The sexual behaviour and attitudes of Victorian middle-class women is a subject which attracts great interest but which allows for little certainty. The difficulty, of course, is the paucity of evidence, for bedroom thoughts and deeds, even when recorded, rarely manage to survive family watchdogs. This makes the appearance in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow of a prominent early 19th-century woman's love letters, often written in week-by-week instalments like a diary, and filled with explicit professions of sexual longing, nothing less than remarkable. Here is an educated, principled English woman with a gift for words, writing freely about her hunger for affection, love, sexual gratification, all of which were not plentiful in her difficult marriage to the austere and often deeply depressed philosopher of law, John Austin. The confidences Sarah Austin unfolds in letter after letter are akin to a disrobing of her personality, even her person, as she reveals and boasts about her sensuality, passionate nature, physical attractions and sexual interests. The circumstances of this outpouring are as unusual as the letters themselves.
LRB 22 January 1987 | PDF Download