Victorian Mad Doctors and Clitoral Stimulation Redux

Just when I thought I knew where I was with this topic, I find this article by Dr. Kate Lister. In a nutshell, while there is next to no evidence for Victorian doctors using the vibrator to stimulate women’s clitorises as a cure for hysteria, there is actually quite a bit suggesting they used manual stimulation of the vulva or pelvic massage.

‘The Physiotherapy in Gynaecology and the Mechanical Treatment of Diseases of the Uterus and its Appendages’, 1895, via inews.

According to my understanding of the article (and, truth be told, I am beginning to doubt my ability to understand anything about this subject), the point of the treatment was not to induce orgasm (though people at the time worried this would be an unfortunate (?) side-effect), but to treat a miscellany of conditions including “prolapses and protrusion of the uterus; prolapse of the vagina; hypertrophy and induration of the uterus; ulcerations; abnormal haemorrhage, depending on relaxation of the uterus; tendency to miscarriage; slight hypertrophy of the ovaries.”

So, no vibrators, but apparently fingering was fine and dandy. And recommended by The Lancet.

Eminent Victorians: Valerie, Lady Meux.

Harmony in Pink and Grey or Portrait of Lady Meux, 1881, by Whistler. Source: Wikipedia

I first came across Lady Meux when writing my first manuscript (now languishing on my hard drive). I think I was trying to gain a more accurate idea of what ladies wore in the 1880s when Harmony in Pink and Grey popped up in my Pinterest search results. I’d never seen it before and I fell in love once I learned a bit more about the subject. Valerie, Lady Meux, despite her aristocratic demeanor, was a woman with a past. She didn’t begin life as a lady and was never accepted in the highest social circles.

When she married Sir Henry Bruce Meux, 3rd Baronet, it was said she’d once been an actress, but, while she does seem to have spent a single season on the stage, it’s thought she was actually a barmaid, banjo-player, and prostitute when she met her future husband. For some reason, it’s the banjo playing that sticks with me:

Sir Henry Meux, Lady Valerie and banjo.

Like I said, she was never fully accepted by society (or her husband’s family) but instead of sitting at home and sinking into a decline as sinful women mostly did in Victorian novels (see Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, and about a bajillion others,) she threw lavish parties attended by the future Edward VII among others, drove around London in a high phaeton (the old timey equivalent of a sports car) drawn by zebras, and was painted by Whistler three times.

Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux by Whistler.

Sadly Whistler burnt the third painting (Lady Meux in Furs) after Lady Meux said something that pissed him off during a sitting.

So there you go: Lady Meux, Victorian sex-worker made good, artist’s muse, socialite, and banjo-player.

Book Cover Love 2: Romance Novel Edition.

I was going to start with a paragraph about how maligned romance novel cover art has been over the years, but I think that’s a post I’ll save for another day. I love romance covers, heaving bosoms and all. Gone are the days when I listened to the naysayers. So here are a few of my favorites. As with last week’s post Book Cover Love 1: Non-romance Edition, I’ll only include books I’ve read and enjoyed.

A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole. Find at Goodreads.

A romantic comedy with a STEM heroine who receives a series of e-mails “claiming she’s betrothed to an African prince.” Naturally, she assumes they’re a phishing scam until Prince Thabiso shows up at her door. This is a deceptively simple cover, but the colors are vibrant and gorgeous, the models are perfect for their characters, and the rest of the books in the ongoing series are done in a similar style, yet each distinctive both from each other and everything else out there.

A Holiday by Gaslight by Mimi Matthews. Find at Goodreads.

On the face of it, there’s nothing here that you won’t find on the cover of most Christmas historical romance novellas: holly, snow, lots of red and green. But this is done so well. It probably helps that I’m a sucker for a pretty dress, and this one is even period appropriate. Mimi Matthews is a great author for those of you averse to sex scenes in your books. Her writing reminds me of Georgette Heyer except with greater historical accuracy and a mid-Victorian setting.

