Yes, that’s right, boys and girls, it’s time to talk about sex. Are you all sitting comfortably? Good.
(Actually, I don’t care if you are.)
They considered the ideal number of children for a family to be eleven. (George III had fifteen…)
Why eleven? Who knows? But it may very well have to do with the high rates of infant mortality in the period.
There are even sex manuals from the period and slightly earlier detailing how to ensure conception. (Yes, indeed there are. No, you can’t see them.)
This they believed was furthered by the man giving the woman a good time. The greater her enjoyment, the greater the chances of conception.
They also had firm ideas about how to get boys–we learn this from the invaluable scribblings of Captain Grose in the late 18th century. It was called riding rantipole or the dragon riding St. George–the lady on top, as it were. And this was said to get a bishop (a boy).
(I implore you, do not ask me if this works…I have no evidence one way or the other, I assure you. I’m just telling you what they thought.)
Because children were essential to a family’s business, to inheritance, to property. Children were effectively your pension plan and your retirement carers.
Remember too that the high infant mortality rates do not belong exclusively to one class more than another. Within the memories of many of their grandparents–so just over 100 years–Queen Anne had seventeen pregnancies and births and not one of her children lived to adolescence.
And no, there wasn’t really any such thing as birth control. Well, yes and no…
Again, according to Grose, there were prophylactics called cundums, named after the individual who thought of the idea. We know Casanova had one of sheep’s gut that he tied in place with a pink ribbon. But as it will have been used and washed and used and, er, washed or not, as the case may be, I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions about its effectiveness.
But birth control in those days was more generally spelled, ‘having a mistress’. And that will have been how many men dealt with it.
Now, before we go passing a great deal of judgement from our hindsight position of 21st century medical care and physical well-being, it’s vital to remember that at the best of times, childbirth in the early 19th century was a chancy business.
Women’s internal organs will have often been severely malformed due to the corsets they wore from childhood…and if the doctor told you that one more pregnancy would most certainly kill your wife, you might approach the situation somewhat differently. Abstinence was not generally seen as a realistic option, nor was masturbation, so they’re not considering it as adultery or as wrong.
(Ian Kelly’s fine biography of Beau Brummell talks about how the boys at Eton were weekly lectured about the evils of masturbation. Besides hellfire, which is always a useful deterrent, they believed it led to physical deformities, excessive drooling and blindness, and told the boys so.)
London was at the time the sex capital of Europe. And the gentleman’s world of London, the world of White’s and Brooks’ and Boodle’s, had a strong measure of sexual indulgence about it.
King Street, which was most famous for its high class brothels, abuts onto St. James’s Street where those clubs are located…it was just a stroll away for the men of Mayfair and St. James’s.
The house of the possibly most famous courtesan of the era, Harriet Wilson, where she entertained Brummell, Wellington, et al. was there, but hers wasn’t the only one by any means.
Nor was this, in any way, a society ignorant about sex or sheltered from the realities of it.
The early 19th century is still an essentially rural society–despite the beginnings of industrialisation in the north. On a farm, horses, bulls, dogs are all in possession of their crown jewels and procreation is happening all around. So the women and men of whatever class would have been fully conversant with the facts of life. It’s hard not to be in those circumstances.
Their clothes too were designed to heighten nature’s endowments and they added what they could to this. Women were known to wear nothing but a buff coloured silk chemise under their pale muslins, which when dampened, clung most faithfully to the wearer’s body and especially to her thighs, thus making it appear as if she wore nothing at all underneath her gown.
The men’s breeches, again tight, were cut with one thigh slightly roomier to accomodate the crown jewels. If one were wearing buckskin breeches, one generally had them cut tightly, then for the first wearing, soaked them so that they dried as a second skin.
Nor were they particularly strict about marriage being a necessary prelude to sexual relations. In the 1780’s, it’s recorded that 58% of first births occurred within less than nine months of the marriage.
By 1800, 40% of women getting married were already pregnant. So by the early 19th century, although the general attitude toward promiscuity outside of wedlock is changing, it’s changing slowly, and that mostly due to the grassroots popularity of Methodism.
This isn’t to say they thought of nothing but sex. For this is also the era where a collective social conscience first appears–in 1812 the pillory for women was finally abolished, debtors and their families were at last separated from felons in prison, and in response to the abuse of children in the industrial north, the 1598 Apprenticeship Acts were reformed.
So there you are. They weren’t ignorant, they weren’t Victorians, and they weren’t prudes. And though they never reached nor aspired to the levels of sexual indulgence of 18th century France, still, they were pretty dashed sexy.
And they knew it.