Welcome to a journey back in time to an era of rapid change, industrial revolution, and hidden passions – the Victorian era.

This period, spanning from 1837 to 1901, was marked by the reign of Queen Victoria, a time that saw Britain transformed by industrialisation, urbanisation, and the expansion of the British Empire.

A world of hidden passions and unspoken desires existed beneath the surface of these societal shifts. Victorian Britain, often characterised by its strict moral codes and prudish exterior, held a rich tapestry of interests and behaviours far from the public eye.

From the coded language of flowers to the complex attitudes towards sexuality, the Victorians navigated a fascinating undercurrent of unexpressed sentiments and secret codes.

In this exploration, we delve into the hidden passions of Britain in the Victorian period, shedding light on the intricate social customs and intriguing behaviours that defined this remarkable era.

Join us as we uncover the secrets of the Victorian era, revealing a side of history that is as captivating as it is complex.

Sexuality in the Victorian Era

In Victorian times, sexuality was a topic shrouded in mystery and governed by stringent societal norms. The period, known for its outward prudishness and strict moral codes, held a complex and often contradictory view of sexuality.

While the public discourse was modesty and restraint, the private sphere told a different story. From the hidden world of erotic literature to the unspoken realities of homosexuality, sexuality in the Victorian era was a fascinating blend of repression and expression.

As we delve deeper into this topic, we’ll uncover the intricate dynamics of Victorian sexuality, revealing a side of this era that challenges our conventional understanding.

Public Morality and Private Behaviour

In the nineteenth century, it was known for its strict moral code, influenced by the Church of England and the evangelical movement. This public morality, however, is often contrasted with private behaviour.

Despite societal condemnation, prostitution was widespread in Victorian England, driven by economic necessity (more on this later).

The issue was so prevalent that it led to the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s, allowing for the arrest and medical examination of suspected prostitutes in certain areas. Erotic literature, despite being publicly deemed obscene, was also popular during this era.

Works like “Fanny Hill” by John Cleland and “My Secret Life” by Walter, which detailed a Victorian gentleman’s sexual exploits, were circulated and often read secretly, indicating a fascination with eroticism that contradicted public morality.

The “Angel in the House”

The Victorian period was marked by a strict division of gender roles, particularly evident in the idealised image of women as the “Angel in the House” [1].

This concept, popularised by Coventry Patmore’s poem, portrayed women as morally superior beings whose primary role was to provide a nurturing, stabilising influence within the domestic sphere.

Women were expected to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere, where their husbands laboured, and to prepare the next generation to carry on this way of life.

This idea placed immense pressure on women and created a double standard, as they were expected to embody purity, selflessness, and devotion to their families above all else.

However, the reality was often far from this ideal. Women were not only responsible for domestic duties but were also expected to possess a range of ‘accomplishments’, such as knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and modern languages ( a complete domestic goddess).

These skills were seen as necessary to attract a husband and maintain a household rather than for personal development or satisfaction.

The ‘Angel in the House’ ideal, therefore, was a source of significant tension and contradiction, as it both revered and restricted Victorian women, placing them on a pedestal while simultaneously limiting their opportunities for self-expression and independence.

Homosexuality in the Victorian Era

Homosexuality during the Victorian era was a complex and often controversial topic. The legal and social status of homosexuality varied greatly across different regions and periods.

For instance, in the early 19th century, the French Republic extended the French Penal Code of 1791, decriminalising same-sex sexual acts, to its annexed territories. However, in 1871, homosexuality was criminalised throughout the German Empire by Paragraph 175 of the Reich Criminal Code[2].

The Oscar Wilde trial in 1895 was a significant event in the history of homosexuality during the Victorian era[3]. Wilde was prosecuted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labour in prison.

This trial profoundly impacted the perception and treatment of homosexuality, highlighting the societal and legal challenges faced by homosexuals during this period.

However, it’s important to note that despite the legal restrictions and societal prejudices, there were also instances of resistance and advocacy.

In 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs publicly defended homosexuality at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich, becoming the first homosexual to do so. He pleaded for a resolution to urge the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. [4].

The Sexual Reform Movement

Edward Carpenter, an English socialist poet, philosopher, and early gay rights activist, alongside Havelock Ellis, played a significant role in challenging traditional attitudes towards sexuality[5].

Carpenter openly lived with his partner, George Merrill, when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. His book, “The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women,” was pioneering in studying homosexuality.

Besides his work on sexuality, Carpenter was a prominent socialist and a supporter of women’s rights. Like Ellis, he was a member of the Fabian Society and was involved in various progressive causes.

Ellis and Carpenter were key figures in the sexual reform movement. Their work laid the groundwork for modern understandings of human sexuality, challenging the societal norms of their time.

The Contagious Diseases Acts

The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1866 were introduced to prevent sexually transmitted diseases within the armed forces [6].

These Acts permitted the arrest and forced medical examination of any woman suspected of being a prostitute. If a woman was found to have a disease, she was detained in a hospital for a certain period.

The Acts were initially defended as sanitary measures and a means of promoting moral values. However, they faced significant opposition due to their gender-biased approach, primarily targeting women, while men, the clients of these women, were left unregulated.

This led to a vigorous campaign against the Acts, spearheaded by campaigners such as Josephine Butler, who viewed prostitution as a social issue rather than a sexual one and demanded equal treatment for men and women.

The Acts were eventually repealed in the 1880s, but they remain a stark example of the gender and class biases that permeated Victorian society.

Despite their controversial nature, the Contagious Diseases Acts were a significant part of the Victorian era’s approach to sexuality and public health.

