Risky Regencies

What did they know?

Megan’s post about Ridiculous Teenagers got me thinking about a related aspect of Regency heroines. Along with a trend toward somewhat older heroines, there’s also a trend toward more sexually experienced ones. For instance, I’m noticing more widow and courtesan stories. But even among unmarried heroines, there are fewer of the old-style naïve virgin.

Personally, I find the extremes—either the clueless heroine raised under a rock and the unmarried lady who somehow knows everything and even what it’s called—need some setup to make them believable.

Just because Regency misses were not supposed to know anything about sex doesn’t make me think that was always true. There probably were some who were so closely chaperoned and secluded that they had no opportunity to figure things out. I could buy that in a story, based on the author’s setup, and I wouldn’t despise a heroine just for being ignorant (we all were once). But I also don’t like to equate “ignorant” with “innocent”.

I think there were ways a girl might have learned things, intentionally or accidentally. She might have overheard servants’ gossip. Living in the country and observing animals might spark curiosity–though I think it could lead to some funny mistakes, too! Gentlemen often owned some pretty explicit materials: books, pictures, naughty snuffboxes and the like. Though they probably tried to keep these items out of sight of ladies of the house, there could have been the Regency equivalent of stumbling onto an older brother’s Playboy stash. Moreover, if the lady had many sisters, or a large circle of friends, and especially if she went to a girls’ boarding school, I’d bet that at some point she might hear something from someone who heard it from someone else. Of course, the knowledge a heroine gets some of these ways might still be incomplete or incorrect—which could be interesting story fodder!

I could also imagine that if the heroine were raised in an eccentric, bohemian, liberal sort of family, she might know things that most didn’t. We also don’t know what mothers (or older sisters, or married friends) might have told a young bride-to-be. They might have told her to “think of England” but what if the friend or relative was herself the heroine of an earlier romance? What kind of advice might she give?

I don’t want all heroines to be alike, so for me, as long as the author has set up her background appropriately, I’m willing to believe just about any degree of knowledge.

What about you? What do you think they might have known? What sorts of unmarried Regency heroines do you find believable?


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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I agree with you Elena, I do think it is possible to have an innocent heroine. She doesn’t necessarily have to be 18. She could be a young girl whose family had no money until recently for a season, and now it’s a rich aunt who is sponsoring her pretty, younger sister. Or she could have been bethrothed and her fiancee died while trying to take down a highwayman. Or during the war or caught influenza while on the Grand Tour, in between hostilities.

I do like the idea of a heroine stumbling on some Regency naughty pictures!

zara hemla
14 years ago

One of my favorite regency series is the “Essex sisters” novels by Eloisa James. There are four Essex sisters, and they pass down their accumulated wisdom in marital topics (to a point :D) to their youngest sister. So by the time her book comes around, she thinks she knows everything about sex … she is wrong of course, but she has obtained quite a lot of info. I could definitely see sisters sharing their knowledge, no matter what the time period.

Megan Frampton
14 years ago

I agree, Elena, that probably the majority of young ladies knew something, if not all. People are naturally curious about those kinds of things, and young women (and men) are going to find out about them somehow.

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

I realize the trend is going toward the older more experienced heroine. In fact at times it seems as if the hero and heroine are barely introduced before they hop into bed, behind the sofa or into a moving carriage and go at it.

I like a wide variety of heroines so almost anything appeals to me as long as it is BELIEVABLE!! I live in the South and yes, there are STILL virgins who make it to their wedding nights – they’re rare, yes, but they do happen. HOWEVER, they ARE much better informed. I have a sneaky suspicion most Regency misses were pretty well-informed as well!

14 years ago

I agree that it’s all in the set up. Even the most shelterd miss has to have stumbled upon some information or shall we say mis-information.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Elena, I agree with you, elizabeth, santa, and louisa. It all depends on the set-up. As long as I can believe in the heroine, I’m okay!

Cara King
14 years ago

I researched this area a lot for a talk I gave several years ago, and I concluded that during the Regency, things were very much in flux. The late eighteenth century was already much more against vulgar expression and open talk of sex than the early 18th C…but even by 1820 they were still far from the height of Victorian prudery. (And even that applied more to the middle classes than the upper.)

And of course, even a lot of what the medical books said was incorrect!

So my general feeling is that most Regency misses would know the basics, but not the details (at least, generally not correctly.) But I also think there’s room for lots of variety — at the same time as THE MONK was a huge hit, Jane Austen’s family didn’t approve of TOM JONES… People bought caricatures of royal dukes having sex, while Bowdler’s family was expurgating Shakespeare.

