Here’s a fun game for anyone finding 19th century romantic literature just a little too slow – “spot the subconscious sexual metaphor”.

These novels invariably put young men and women in the prime of their lives in close proximity, and despite every attempt to restrain their sexual impulses, it just can’t help bursting through. Usually nature is the chosen vessel in which to convey their instincts, with tree buds bursting into blossom, waterfalls spouting, and so on, but I don’t think one needs to be too smutty minded to see this effect happening elsewhere. “The Professor” provides some excellent examples. The scenario is this: William Crimsworth is teaching English to Belgian schoolgirls in Brussels. There he meets a young womanF rances Henri – we are told she is 19 – , and eventually after some complications falls for her charms. He visits her archetypal ‘umble abode, and she lights a fire to warm the place. He is worried she is using up her limited supplies of firewood and coal, and wishes he could be in a position to help her:

“I am glad it is not yet winter, thought I, but in two months more come the winds and rains of November. Would to God that before then I could earn the right and the power to shovel coals into that grate ad libitum” (page 132). At his pleasure indeed.

Later he desbribes the moment he declares his affection for her, and instead of this being a stumbling, formal declaration in the manner of Mr Darcy and his peers, he grabs her and sits her on his knee:

“The frost of the master’s manner might melt; I felt the thaw coming fast, whether I would or not. ….There are impulses we can control, but there are others which control us, because they attain us with a tiger leap, and are our masters ere we have seen them”. (page 165).
The use of the term “our masters” is particularly significant here as Crimsworth is always described as Frances’s master, even after they are married. This is an arguably less-Freudian use of language – instead of the sexual metaphors jumping unbidden into the author’s head, this second example seems more deliberate. For a Victorian female novelist to write this frankly about sexual desire – a tiger leap – and to acknowledge the sexual frisson between husband and wife is unusual, if not unique. The initial submissiveness of their relationship matures into a flirtation which is preserved by Frances’s enjoyment of chastistement. William says at one point “I fear the choice of chastisement must have been injudicious, for instead of correcting the fault, it seemed to encourage its renewal”. (188)