To Seduce a Sinner by Elizabeth Hoyt. Find on Goodreads.

I love stepback covers. The image on the left is the one you see first, then you open the front cover and there’s the second image waiting for you. This is my favorite stepback of all time. I love the yellows and greens, but it’s the female model on the second image that pushes this over the top for me. She has such an interesting face, perfect for Hoyt’s heroine Melisande and her take-no-prisoners attitude. Hoyt is one of relatively few authors writing Georgian-set romance as opposed to regency or Victorian (like yours truly).

The Player and the Pixie by L.H. Cosway and Penny Reid. Find on Goodreads.

Sometimes it’s not just about the graphics. I quite liked this cover until I noticed the snarky annotations. Once I saw those (particularly ‘He is monochromatic and monosyllabic’) I was sold. Sometimes a small detail like that is all it takes. The back cover copy starts with the words “How can someone so smokin’ hot be so bad in bed?’ and, if you’re a regular romance reader, you’ll know how rare it is to find a book where things aren’t instantly amazing in the bedroom between hero and heroine.

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas. Find it on Goodreads.

Sherry Thomas is one of my favorite historical romance writers. If I could steal another author’s covers, I’d opt for hers. Yes, they’re mostly just beautiful women in pretty dresses, but done with such style and sophistication. From the blurb: “To all of London society, Lord and Lady Tremaine had the ideal arrangement: a marriage based on civility, courteousness, and freedom—by all accounts, a perfect marriage. The reason? For the last ten years, husband and wife have resided on separate continents.” It’s a story about how you rescue a relationship when one or, arguably, both partners have committed terrible wrongs.

Looking through these, I notice relatively few heaving bosoms. There may end up being one or two on my own book cover though, so stay tuned.

Book Cover Love Part 1: Non-romance edition

One of the things we dream about when writing a book is what the cover will look like. I don’t know how it works at other publishers, but at Entangled, authors are sent a form they can fill in with their ideas. For a debutante like me, it’s a very cool and fun experience. Obviously it’s down to the cover designers and marketing department to decide which ideas might actually make for a salable cover. Anyway, I’ve seen the mock-up and I can’t wait to be able to share the finished product.

Meanwhile, all this has me thinking of book covers in general and what appeals to me as a reader. I thought it might be fun to do a post highlighting some of my favorite cover art. I’ll do romance next week and other stuff this week. Why that way round? Well, I got a few new followers after last week’s post, which made me feel like I need a thematic stepping stone between it and the probable fest of purple, fuchsia and heaving bosoms (both male and female) that will be next week’s romance covers post. Ease ’em in gently, I always say.

The wonder by Emma Donoghue: Find on Goodreads.

Wonderful historical novel about an English nurse who goes to a tiny Irish village “to observe what some are claiming as a medical anomaly or a miracle – a girl said to have survived without food for months.” I loved this way more than “Room”. As for the cover, I own this on kindle but I regret not buying the hardback just so I can physically hold this artwork. The colors, particularly the use of gold, are stunning and the cover as a whole is so evocative of what’s inside; a bleak yet haunting story of how people can transform each other’s lives.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter: Find on Goodreads

How can you not be intrigued by this cover? I want this framed and displayed on my wall. For the two people in the world who haven’t read Angela Carter yet, she wrote magical realism often with a distinctly Gothic twist. The angel on the front cover is actually a circus performer named “Fevvers” and she’s one of my favorite protagonists in all of literature. She’s warm, earthy, and unstoppable. But is she really part swan? You’ll have to read to find out.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters: Find on Goodreads.

This cover has caused me so much trouble over the years. I bought the paperback shortly after it came out and I can’t tell you how many people raised their eyebrows. Shout out to the octogenarian who took one look at the cover, scanned the blurb, then announced in a loud voice to the room at large, “Sex, sex, sex. That’s all this generation ever thinks about.” Tipping the Velvet is an odyssey through the Victorian sexual underworld. If you don’t care for explicit sex scenes, maybe give it a miss, but for the rest of us, it’s a tour de force.

