17/09/2012 16:13 BST | Updated 18/09/2012 14:00 BST

'Hysteria': Vibrators, Blanket Hornpipes And Why The Victorians Were No Prudes

This weekend will see the London release of the film Hysteria – a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England.

Based on a true story, it tells the story of how Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy), a young doctor in 19th century London employed to perform “pelvic massages” to well-heeled ladies diagnosed with “hysteria”, eventually invented the first electro-mechanical vibrator.

"Hysteria" was so termed after the Latin hystericus, meaning "of the womb" and was apparently characterised by "weeping, nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia and anxiety", afflictions believed to stem from a "disorder of the uterus".


Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy in Hysteria

Following the event of Dr Granville's labour-saving device, which promised to alleviate such unbecoming behaviours, mechanical vibrators became available for sale through such respectable publications such as Needlecraft and Modern Priscilla.

While the film explores the era's coy, repressed attitudes towards sex and masturbation, it's no secret the Victorians had a decidedly kinky side.


In Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism, Dr Deborah Lutz reveals the seedier side of 19th century London – namely anonymous sex, flagellation brothels and lots and lots of porn.

Dr Lutz told The Sun: “There was a moral code. You wouldn’t talk about sex in public, and novelists like Thomas Hardy had to take a lot of sex out of his novels to get them published.

“But the idea that Victorians were prudes, I think, is largely false.”

While the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 pushed much pornography underground, it did not stop the flood - with some 50 per cent of it to do with flagellation.

Indeed, the practice became so prolific in Victorian England it became known as Le Vice Anglais (the English Vice) and brothels began to offer flagellation services where customers could pay to undertake a flogging.

Theresa Berkely, a 19th century dominatrix and brothel madam, gained a reputation for delivering flagellation so expertly a special apparatus, named the Berkley Horse, was created to assist her customers in the pursuit of sexual gratification.

victorian courting couple

Prudish? Just wait til I unveil the blanket hornpipe...

Which brings us nicely to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and it's numerous euphemisms for sex. (Thanks Mental Floss for flagging this up)

The tale of St George and the Dragon told of a dragon rearing up from a lake to tower over the saint, but “playing at St George” casts the woman as the dragon in the bedroom, scandalously putting her on top.

Or “melting moments” – those intimate snippets of time shared “by a fat man and woman in amorous congress”.

We’ll leave interpretations of “blanket hornpipe” up to you.

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