Can we Reconstruct the Social Past?

I had an interesting conversation recently regarding present-day misconceptions about the past. In this conversation we floated the idea that historical romance had created its own, essentially false, depiction of life during the Regency. We talked about whether or not these inaccurate ideas were so deeply embedded that an accurate depiction of them could be roundly denounced.

There is a difference between history and historical fiction. In the case of the former, the point, one hopes, in writing about history, is to be accurate. Fiction serves a different role. Fiction, at some level, has to recognize the ways in which, say, a Regency Romance, privileges the needs of modern readers over historical accuracy.

What I constantly find odd, however, is that way in which we sometimes talk about the past as if those people were a different species. There is, I think, a speed at which evolution progresses — over millions of years, punctuated by the odd catastrophe that challenges the very survival of a species, and the speed at which social culture evolves. Millennia vs. a few years.

The human sex drive is an evolutionary survival tactic and our bodies have evolved to make procreation likelier than not. The way human cultures deal with that fact seem to be fairly fluid. I think historical researchers sometimes conflate cultural sexual norms with the human sexual drive.

In the West, we have this notion of sexual repression that comes to us from the Victorian age — women weren’t supposed to like sex, everyone was all uptight and people, particularly women, who appeared to embrace their sexual nature were punished. We could talk all day about the ways in which Western cultures have attempted to control and repress human sexuality. There is plenty of evidence of that.

However, no amount of social repression negates the fact that sex feels good. Our bodies are hard wired for sexual desire and to experience sexual pleasure. Repression is bound to fail. It cannot help but fail. We exist today because it did, in fact, fail.

My point, after all that, is that this trope of the innocent, unsexual female who has no curiosity or drive to engage in sex (and I do mean the act) seems to me to be fundamentally false. Of course there were people who refrained from sex until marriage, but there simply had to be a lot of people who didn’t. The idea that women didn’t have any non-social way to control their fertility also seems suspect to me.

The Heyer-esque innocent, however compelling she is on the written page, with an almost complete denial of female sexual agency sometimes bothers me and is, I think, more a representation of Heyer’s social millieu than the actual Regenecy — In other words, she wrote about a world as her culture norms imagined it ought to have been. Lydia in Pride and Prejudice is an example of that tension.

So, after all these ill-formed thoughts, what do you think about the accuracy of Regency Romance and do you care?

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11 years ago

Actually I don’t necessarily believe that the problem with Regency Romances are a misconception of sexual repression. I know enough about the time to know that yes there were some women who believed they needed to be virgins even though that had “yearnings” for lack of a better world. And I know that the Victorians were not all prudes. Some crazy sex stuff came out of that time. I think one of the areas where it fails in some cases is not offering a real representation of the times in the fact of how dirty it was. All those horses and carriages equals a lot of poop to step around. And there are many Regency romances that focus on dukes, earls, and marquesses. Jane Austen focused on families that weren’t noble and some of them, like the Bennets, were not wealthy. But I must admit that while I see the lack of poverty and dirt as a downside it’s one thing that bothers me about the Kate Beckinsale “Emma” and the Keira Knightly “P & P”. They are more Thomas Hardy meets Jane Austen since they focus on the dirt and Austen did not so much. And who really wants to read about that anyway?

I just think of the ghost town I’ve spoken about before, Pithole. When you tour it you hear that the streets were disgusting. There was a foot of mud, feces, and oil all mixing around in the streets practically every day because they couldn’t keep up with the maintenance and in the end the town only lasted 500 days. But who wants to walk in that?

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

I think that modern women who came of age in the time of reliable birth control do not realize how inhibiting of a natural sex drive, the fear of pregnancy was. The consequences far out weighed the physical sensations of the moment–for the most part. There were, in the Regency, in the 1950s, in every age, women who became pregnant before marriage. Some married the baby’s father; some were abandoned; some were hidden away for nine months and their babies adopted. Some died from illegal abortion. For the most part, the consequences of sex outside of marriage were mostly catastrophic for women until the pill was invented.

So I find Regencies that do not pay some attention to this fact of life more unrealistic than those with virginal heroines.

Another thought…among certain more protected levels of society, young women may not have had access to accurate sexual knowledge (unless their maids obliged their curiosity, perhaps). I don’t think today’s woman realizes how taboo any discussion of sexuality or the facts of reproduction were before our “sexual revolution.”

On the other hand, I think the Georgian Age was one of sexual excess. I’m reading a book, London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age, that shows how prevalent prostitution in all its levels were in that time. I’ve always thought of the Regency as a transition between the sexual excesses of the Georgian Age and the repression of the Victorian Age (which had a very different bawdy side).

But in all of these ages women were the ones who paid the price, either for the cult of repression or the sexual excess.

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

While I am sure women/young ladies had a healthy curiosity about and maybe even a knowledge (gleaned from older sisters, their maids, dirty books, etc)of sex those at a certain level of society also had many constraints placed on them that would prohibit “casual” sex that seems to be the norm in the “modern” world.

I think these women knew exactly what their virginity was worth when it came to the marriage market. I think they had a healthy fear of an unwanted pregnancy. There were no Paris Hiltons or Angelina Jolies who made it perfectly acceptable to have babies out of wedlock. The consequences of indulging one’s curiosity or burgeoning passion were severe. These women were NOT stupid.

Add to that the draconian measures some parents took to ensure they could deliver their marital prize to the highest bidder undtouched – governesses, chaperons, private schools in the middle of nowhere, country homes away from society and the lures of the London and it isn’t surprising that many of these ladies actually had little practical sexual experience, even if they had adequate knowledge and a sensual nature.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

For me the accuracy issue is not so much what a couple might choose to *do* (which as everyone mentioned, there were good reasons to be careful) but whether they at least *want* each other.

I first started reading Regencies when I was very young (3rd grade) so I never questioned why the heroines in some of them never seemed to be aware of sexual attraction. Now I find it unrealistic.

I have felt the same about the admittedly few inspirational romances I’ve read. The authors described everything else using the senses but when the characters touch, there’s not a spark. If there’s no attraction, where is the virtue in resisting?

But when it comes to Jane Austen, maybe it’s just my overactive imagination, but I think there is a subtle sexuality in her books, conveyed through dialogue and gestures. I can feel the tension between the characters even if they don’t act upon it within the story as written.

11 years ago

I think DIane Gaston is right. A Regency heroine, or any heroine in the pre-pill era, is truly TSTL when she shows no awareness of the very real disastrous consequences of pre-marital sex.

The level of ignorance for a well-brought-up young lady is also hard for contemporary young women to comprehend. The poor of all ages, living with entire families crowded into a single room, were obviously well-acquainted with the fact of life (and all other bodily functions as well). A young woman whose financial situation allowed privacy? That’s an entirely different story, and her ignorance could well be total, especially since she probably did not have access to Daddy’s pornography.

You do not have to assume pathological sexual repression as the only reason for self-control when it came to premarital sex. Common sense and self-preservation play a part.

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