The North Water by Ian McGuire: Find on Goodreads.

This is the fourth historical novel to appear on this list, so I guess we know what my wheelhouse is. I love the simplicity of this cover. The blues contrasted with the black and white. Somehow the blue is both land and sea. I never even noticed the polar bear until today. As for the book, it’s gritty, unrelenting, and almost entirely populated by men doing traditionally “manly” things (whaling, murdering each other etc). None of this would usually be my thing, yet somehow I was riveted and had this finished in a couple of sittings.”

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: Find on Goodreads.

Bit of a change of pace for this Young Adult satire of the beauty industry. My kindle copy is virtually all highlights because I snort-laughed my way through this tale of a group of beauty queens whose plane crashes on a desert island. Why does this cover work? I guess there’s a hot blonde to stare at if that’s your thing, but for me it was the ammo belt filled with lipstick. Whoever came up with this concept, they sold me the book, for which I thank them.

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty.: Find on Goodreads.

If you’re scared of dying or death, I highly recommend anything by Caitlin Doughty, including her Ask A Mortician YouTube videos. I devoured “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, her memoir about the funeral industry, but I might not have tried “From Here to Eternity”, which is about her search for cultures with healthier attitudes to death than the western one, had it not been for this cover with its dramatic color contrasts. Something about putting flowers on a skull immediately renders said skull 95% less scary. Which is basically what Caitlin Doughty does in a nutshell.

I hope you enjoyed this blatant excuse to post gorgeous cover art as much as I did. I hope you’ll come back for next week’s look at romance novels.

History as a Moving Target: Did Victorian doctors really use clitoral stimulation to treat hysteria?

As a history geek who also writes historical romance, I do a lot of research. One of the things that strikes me is how our image of the past is less fixed than we think. The 19th century as written by Jane Austen differs drastically from the version we find in a primary document like The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. And, contrary to what I’ve read in romance novel reviews over the years, members of the ton occasionally married sex workers (e.g. Elizabeth Armistead, Lady Meux etc.), trans people existed, and same sex couples occasionally lived together happily and even occasionally *gasp!* openly.

I’ve always been fascinated by Victorian sexuality, probably because it diverges so widely from the stereotype promulgated by nineteenth century novels. The idea that Victorian doctors used clitoral stimulation to treat female hysterics has long been accepted as fact. There’s even a book about it written by an actual scholar and published by John Hopkins University Press. So it must be true, right?

EPSON scanner Image

There’s even a (very fun) film about the invention of the vibrator. Here’s the trailer in case you’re interested. Which you should be because Rupert Everett is in it.

When I started writing The Madness of Miss Grey, I certainly believed Maines’s research to be solid. There was never a draft of my story where this particular treatment was practiced; I was writing historical romance, not historical fiction, and I decided including scenes (in which inmates of a lunatic asylum are masturbated to orgasm to relieve hysteria) presented too much of an ethical minefield.

How could such a thing have been true given what we know (or think we know) about Victorian society? According to Maines, the medical profession didn’t view clitoral stimulation as sexual because they had a woefully penis-centric attitude to intercourse. This didn’t jibe well with what some primary sources had to say regarding the Victorian belief that female orgasm was necessary for procreation, but I reasoned that, then as now, different doctors held differing opinions. I wonder if, on some level, I wanted to believe it because it’s so titillating (see the trailer above) and because the artwork is seductive:

CURE (2)

I came across opposing opinions, particularly Dr. Fern Riddell and Oneill Therese, but it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized I was going to have to reassess my beliefs. Maines responds to criticism of her book by declaring her ideas only an “hypothesis,” adding :

“I never claimed to have evidence that this was really the case.”

As the article states, “she was a little surprised it took so long for other scholars to question her argument, given how admittedly “slender” the evidence she gave in The Technology of Orgasm was. “I thought people were going to attack it right away. But it’s taken 20 years for people to even—people didn’t want to question it. They liked it so much they didn’t want to attack it.””