Sex Education in the Victorian Era

During the Victorian era, formal sex education was virtually non-existent. The societal norms and religious beliefs of the time often suppressed open discussions about sex, leading to a culture of silence and ignorance surrounding sexual health and reproduction.

This lack of formal education did not mean that people were completely unaware of sex, but their understanding was often based on hearsay, misconceptions, and covert sources.

The consequences of this lack of education were significant, leading to widespread misinformation, unhealthy sexual practices, and a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases.

Many Victorians were ill-prepared for marriage and parenthood due to their limited understanding of sex and reproduction, contributing to the era’s high infant mortality rates.

The Victorian era’s approach to sex education, or lack thereof, highlights the importance of open, accurate, and comprehensive sex education in promoting societal health and well-being.

Floriography: The Language of Flowers

Floriography, also known as the language of flowers, is a means of cryptological communication through the use or arrangement of flowers[7]. This form of symbolic language has been used across cultures and eras, but it gained significant popularity during the Victorian era in Europe.

The Role of Flowers in Victorian Communication

In the Victorian era, societal norms and strict etiquette often restrained the expression of feelings and emotions, especially among the upper classes. In this context, flowers became a covert means of communication.

Each flower had a specific meaning, and by gifting a particular flower or a bouquet, individuals could convey complex emotions and messages without the need for words.

This form of communication was prevalent in courtship and love relationships, where direct expression of feelings was often frowned upon.

The Meanings of Different Flowers

As we delve deeper into the intricate language of flowers, we must understand that each colour holds a specific meaning. This colour symbolism added another layer of complexity to the messages conveyed through floriography.

Let’s explore the meanings associated with different flower colours:

  • Red Flowers: They typically symbolize love and desire. For instance, red roses and red tulips are often used to express feelings of love.
  • White Flowers: They usually represent purity, innocence, and new beginnings. Examples include white roses and white violets.
  • Pink Flowers: They convey a sense of grace, happiness, and gentleness. Pink carnations, for example, mean “I’ll never forget you.”
  • Yellow Flowers: They often express feelings of joy and lightheartedness, but can also symbolise jealousy or infidelity, as in the case of yellow roses.
  • Purple Flowers: They usually signify royalty and admiration. However, a purple hyacinth specifically represents sorrow.
  • Orange Flowers: They are often associated with enthusiasm and desire.
  • Blue Flowers: They typically symbolize trust and serenity.

The Nuances of Floriography

While the colours and types of flowers played a crucial role in conveying messages, the subtleties of floriography extended beyond these elements. The presentation and condition of the flowers were equally significant in the Victorian era.

For instance, if flowers were presented upside down, they conveyed the opposite of their traditional meaning, adding an intriguing twist to this floral language. Similarly, how a ribbon was tied around a bouquet also held meaning.

If the ribbon was tied to the left, the symbolism of the flowers applied to the giver. Conversely, the sentiment was about the recipient if tied to the right. These nuances added a layer of depth to floriography, making it a complex and nuanced form of communication.

Flower Dictionaries in the Victorian Era

Flower dictionaries were published to aid this floral communication. These books listed flowers along with their associated meanings. One of the most popular of these was “The Language of Flowers” by Miss Carruthers of Inverness[8].

These dictionaries were widely circulated in Victorian society and were often used as reference guides to compose and interpret floral messages. The popularity of these dictionaries underscores the significance of floriography in Victorian society.

Recap of Hidden Passion

The Victorian era, a time of strict societal norms and prudish exterior, was also a period of hidden passions and unspoken desires.

From the intricate language of flowers to complex attitudes towards sexuality, Victorians navigated a fascinating undercurrent of unexpressed sentiments and secret codes.

These hidden passions, whether conveyed through the coded messages of floriography or reflected in the contrasting public morality and private behaviours, played a significant role in shaping Victorian society and culture.

They offer a captivating insight into the complexities of the Victorian era, reminding us that beneath any society’s surface lies a rich tapestry of hidden passions and unspoken desires.


  1. The Angel in the House. Cuny.edu. Published 2023. Accessed July 15, 2023.http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/thackeray/angel.html
  2. Paragraph 175. Ushmm.org. Published 2021. Accessed July 15, 2023.https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/paragraph-175-and-the-nazi-campaign-against-homosexuality
  3. British Library. Www.bl.uk. Published 2023. Accessed July 15, 2023.https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-trial-of-oscar-wilde-printed-in-1906#
  4. Overlooked No More: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Pioneering Gay Activist (Published 2020). The New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/01/obituaries/karl-heinrich-ulrichs-overlooked.html. Published 2023. Accessed July 15, 2023.
  5. Edward Carpenter | Making Britain. Open.ac.uk. Published 2023. Accessed July 15, 2023.https://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/edward-carpenter#
  6. The Contagious Diseases Act | Policy Navigator. Policy Navigator. Published 2023. Accessed July 15, 2023.https://navigator.health.org.uk/theme/contagious-diseases-act#
  7. Bloom & Wild Flower Delivery | Flowers & Gifts. Bloom & Wild. Published 2023. Accessed July 15, 2023.https://www.bloomandwild.com/floriography-language-of-flowers-meaning
  8. The Victorian Language of Flowers: Hiding Secret Messages in Plain Sight – #FolkloreThursday. Folklorethursday.com. Published March 26, 2020. Accessed July 15, 2023.https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/the-victorian-language-of-flowers-hiding-secret-messages-in-plain-sight/#


Related Articles