And one thing that I found the most interesting — I examined the changes that Kemble made to the Shakespeare that played at Covent Garden, and concluded that most of the changes were to use more “polite” and less vulgar language, rather than to take out talk of sex entirely. In other words, his characters still talked about the concept of virginity, but might used the terms “purity” or “honour” instead of “virginity.” (Though they did keep the term “virgin,” which had a more general meaning.)

And a totally innocent and ignorant Regency miss who attended the theatre might pick up a few hints from any of the following, which Kemble left in:

My wife ‘s a hobby-horse; deserves a name
As rank as any flax-wench, that puts to
Before her troth-plight…

[She] arms her with the boldness of a wife
To her allowing husband!

That is another simple sin in you: to bring the ewes and the rams together, and to offer to get your living by the copulation of cattle: to be bawd to a bell-wether; and to betray a she-lamb of a twelvemonth, to a crooked-pated, old, cuckoldy ram, out of all reasonable match.

Go, play, boy, play;–thy mother plays,


deflowered maid

(Said by a woman:)

You may ride us,
With one soft kiss, a thousand furlongs, ere
With spur we heat an acre.

Okay, sorry, getting carried away here! I really need to do another Regency Shakespeare post sometime…it’s a subject that clearly fascinates me!


Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

Like others, I can believe almost any level of knowledge from an inexperienced heroine as long as the author establishes the background to make it believable. What I can’t accept is an inexperienced heroine with an anachronistic attitude toward sex, as if she were living in 2008 and had access to reliable birth control and didn’t have to worry about losing her reputation.

That doesn’t mean I can never accept premarital sex from a virginal heroine–I just want some awareness, before or after the fact, that premarital sex for a woman of respectable family 200 years ago was a Big Deal with potential Serious Consequences.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Cara, thanks for adding all that information and another Regency Shakespeare post would be very cool!

That doesn’t mean I can never accept premarital sex from a virginal heroine–I just want some awareness, before or after the fact, that premarital sex for a woman of respectable family 200 years ago was a Big Deal with potential Serious Consequences.

I’m with you, Susan. If that awareness isn’t there the stakes are lower–and isn’t good fiction all about high stakes?

Of course now Louisa’s comment has me thinking again (dangerous) and I suspect that the most naive heroine would be most likely to get into trouble if a seducer got past her chaperones. If she didn’t understand quite what was going on and where it was leading, she could more easily get caught up in the moment than a heroine who is more knowledgable. But it’s usually written the other way.

Linda Banche
14 years ago

**begin snip
What I can’t accept is an inexperienced heroine with an anachronistic attitude toward sex, as if she were living in 2008 and had access to reliable birth control and didn’t have to worry about losing her reputation.
end snip**

I agree. I see a lot of this in Regencies today. The attitudes are 2008, and because the story is a romance and we know the hero and heroine will get married in the end, it’s OK.

However, this scenario is NOT OK in the context of the Regency without at least a promise of marriage. I think most girls were very aware of the dire consequences of sex before marriage. Any responsible mother would have drummed warnings into her head.

There would still be misinformation, a few carried away by their emotions, those who believe “It (pregnancy, reputation ruin) won’t happen to me” and young girls who are seduced by villains. While I like a little fantasy in my romances, ignoring something that could forever change a girl’s life for the worse is not my kind of fantasy.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

I think we’ve inherited a tradition of polarizing innocence and desire, which is unfortunate because it’s far more interesting to have the two overlap. When I wrote The Rules (hint hint pimp pimp, coming out from LBD in England etc in a week’s time) I played around with the idea of a heroine who was innocent (for want of a better term) yet observant and curious.

Even so, there’s a difference between being informed and experiencing physical desire and attraction, something that is liable to throw you out of whack whatever your age or experience.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

I think we’ve inherited a tradition of polarizing innocence and desire

Very true, Janet. Personally I like to see a bit of sexual awareness (if not understanding) in even young and inexperienced heroines. Most teenagers are naturally horny–which doesn’t mean they have to understand their feelings or act out on them, especially in a historical context. But a properly raised Regency miss is still human.

Nicola O.
14 years ago

What a great discussion!

I think the only typecast heroine that I am heartily sick of is the virgin widow. For a while there, when the genre was dragging itself out of the 80s/90s standard of a virgin heroine, I ran in to so many of those I started to get dents in my wall….

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Oh, Nicola, I know what you mean. The whole “surprise” of her being a virgin was no longer a surprise after the nth book. OTOH if someone has a virgin widow story in mind, I say write it.

I myself am guilty of what may have been another trend–the widow who is not a virgin but whose past husband was not a good lover. But I promise you it wasn’t because I couldn’t deal with the idea of a heroine who’d had good sex prior to meeting the hero. I have some stories like that in my idea file, too.

I guess I don’t believe in intentionally following or bucking trends. Either can seem contrived.

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