As someone who has read The Technology of Orgasm, this may be true, but her tone was certainly authoritative.

So, can we definitively say that Victorian doctors didn’t use clitoral stimulation to treat hysterics? Well… not really. As with so much of history, we can’t be absolutely sure. Maines includes a lot of very suggestive stuff. But if we can’t be 100% certain, it’s still fair to say there’s little to no evidence.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to remove and adapt the few references in The Madness of Miss Grey. It just goes to show that, even when you’ve done the research, even when you think you know what the past was like, you really don’t. Whether its historical fiction, historical romance, or even non-fiction we’re writing or reading, we’re all imagining our own versions of the past.

Sunflower Wars, a brief memoir

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a 6 yr old boy came home from school with a small potful of dirt and this:


So his mother (that would be me) placed the pot upon a windowsill and watered the contents each day. A shoot appeared, and when the tiny plant grew large enough to need support, the mother stuck a drinking straw into the earth and tied the stem with string. Whenever she was writing outdoors, she took the pot with her, basking her fragile charge in sunlight.

Time passed and the mother taped another straw to the first. The sunflower continued to grow but it did not flower. Eventually, the drinking straws were discarded in favor of a bamboo stick. The mother did not name the sunflower but she nurtured it, and when she wrote, it was her only companion.

The day came when it was time to take the sunflower back to school to be judged. The boy was excited but his mother was anxious. What if all the other sunflowers had bloomed? What if they were much taller? What if the boy or indeed the sunflower felt diminished by the forthcoming judgement?

On the way to school, they met another mother. “Oh my goodness, that’s amazing,” she said. “Ours never grew. We watered it for weeks and nothing happened, so we emptied the pot out and we couldn’t even find a seed.”

The mother sympathized but inwardly she rejoiced.

The entire way to school, they didn’t see anyone else carrying a plant. It was the same story in the playground. A woman there saw the sunflower and her eyes widened. “Did you do that?”

The mother preened. “Yes, I did. It’s my only gardening success.”

“Ours never grew. We watered it for weeks and nothing. In the end, we tipped the pot out and we couldn’t even find a seed.”

“Someone else said the same thing. I’m worried that all the others will have flowered.”

The woman looked at the boy. “You’ve won.”

The boy smiled, but to be honest, he wasn’t particularly interested.

The classroom door opened. The mother handed the plant (her precious!) to the teacher and managed to resist the impulse to instruct her on its care. As the boy disappeared into class, a dad appeared from nowhere with a carrier bag containing two sunflowers of a size comparable to the mother’s (for she no longer thought of the plant as belonging solely to the boy). Somehow she restrained herself from rugby tackling the dad by reminding herself that this wasn’t Thunderdome.

Then she beheld a monstrosity: A woman carrying a large flowerpot. Needless to say, it was not the one issued with the seed. Inside, was a short and incredibly stocky plant with a massive yellow flower blooming at its apex. Her kid was clearly facing some skepticism from his peers because even as the mother clocked this travesty, he cried out, “I didn’t buy it!”

Bullshit! the mother thought. That’s bullshit, kid. I don’t care how old you are, you’re lying your arse off.

The stem on that thing was several inches thick. It wasn’t even the same variety of sunflower. Of course, the mother didn’t say any of this out loud because that would be petty and mean. Also, swearing in the playground is frowned upon.

It’s just a bit of fun for the children, she told herself, because she knew she had to rise above such unspeakable chicanery.

She walked home and told this story to her husband who was working from home that day, and he found her outrage cute instead of exhausting, which was lucky.

When the mother picked the boy up from school that afternoon, the sunflower looked tired and bruised, like it had endured a tough day. She took it home and, after she’d re-potted it, they sat together in the sun while she read the latest Victoria Stone. The boy received a certificate:


You’re goddamn right we did.