Lord Tennyson's poem, Locksley Hall: Sixty Years After, is severe on what he evidently regards as the pornographic tendency of our age.
"Feed the budding rose of boyhood with the drainage of your sewer;
Send the drain into the fountain, lest the stream should issue pure.
Set the maiden fancies wallowing in the troughs of Zolaism,—
Forward, forward, ay and backward, downward too into the abysm."
There is some truth in this, but far more exaggeration. English novels, however they may trifle and sentimentalise with the passion of love, are as a rule exceedingly "proper." For the most part, in fact, they deliberately ignore all the unconventional aspects of that passion, and you might read a thousand of their productions without suspecting, if you did not already know the fact, that it had any connexion with our physical nature. The men and women, youths and maidens, of Thackeray, Dickens, and George Eliot, to say nothing of minor writers, are true enough to nature in other respects, but in all sexual relations they are mere simulacri. George Meredith is our only novelist who triumphs in this region. As Mr. Lowell has noticed, there is a fine natural atmosphere of sex in his books. Without the obtrusion of physiology, which is out of place in art, his human beings are clearly divided into males and females, thinking, feeling and acting according to their sexual characteristics. Other novelists simply shirk the whole problem of sex, and are satisfied with calling their personages John or Mary as the one safe method of indicating to what gender they belong. This is how the English public is pleased to have it; in this manner it feeds the gross hypocrisy which is its constant bane. Hence the shock of surprise, and even of disgust, felt by the ordinary Englishman when he takes up a novel by a great French master of fiction, who thinks that Art, as well as Science, should deal frankly and courageously with every great problem of life. "Shocking!" cry the English when the veil of mystery is lifted. Yet the purism is only on the lips. We are not a whit more virtuous than those plain-spoken foreigners; for, after all, facts exist, however we blink them, and ignorance and innocence are entirely different things.
The great French masters of fiction do not write merely for boys and girls. They believe that other literature is required besides that which is fit for bread-and-butter misses. Yet they are not therefore vicious. They paint nature as it is, idealising without distorting, leaving the moral to convey itself, as it inevitably will. As James Thomson said, "Do you dread that the Satyr will be preferred to Hyperion, when both stand imaged in clear light before us?"
Zolaism, or rather what Lord Tennyson means by the word—for Nana is a great and terrible book with all its vice—is not the chief danger to the morals of English youth. Long before the majority of them learn to read French with ease, there is a book put into the hands of all for indiscriminate reading. It is the Bible. In the pages of that book they find the lowest animal functions called by their vulgar names; frequent references, and sometimes very brutal ones, to the generative organs; and stories of lust, adultery, sodomy and incest, that might raise blushes in a brothel; while in the Song of Solomon they will find the most passionate eroticism, decked out with the most voluptuous imagery. The "Zolaism" of the Bible is far more pernicious than the "Zolaism" of French fiction. The one comes seductively, with an air of piety, and authoritatively, with an air of divinity; while the other shows that selfishness and excess lead to demoralisation and death.
There is in fact, and all history attests it, a close connexion between religion and sensuality. No student of human nature need be surprised at Louis XV. falling on his knees in prayer after debauching a young virgin in the Parc aux Cerfs. Nor is there anything abnormal in Count Cenci, in Shelley's play, soliciting God's aid in the pollution of his own daughter. It is said that American camp-meetings often wound up in a saturnalia. The Hallelujah lasses sing with especial fervor "Safe in the arms of Jesus." How many Christian maidens are moved by the promptings of their sexual nature when they adore the figure of their nearly naked Savior on a cross! The very nuns, who take vows of perpetual chastity, become spouses of Christ; and the hysterical fervor with which they frequently worship their divine bridegroom, shows that when Nature is thrust out of the door she comes in at the window.
Catholic books of devotion for the use of women and young people are also full of thinly-veiled sensuality, and there are indications that this abomination is spreading in the "higher" religious circles in Protestant England, where the loathsome confessional is being introduced in other than Catholic churches. Paul Bert, in his Morale des Jesuites, gave a choice specimen of this class of literature, or rather such extracts as he dared publish in a volume bearing his honored name. It is a prayer in rhyme extending to eleven pages, and occurs in a book by Father Huguet, designed for "the dear daughters of Holy Mary." As Paul Bert says, "every mother would fling it away with horror if Arthur were substituted for Jesus." Vive Jesus is the constant refrain of this pious song. We give a sample or two in French with a literal English translation.
Vive Jesus, de qui l'amour Me va consumant unit et jour.
Vive Jesus, vive sa force, Vive son agreable amore.
Vive Jesus, quand il m'enivre D'un douceur qui me fait vivre.
Vive Jesus, lorsque sa bouche D'un baiser amoureux me touche.
Vive Jesus, grand il m'appelle Ma soeur, ma colombe, ma belle.
Vive Jesus, quand sa bonte, Me reduit dans la nudite;
Vive Jesns, quand ses blandices Me comblent de chastes delices.
"Live Jesus, whose love consumes me night and night.—Live Jesus, live his force, live his agreeable attraction.—Live Jesus, when he intoxicates me with a sweetness that gives me life.—Live Jesus, when his mouth touches me with an amorous kiss.—Live Jesus, when he calls me, my sister, my dove, my lovely one.—Live Jesus, when his good pleasure reduces me to nudity; live Jesus, when his blandishments fill me with chaste delight."—And this erotic stuff is for the use of girls!!