My mild animosity toward the sexual silliness of our ancestors originated in my childhood. My father, though in most things a font of good common sense, was, sexually speaking, very much a old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool Victorian. Whenever a discussion of sex or anatomy or reproduction would arise in our house, he would immediately turn red and stumble out of the room. Early on, I learned not to ask. On the few occasions when my poor papa mumbled something before he bolted, his information was always uninformed, frequently wrong, and occasionally dangerous.
My father inhabited an earlier psychological universe and he couldn't possibly have imagined how the invisible worm has turned. If he were alive today, he couldn't watch movies or TV or read novels. Too much gross language, too much frankness, too much nudity, too much casual coupling. He would have been aghast and embarrassed.
Nevertheless, repression has its compensations. It is absolutely clear to me that people of his generation and earlier experienced pleasures that cannot be realized now. The brave new libertine world of hooking up and sloppy drunken sex and XXX sites gratifies the instincts, but at significant cost.
Return we now to the last years of the nineteenth century, when Helen and the great poet Edward Thomas went a-courting. In their young twenties, a couple of years into their anguished relationship, they (in Helen's words)
were sitting in the undergrowth of a little copse in a remote part of the common. Edward had said that he had never seen a woman's body, and I do not remember quite how it came about, but I quite naturally and simply without any feeling of shyness, knelt up in our secret bower and undid my clothes, and let them fall about my knees so that to the knees I was naked. I knew my body was pretty, my breasts wre firm and round and neither too small nor too large, and my neck and shoulders made a pleasant line, and my arms were rounded and white, and though my hips were small, the line of the waist was lovely. I was proud of my body, and took the most innocent pleasure in its lines and health and strength. So we knelt in the grass and dead leaves of the copse opposite to each other, he silent and I laughing with joy to feel the air on my skin, and to see his enraptured gaze. For as he knelt he gazed wonderstruck and almost adoring, quite still, quite silent, looking now and then in my eyes with a serious ecstatic look, his eyes full of tenderness and love, searching mine for any sign of regret or shyness. He did not touch me, but just knelt there letting hie eyes take their fill of the beauty that was filling his soul with delight. When, without a word, I lifted my clothes about me, he helping me, he only then said, 'Helen, I did not know there was such beauty.'
Scoff as you will, ungentle readers.
I know -- it's prettified and romanticized. But it's an innocence that cannot be invented. And I'm not scoffing. I don't think that there's a person on our continent or in our century as naive as Edward Thomas was in England in 1898. Nor do I think that there's anyone who could say what he said, and say it with such bedazzled and wonderful sincerity: "Helen, I did not know there was such beauty."
It's a world that we have lost.
(Helen Thomas unveils in her memoir, Under Storm's Wing).