SEXUAL ANARCHY: GENDER AND CULTURE AT THE FIN DE SIECLE By Elaine Showalter (Viking, 242 pages, $27.95)
The twilight of the 20th century is deepening beneath an overcast sky. In the current era of AIDS, economic decline and environmental decay, it is perhaps natural to wonder whether the world is plunging into unending night. In an intriguing new book, Elaine Showalter, head of English at Princeton University, points out that the same dire speculation shadowed the last two decades of the 19th century—for some of the same reasons. In Sexual Anarchy-. Gender and Culture at the Fin de S Tec le, the feminist author focuses on late-19thand late-20thcentury responses to such issues as women’s rights, homosexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. And she concludes that, on the sexand-gender front at least, there is room for cautious optimism. “What seems today like the apocalyptic warnings of a frightening sexual anarchy,” she writes, “may be really the birth throes of a new sexual equality.”
Showalter argues that fin-de-siècle periods seem especially portentous because societies tend to graft metaphors of death and rebirth onto the years at the end of centuries. She notes that, like the present, the last 20 years of the 19th century struck many observers as a time when “all the laws that governed sexual identity and behavior seemed to be breaking down.” The period saw the rise of educated, sexually independent females known as New Women, and of the so-called Decadents, homosexual writers and artists who included Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Syphilis, meanwhile, was the sexual scourge of the day, spreading death and fear. Then, as now, Showalter writes, there was a backlash of “social purity campaigns” and “demands, often successful, for restrictive legislation and censorship.”
Sexual Anarchy is a wide-ranging book, one that interweaves social history and the portrayal of the sexes in literature and other art forms. Early chapters deal with the public unease generated by the emergence of feminists and New Women. Showalter quotes the British journalist William R. Greg, who was alarmed by the increasing number of unmarried women in the early 1870s. Writing in the Westminster Review, Greg observed that the statistics were “indicative of an unwholesome social state.” In the late 20th century, Showalter observes, single women have gained greater acceptance—but, in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they are still being warned against competing with men. She cites as an example the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, a cautionary tale that “makes its psychotic villain an elegant woman editor, while the ‘good’ woman is a nonworking wife and mother in jeans.”
Showalter’s book is as much about relations within the sexes as between the sexes. Some of its most provocative ideas pertain to relationships among men in the late 19th century. In Victorian times, a network of men’s clubs provided husbands, fathers and bachelors from various social classes with alternatives to domestic life. “Fin-de-siècle Clubland,” Showalter writes, “existed on the fragile borderline that separated male bonding from homosexuality.”
The author makes a fascinating case for interpreting Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) as “a fable of fin-de-siècle homosexual panic, the discovery and resistance of the homosexual self.” Unable to form a romantic attachment with a woman or another man, Henry Jekyll “divides himself, and finds his only mate in his double, Edward Hyde.” Jekyll’s eventual suicide, Showalter argues, was “the only form of narrative closure thought appropriate to the Gay Gothic, where the protagonist’s death is both martyrdom and retribution.”
Above all else, Sexual Anarchy is an eloquent plea to respond to the sexual crises of the late 20th century with clearheadedness rather than panic, and with tolerance rather than repression. Showalter points out that while mainstream 19th-century society feared both New Women and the homosexual Decadents, the two minorities also tended to fear and mistrust each other. Even in the late 20th century, she adds, relations between feminists and lesbians on one hand and gay men on the other have often been strained. But with the advent of the AIDS epidemic, the groups appear to be learning how to “fight against the disease and not each other.”
Showalter’s book has its faults. In particular, she occasionally falls prey to the academic’s vice of reading excessively elaborate symbolism into literary passages. But on the whole, Sexual Anarchy is a fine piece of work—and even an uplifting one. “If we can learn something from the fears and myths of the past,” she writes, “it is that they are so often exaggerated and unreal, that what looks like sexual anarchy in the context of fin-de-siècle anxieties may be the embryonic stirrings of a new order.” In other words, centuries end, life goes on, and change can actually be for the better.
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