Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton


A review of The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After by Ian Gibson
(1978; new edition 1992)

Conservative MPs still occasionally rose to plead in favour of the rod; learned judges and Anglican clerics still occasionally argue for the judicial and biblical rightness of flogging; and Eton boys are still liable to the "lower discipline" of birching on the naked buttocks so a history of fustigation in Victorian England is not merely of antiquarian interest.

Indeed, Ian Gibson's study is consistently developed within the framework of a polemic against the practice of birching, caning, flogging, scourging, swishing – call it what you will – in both public and state schools, and even in the home. He leaves one with little doubt that the corporal punishment of children – particularly this form of beating – is degrading and intolerable in a modern society.

Unfortunately his Irish indignation frequently leads him astray from his straightforward documentation. He is obsessively insistent, for example, that there is always a sexual element in all flagellation: that every boy on the Eton block must have felt more or less as Swinburne did. He produces no sound evidence to support this (in defence, he pleads that people "natural" wouldn't admit it), and it is indeed doubtful: some people will never acquire a taste for rare wines no matter how much they imbibe. Yet Gibson literally believes that the British Empire was founded and extended by sadomasochists birched in the public school this is all very nave: swising is simply one of the many power games in boarding and prep schools, and "sadomasochism" is much too psychoanalytical a term for such ways of the world.

Gibson also never quite proves his major points that the "English Vice" is either English or a vice. I should have liked a more systematic comparison with beating in the schools of, say, Germany, and more attention given to cruelty to children by Spanish parents, before concluding that the English have a particular propensity towards fustigation or that the English have a monopoly on the maltreatment of children. And Gibson seems to think that Flabellomania is a vice simply because everyone else says so, and that birching must be abolished not because it gives pain to the many but pleasure to the few.

Gibson's treatment of the subject is, however, the most comprehensive to date, and the fact that the book was reprinted in 1992 suggests that may still be the case. There are densely packed chapters on the beating of children and young people in school, judicial, prison, army and navy settings; an amusing history of flagellant correspondence columns in nineteenth-century journals such as the Family Herald; an even more interesting section on flagellation prostitution and pornography; and a full-scale (psycho)analysis of the flagellant fantasy, focusing particularly on the elements of shame, frustration and impotence. This is rounded out with a superb collection of 28 illustrations and an appendix of Swinburne's flagellant poetry – obsessively repetitive on the subject of red bottoms. It's only a pity that such an exhausive study (364 pages) is not also definitive.

Rictor Norton

(This review was originally published in Gay News in 1978. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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