Bailey to John Tosh to Joy Dixon to Jeffery Weeks, to the innumerable volumes on Oscar Wilde’s trial and divorce scandals a la the Beecher and Tilton affair). An age where the limits of permissiveness were more sharply drawn – in public, at least – is fascinating to those operating within quite different, if uncertain, parameters.