Going along with my post from Wednesday, I’m going to talk to you about how telegraphs became an unexpected source for porn in the Victorian era. I suppose nothing should surprise me–every time a new technology is developed, it’s only a matter of time before people ask, “Yes, but can I have sex with/in/on/through it?” Telegraph cables are no exception.
I once had the pleasure of listening to an academic paper about the laying of the transatlantic cable in the 1880s and how this opened up all kinds of new feelings people didn’t even know they were capable of possessing. Now, Wikipedia is telling me that the first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed in 1858, but I’m far more inclined to believe the senior academic on this matter. Unless it was finished in 1858, but there was further work done to it in the 1880s? Any clarity people could give me on this issue would be great.
Right, so, weird mixed feelings about the cable: in the first place, it was seen as a huge scientific achievement and fed heavily into the Victorian imperial psyche–we’ll be able to communicate quickly across vast distances, it will help us colonize the world, we can show our domination over nature, etc. etc.
It also opened up a lot of fears about what kind of shit they were going to find at the bottom of the ocean. Plenty of scientific, anthropological, and sociological work being done at this time had illustrated to your average Victorian that perhaps boundaries weren’t as solid as they were once thought to be: we could see shifts up and down the socio-economic scale, questions of race and nationality were cropping up more and more, women were demanding more rights and proving to be just as physically and intellectually capable as men, and–most terrifying of all–some nutter named Darwin said that maybe both monkeys and humans evolved from a common ancestor.
So what sort of horrors are we going to find at the bottom of the ocean? Hell, sailors had been saying for years that mermaids exist. If that’s true, what does that mean for our categories of humanity?
Because the human brain is a strange and horrifying place, it wasn’t a far leap from “being afraid of the unknown” to “being turned on by the unknown.” Hence: mermaid erotica.
Apparently–and I’ve never stumbled across any of this myself, except for the few familiar paintings–there was a lot of mermaid erotica. And this fed into Victorian interest in classical culture, so there was a lot of overlap with Greek mythology dealing with nymphs, sirens, and water spirits. Like these:
There are two examples in particular that I wish I was able to find. One was a very erotic painting of a drowning sailor, whose legs were being clutched and pulled downward by a mermaid.
The other, more obviously connected to the cable, was a series of four or five mermaids, all linking arms and touching each other in some way, stretching across an expanse of water (they form a cable of sorts, through their sexy naked bodies). This last one is the BEST example of this sort of erotica, but none of my keyword searches have turned up anything (although it’s turned up a hell of a lot of other weirdness, let me tell you).
If anyone can find me more examples, literary or artistic, I will happily reblog them here.
Commenter jlmerrow knew IMMEDIATELY what two other paintings I was talking about:
This is “The Depths of the Sea” by Edward Burne-Jones (1886)
and this one is “The Sea Maidens” by Evelyn De Morgan (1885-86).