Politics Feminism

Getting Georgian England Wrong

Cracked's caption: "Right after the artist was finished, this thing went full-on orgy." What's actually happening: those officers are going to march out at 3 a.m. to meet Napoleon's army. (WikiMedia)
Henry O’Neil’s “Before Waterloo,” depicting British officers at a ball given by the Duchess of Richmond. They’ve just gotten the news they’ll be marching out at 3 that morning to face Napoleon’s army. Cracked’s caption: “Right after the artist was finished, this thing went full-on orgy.” ROFL, Cracked, ROFL! (WikiMedia)

My impression of was that it provides accurate information in a humorous way, but I was not amused by the over-simplifications in a recent post on sexual mores during England’s Georgian period. Yes, there was a lot more sex going on than in your typical Jane Austen novel, but the article implies that this was an equal-opportunity sexual liberation, which it emphatically was not. Here’s a sample (and you’re right if you guessed that the part that got me was where the author described Jane Austen as “a sexually repressed spinster who almost never left her hometown, so what did she know?”):

If the movie versions of Jane Austen novels have taught you anything, it is that relationships in the early 1800s involved snappy dialogue, lots of misunderstandings, and like 50 balls a week. But Austen was a sexually repressed spinster who almost never left her hometown, so what did she know. In reality, most people during the Regency were having a ton of sex, and a whole lot of that was before marriage.

Divorce basically didn’t exist in England until the 1850s, and even then only for wealthy men. So for people during the Georgian period, once you got married to someone you were pretty much stuck with them until one of you died of syphilis. But just like today, people wanted to make sure they were sexually compatible before marriage. This and the fact that birth control was basically nonexistent meant that by 1800 almost 40 percent of supposedly virginal brides were knocked up at their wedding. Almost 25 percent of first-born children were born out of wedlock completely.

This wasn’t some secret that families tried to hide because of the shame. Everyone knew what was going on in every level of society, and no one cared. If anyone in the country was responsible for half the bastards running around, it was the royal family. At one point, only one of Mad King George’s 13 children was legally married, yet he had at least 19 and possibly as many as 56 illegitimate grandchildren. And it wasn’t like these kids were hidden away; his sons openly lived with (some of) the mothers of their illegitimate children, and it was common knowledge and reported in the press.

If you didn’t want that level of commitment, there were always the brothels. Prostitution was not only completely legal, guides were published every year informing men of where to find them, and what sort of things they were willing to do, like a Michelin Guide for ass. By one historian’s estimate, in London alone prostitution was the equivalent of a $2 billion a year business.

If it turned out you couldn’t stand your partner after you married them, no problem; affairs were unbelievably common as well, especially among the upper classes. Spouses just turned a blind eye to the other’s philandering. The Duke of Devonshire even moved his mistress into his home and lived openly with both her and his wife for 25 years, and everyone in the country knew about it. But women gave as good as they got, and the Duchess gave birth to a daughter she conceived during one of her affairs with the future Prime Minister Charles Grey. That would be like if Angelina Jolie cheated on Brad Pitt and had Barack Obama’s baby AND NO ONE GAVE A SHIT.

Where to start? The article almost completely overlooks the double standard in sexual mores between men and women in the 19th century. “Spouses just turned a blind eye to the other’s philandering”? That’s far from the truth. Yes, men got away with all this shit, and some women of the very highest nobility, like Georgiana Cavendish, did too (but only because her husband never took the trouble to divorce her; he did threaten to take her children away from her unless she gave up both Charles Grey and his baby; that’s a little bit different than “no one gave a shit”). Women who left marriages over their husbands’ infidelity, like Bess Foster, were left penniless and also lost their children.

And for women of Jane Austen’s middle-class rank, sexual impropriety outside of a publicly-declared engagement (which was quite binding on the man; this is why Willoughby goes to great lengths to woo Marianne without formally or publicly asking for her hand, and why that is so potentially damaging) was a way to social and economic ruin. So how about a little sympathy for women who were economic chattel to men, trapped in a double standard, and who had to suppress their sexual natures or face consequences we can’t really imagine today?

And geez, let’s not even get started on the fact that many of the women all those libertine men were having their way with were servants, whose reputations and sources of legitimate income were then ruined, often forcing them into prostitution.

(No one calls Jane a repressed spinster on my watch!)

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