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Sex and Sexability: On Writing Desire in the Regency Years

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Regency women were badly hemmed in. For centuries it had been assumed that women were far more libidinous than men, but in the middle decades of the 18th century the opposite conviction began to take hold. Women were regarded, not as lustful beings whose interest in sex could make them unmanageable, but as delicate, passive receptacles devoid of a libido and only interested in sex within the confines of marriage and for the God-ordained purpose of procreation. This dramatic volte-face in sexual attitudes was driven by a number of factors, but none more important than the emergence of female “conduct books” such as James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women and John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters, both of which were rooted in religious doctrine and both of which insisted that not only were women naturally elegant, chaste, and domestic, but that these virtues were the best way to secure a man’s affection.

The highly oppressive consequence of these strictures was that men and women came to occupy distinctly separate spheres, endlessly reinforced by a multiplicity of religious, legal, and social conventions. Men got a dynamic public world of politics, war, business, and adventure. Women got an airless private realm of purity and obedience in which their individual identities were submerged in their responsibilities as daughters, wives, and mothers.

In the Regency, the hectoring of Fordyce and Gregory could still be clearly heard (the former’s Sermons reached a fourteenth edition in 1814), while a flurry of new publications variously recycled, stepped up, and diversified the conduct-book crusade against female agency and, especially, female sexuality. Mary Brunton gave the so-called “evangelical” novel its finest expression in her aptly titled Self-Control, where through “the power of the religious principle” the beleaguered heroine, Laura Montreville, is able to resist the temptations of a highly permissive society and to curb her own enduring sexual attraction to the man who betrayed her. Eaton Stannard Barrett based his best-selling poem “Woman” (1818) on the seven key self-denying virtues that defined appropriate female behavior and that allowed women to preside “over national morality”: devotion, chastity, modesty, charity, good faith, forgiveness, and parental affection.

Perhaps most revealingly, in 1818 Thomas Bowdler published his popular Family Shakespeare, a ten-volume edition in which he expurgated “whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies” and in which he systematically targeted Shakespeare’s sexual references, many of which “are of so indecent a nature, as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.” Such editorial whitewashing was of course soon known notoriously as “bowdlerizing.”

The women and men who belonged to these prudery brigades, and who raised their often clamorous voices on behalf of the dogmas of the separate spheres, made deep and sometimes salutary inroads into Regency culture.

Their desire to effect social “improvement,” and to inculcate moral “respectability,” gradually transformed relations between the sexes, not only because they insisted that women behave with modesty and earnestness but also because, more urgently, they demanded greater civility from men, whose unbridled puerility and testosterone-fueled callousness had so frequently in the past gone without any sanction at all. Their initiatives were sometimes irrelevant, frivolous, or even irrational, but cumulatively they produced a burgeoning force of conservative reaction that claimed ever-widening circles of support and that soon brought the middle-class proprieties of the Victorian age clearly into view. Evangelicalism “is making way amongst us with increasing strength,” declared Walter Scott in 1818, and one day, he predicted, it will “have its influence on the fate perhaps of nations.”

Private letters contain some of the most impassioned thoughts of the Regency.

The strident sexual proprieties of the Regency did not prevent its authors from writing about sex, but they did force on them a series of strategies to ensure that they stayed within the bounds of respectability. Austen was the great master of the technique that used social constraint to heighten rather than reduce sexual tension. Pride and Prejudice is the finest love story of the era—perhaps of any era—and it continues to exert an enormous hold on the popular imagination, for to “fall in love” today still means in many ways to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy.

Yet their story is very different from what we might expect. Austen does not describe them as caught up in heated embraces or secretive trysts in the manner of so many romances both before hers and since. Instead, she conveys their passion for each other in fleeting moments that fall well within the confines of correctness but that carry a sexual charge that is all the more potent for being intermittent and so understated. Like Darcy and Elizabeth themselves, Austen makes us wait, interpret, agonize, and wonder. Nonetheless, their sexual attraction to each other is clear when they stare across the room, or touch hands, or dance, or even verbally spar, and eventually it proves overwhelming, both to them and to us.

Other authors used code words to denote but not explicitly name sexual desire. Thus in the Regency there are large numbers of young women and men “swelling,” “swooning,” “panting,” “blooming,” “blushing,” “burning,” “glowing,” “pouting,” “throbbing,” and “heaving.” Thomas Moore specialized in this kind of titillation, as seen in particular in his Oriental epic Lalla Rookh (1817), which is full of veiled sexual references: “Every thing young, every thing fair / From East and West is blushing there.” John Keats left less to the imagination in poems such as “The Eve of St. Agnes,” where “young Porphyro, with heart on fire,” steals up into the castle bedchamber of his beloved Madeline, watches unseen from the closet as she undresses and crawls into bed, and then appears before her “Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star.” Percy Shelley went further still in several poems in which he produced evocative descriptions of the physical act of making love, as in “Alastor” (1816), where the poet dreams of a passionate encounter with a beautiful maid. “He reared his shuddering limbs and quelled / His gasping breath,” Shelley enthuses: “ … she drew back a while, / Then, yielding to the irresistible joy, / With frantic gesture and short breathless cry / Folded his frame in her dissolving arms.” Passages such as this one led Keats’s parson friend Benjamin Bailey to damn “that abominable principle of Shelley’s—that Sensual Love is the principle of things,” and to fret that Keats himself was too inclined to the same principle.

