Sex in the Regency. My advice would be, don’t go there. Look at our own times. Is there a consensus on sexuality? Hardly, and yet everyone has an opinion. Trying to figure out sexual mores from a distance of almost two hundred years is a little daunting. Because for every discovery you make, there’s an exception, and you just end up even more confused.
Sex was for procreation. Except when it wasn’t. Yes, the aristocracy wanted to be sure that their heirs were actually theirs and not the third footman’s…but it didn’t mean anyone was going to enjoy it. Except for the sorts of misbehavior that were purely for enjoyment. Women were stupid creatures who didn’t have any sort of control over the physical desire they weren’t mean to know about. Anything you, uh, did on your own (see how polite I’m being today!) would cause a whole host of exotic, distressing, life-threatening physical and mental symptoms, and everyone would know what you’d been doing.
And oh yes, let’s not forget the distressing consequences of unprotected sex, particularly for women.
It’s enough to make you wonder why and how the Regency is now viewed as this incredibly sexy period. Because, of course, it is. The clothes, the clothes, celebrating men’s beautiful athletic bodies (never in the history of clothing has a style so blatantly demanded that you look there, yes, there–and I don’t count codpieces because they’re just silly). Wonderful, feminine, floaty, transparent gowns for women with not a whole lot underneath. It’s almost as though fashion was an acceptable means of erotic expression.
Romance has created a sort of never-never Regencyland which is a lot of fun to explore. I think it’s also a lot of fun to incorporate some real history into our fantasy. But how much, and what? Real events, real people? What books have you read that you felt really gave you a sense of being in another time and place?
I think Georgette Heyer created the world most vividly for me, in a way that Jane Austen couldn’t because she was, of course, a contemporary writer. Heyer both told her stories and revealed her version of our wonderful time period. In a way, we all recreate Heyer’s world, more than Austen’s. s
I think we’ve also created our own Austen world thanks to the movie versions of the last decade or so.
I also think we’ve gone way beyond Heyer, or what I remember of her (it was several decades ago that I read her!). I’d say Phillippa Gregory is a writer of historicals who gives you a very strong sense of time and place, and Nita Abrams does in Regency-sets. Although Abrams is NOT writing about the ton, she’s writing about outsiders (the Jewish society within society) and her characters are very believable.
a wonderful novel that takes place in the middle ages is MORALITY PLAY, by Barry Unsworth, about a clerk who runs away and joins a troupe of players.
ACCORDING TO QUEENEY, by Beryl Bainbridge, about the Thrale family (and of course Dr. Johnson) is sly, brilliant, harrowing (and full of details about all of Mrs. Thrale’s difficult pregnancies and deliveries).
ANYTHING BY SARAH WATERS (I still haven’t read AFFINITY, but I’ve heard great things about it).
One reader assured me that ladies did not do that during the Regency but I suppose I will not take her as an absolute authority. There’s this little problem of the existence of the Victorians…
But as to whether it was for procreation or pleasure, I’ll share something I learned while preparing a course on the history of childbirth. Some couples during the Regency vastly miscalculated their due dates, resulting in what appeared to be 12-14 month pregnancies. Hence they must have been doing the deed while they thought they were already “in the family way.”
Must have been for pleasure–and one could argue it was the husband’s, but he could easily have gone to a mistress instead. Most men prefer a partner who is into it and I doubt that has changed much.
What do you know about what people did and didn’t know about the rhythm method of contraception, Elena (or any Risky)? I read a fascinating bit in THE GODWINS AND THE SHELLEYS, by William St. Clair, that interprets a series of entries in William Godwin’s diary to indicate erotic encounters with Mary Wollstonecraft, and speculates that they were trying to use the rhythm method of contraception, only the contemporary version of that was simply wrong.
I find that utterly fascinating.
There’s this little problem of the existence of the Victorians…
*wipes tears from eyes* Love all this sex talk! I do wonder how so many people got the idea that the Regency was period of neutered sexuality? Have they read any actual history? Do they entirely misunderstand what’s happening to the secondary characters in Austen’s books (both Col Brandon’s childhood love AND her daughter, Lydia, Mrs. Clay, etc)? Did the complicated love lives of the Shelley’s entirely elude them? Or the even more complicated ones of the Devonshires? And let’s not get started on the royal brothers, or Princess Caroline’s trip to Italy.
Of course, it’s not clear that we’ve entirely understood the Victorians either. A couple of generations ago, there was Steven Marcus’s THE OTHER VICTORIANS. And coming in December, there’s going to be Sharon Marcus’s (no relation) BETWEEN WOMEN: FRIENDSHIP, DESIRE, AND MARRIAGE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND. It will talk about female friendship and homoerotic (not so much homosexual) relationships — in an effort to revision how we see personal and erotic relationships in general during that period.
I blogged about Professor Sharon Marcus’s earlier book APARTMENT STORIES a while back. She’s a brilliant, high-energy thinker (as well, someone said, as being so magnetic in person that you need to watch that the fillings don’t drop out of your teeth).
Really looking forward to BETWEEN WOMEN.
Pam, I haven’t researched what they knew about fertility much. I’ve been more involved with what happened after conception!
I’ve gleaned a few things. Some doctors thought that a woman was most fertile right after her period ended. OTOH since some women have a little bleeding during the first month of pregnancy there were also some who speculated that you were fertile just before. Which might be why some of those couples were so far off. (Also some women are just not that regular.)
There was also an old wives’ tale that redheads were the result of sex during menstruation.
A long way to say I’m not sure what the accoucheurs were telling their lady patients during the Regency. What did the St. Clair book say the supposed timing was?