‘our modern delicacy’ : Sexual Euphemism in the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Marianne Burton

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

56 Downloads (Pure)


This thesis considers how nineteenth-century novelists employed sexual euphemism to avoid the constraints placed on them by editors and publishers, circulating libraries, and by the ‘informal censorship which English readers imposed on their respectable fiction’ (Ruth Bernard Yeazell 1982:340).
It suggests a move occurred from simple linguistic euphemism in the early years of the century to contextual euphemism later in the century, and that this played a key role in innovation in the British novel, aiding rather than hindering ‘British realism’ by introducing uncertainty into sexual narrative which reflected, and reflects, social realities within our ‘unknowable communities’.
The introductory chapter gives an overview of the trope, and suggests that sexual reticence was regarded in the nineteenth century as representative of an advanced state of civilization rather than prudery. The second chapter examines Charlotte Turner Smith’s The Wanderings of Warwick (1794) and Sophia Lee’s The Life of A Lover (1804), with additional reference to Smith’s first novel Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788). It considers these novels’ transparent approach to sexual themes, using stable linguistic euphemism as a decorous but unambiguous method of narration. Chapter 3 considers George Eliot’s treatment of the child as sexual referent, including pregnancy, miscarriage, and childlessness. Chapter 4 presents an examination of how the ubiquity of the social kiss in the narrative of Wilkie Collins enabled him to include kisses recording extreme physical sensation, with particular attention to his last completed novel The Legacy of Cain. Chapter 5 considers Henry James’ examination of the influence of socio-moral sexual euphemism on the cognition and behaviour of his protagonists in Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors in proleptic illustrations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Roberts, Adam, Supervisor
Award date1 Jan 2014
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • sexual euphemism
  • nineteenth century
  • novel

Cite this