Private letters contain some of the most impassioned thoughts of the Regency. The painter John Constable had to wait seven long years to marry Maria Bicknell, for her family would not consent to the match until he had achieved a reasonable level of financial security. “I will submit to any thing you may command me—but cease to respect, to love and adore you I never can or will,” he wrote to her in February 1816. In early June 1812, the 42-year-old William Wordsworth had been in London for several weeks and was missing Mary, his wife of nearly ten years, to the point where his body ached. “The fever of thought & longing & affection & desire is strengthening in me,” he told her. “Last night I suffered; and this morning I tremble with sensations that almost overpower me.” He was thinking of her all the time and urged her to “find the evidence of what is passing within me in thy heart … in thy own involuntary sighs & ejaculations, in the trembling of thy hands, in the tottering of thy knees, in the blessings which thy lips pronounce … and in the aching of thy bosom, and let a voice speak for me in every thing within thee & without thee.”

The strident sexual proprieties of the Regency did not prevent its authors from writing about sex, but they did force on them a series of strategies to ensure that they stayed within the bounds of respectability.

Keats is one of the great letter writers in the English language, and he wrote often and adoringly to his fiancée Fanny Brawne, although as tuberculosis tightened its death grip on him, he frequently collapsed into jealousy and despair. “A few more moments thought of you would uncrystallize and dissolve me,” he wrote feverishly to the nineteen-year-old Fanny in August 1819. By the following summer he was even more emotional: “You are to me an object intensely desirable. … I cannot live without you, and not only you but chaste you; virtuous you.” And five months later, as he lay dying in Rome, thoughts of her tormented him: “Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear,” he shuddered. “The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her.” Why had he not made love to her? “I should have had her when I was in health,” he snapped crudely.

*

Unlike writers, royal and aristocratic rakes did not attempt to work within or around sexual strictures. They merely ignored them. To be sure, they needed to marry respectably, to sire a legitimate heir, and to behave with courtly refinement to ladies in salons or wives in domestic settings, and while many privately sneered at these obligations they nevertheless retained a deep social commitment to them. Once they had stepped outside polite circles and posturings, however, they frequently reveled in almost unfettered sexual freedom. According to the libertine creed, they were allowed—indeed entitled—to sow their wildest oats, and they proceeded to do so without guilt, guile, or the slightest intention of paying heed to the working-class radicals who despised them or the evangelical Christians who were working hard to raise the standards of male chivalry. “In the company of many of our fashionable women the greatest libertine need be under no restraint, except in guarding himself from the use of a few broad expressions,” lamented one commentator in 1812.

The Regency was the last great brazen huzzah for rakes before the sobering and much stricter mores of the Victorian age took at least some of the wind out of their sails. The Regent himself retained his deep weakness for women, and in 1812 Leigh Hunt launched his libelous assault on him as “a libertine” and “a despiser of domestic ties.” The slovenly and often unwashed Charles Howard, eleventh Duke of Norfolk, married twice, fathered six children with his mistress, and took lovers “without delicacy and without number” right up until his death in 1815, aged 69. According to the Scourge magazine, George Hanger, soon-to-be-fourth Baron Coleraine, remained at 61 years old a “Paragon of Debauchery” as well as the Regent’s “Confidential Friend.”

The Earl of Egremont, art patron and philanthropist, had eight children with his wife Elizabeth Ilive (seven of whom were born before their marriage and therefore illegitimate), four with Elizabeth Fox, and—allegedly—two (or possibly three) with Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, leading the diarist Thomas Creevey to write of “my Lord’s Seraglio.” When a lady asked the Duke of Wellington if it was true that, following his victory at Waterloo, he had enjoyed the attention of many women, he replied briskly, “Oh yes! Plenty of that! Plenty of that!” Among the younger Regency men, Wellington’s nephew, William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the future fourth Earl of Mornington, was an irreclaimable womanizer, while Viscount Palmerston (nicknamed “Cupid”) fathered children with the married Lady Cowper, paid a regular allowance to a woman calling herself “Emma Murray,”and in private diaries from 1818 and 1819 kept meticulous records of his sexual assignations (“visits”), referring to them as “fine days” and “fine nights” and occasionally adding a proud figure “2,” presumably as an indication of his virility.

Perhaps the most notorious Regency dissolute, though, was Lord Yarmouth, later third Marquess of Hertford. William Makepeace Thackeray used him in Vanity Fair as the model for the malignant Marquess of Steyne, while Nicholas Suisse, Hertford’s valet, left a scabrous account of what he saw and heard in his lordship’s house. . .

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Excerpted from The Regency Years by Robert Morrison. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Morrison. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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