Well, no, not really

There’s plenty that Bridgerton gets wrong about the Regency – in the first half-hour alone, we have young women referred to as “the Right Honourable” rather than “the Honourable”. One area where it almost gets things right, though, is just how much sex everyone is having.

Well, sorta.

According to The Secret History of Georgian London by Dan Cruickshanks, during the Georgian period one in five women in London was earning a living by working as a prostitute.

That book – yes, I’ve read it – is nonsense. The numbers just don’t add up. There never are enough men looking for paid nookie to support 20% of the female population. Not as prostitutes that is.

There’s a lingering perception today that before the Sixties, sex was something that gentlemen did, to their shame, with wenchy types, and that grand women had to suffer through when they became wives. Of course, this is largely untrue. Humans have always been humans, and we’ve always had the same urges. Admittedly the advent of contraception made life somewhat easier for those who wanted to indulge in extramarital bonking without becoming a parent, but it’s a complete fallacy that sex didn’t exist before 1969.

The auctioning of virginity was commonplace. The famous courtesan Charlotte Hayes, who lived and worked in London in the mid-1700s, a little before Bridgerton is set, sold her virginity for £9,000.

Well, no, not really. The sale of virginity when going on the game was indeed a part of going on the game. But that’s a useful illustration of something important about the age. Virginity was considered important. In fact, for a woman about to get married for the first time it was essential in most classes. For humans have always been humans and paternity of children mattered. Thus the complaints of a woman being “ruined” if promised marriage if and then she does and the marriage doesn’t arrive.

That vibrancy of sex life being celebrated did exist, sure. But among those who had been married already – among the women that is – and usually after they’d dropped a sprog or two.

Much more interesting than just the claim that the past was randy like the present are the observations about how it differed in the expression of the randiness.

20 thoughts on “Well, no, not really”

  1. “The famous courtesan Charlotte Hayes, who lived and worked in London in the mid-1700s, a little before Bridgerton is set, sold her virginity for £9,000.”

    Using https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/ , that would amount to 90.000 days (246 years-and-a-bit) of skilled labour wages for 1750.
    If true, the lady of Negiotiable Affection did some very serious Negotiating, and most certainly would not have had to do much for the rest of her life, even at London prices..

    That’s enough to raise a small army….

  2. “If true, the lady of Negiotiable Affection did some very serious Negotiating, and most certainly would not have had to do much for the rest of her life, even at London prices..”

    I thought that, if she sold her virginity for £9,000 she wouldn’t need to go on the game…

  3. “that would amount to 90.000 days (246 years-and-a-bit) of skilled labour wages for 1750.”

    Yeah but that assumes that she would live quietly on top of her pile of money.

    Think of all the magnificent balls that she had to organise, racing at Newmarket, card tables at Baden Baden, new wigs, hiring thugs to beat up the Duke of Ponsonby who had besmirched her honour…

    Haven’t you seen Carry on Don’t Lose your Head ?

  4. Ottokring, while I am aware of the existence of the whole Carry On franchise, I’ve never much cared for the brit equivalent of Lederhosen “humor”. :þ

  5. As London has no attractive housing for families, nowhere to put children, nothing for children to do, awful pollution, sky-high costs of living, etc., then the only reason to be there would be to work. I imagine the same would be true during the Industrial Revolution.

    Because it was mostly men who worked outside the household, I would expect to see a surplus of men vs women, and thus the figure of 20%-of-women would represent less than 10% of the population. In addition, the “excess” males who consume prostitution would be in much greater supply.

  6. I’d always assumed the Victorian age was the high water mark for prostitution.
    Some people, it’s said, knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.
    An examination of the marriages and births register for the period would show that men weren’t all cads. Many marriages must have taken place when the bride was pregnant.
    Given the high death rate in childbirth (complications, puerperal fever, etc) a widow with sprog(s) was an interesting proposition: fertile, and likely to survive to raise the nipper(s).

  7. “nothing for children to do,”

    There are still lots of houses with chimneys.

    Although these days they are probably all too obese to fit.

  8. Do we imagine for a minute that the sex lives of Georgians was exemplified by Gentlemen and courtesans. There were few of them and the morals and practices of those few are not significant compared to the plebs. Who were all at it. Who had public faces and private doings which everybody knew about but nobody mentioned. Who took their ‘wives’ to the market to sell or swap. Who didn’t divorce but moved just a few miles where you could start again under a new name. Or who attributed new babies to a late pregnancy by Mum rather than an enthusiastic amateur attempt by a daughter.

    Is this just an example of most of us thinking we’d have been a member of the aristocracy if we had lived then? Rather than a ditchdigger or a slattern.

  9. Many marriages must have taken place when the bride was pregnant.

    It was certainly the case with both my sets of grandparents. My maternal set had a 2 yr-old daughter and, probably, another on the way when they were married.

    My paternal g-m was 3 months pregnant with my father when she was married in 1902 (ironically she worked for the local vicar).

  10. Bloke in North Dorset

    my parents married in July and I was born in November. Apparently that wasn’t unusual in the ’50s.

  11. Bathroom Moose,

    “As London has no attractive housing for families, nowhere to put children, nothing for children to do, awful pollution, sky-high costs of living, etc., then the only reason to be there would be to work. I imagine the same would be true during the Industrial Revolution.”

    Not at all.

    Even back in the 1970s, London was a very different place. Eastenders is a soap opera that is (roughly speaking) how the East End was before the 1980s. The East End was industrial. People lived and worked there.

  12. As ZT points out, dubious info about brass is the least of this series’ transgressions. More poisonous bullshit to be ignored at all costs.

  13. I had the opportunity to read the Marriage and baptism records of one of my local churches. A small Parish church in a small village.I was amazed by the number of single mothers and illegitimate children there were in Victorian times.

  14. ZT, these black noblemen (no idea how many there were as I haven’t watched bbc “drama” this millennium) were presumably the forefathers of the top-hatted black industrialist who featured in the Olympic opening ceremony.

  15. Old joke – two birds chatting. “That Noreen’s getting married” “I didn’t know she’s pregnant” “Yeah, trying to be posh, in’t she.”

    An entirely standard habit for centuries was betrothal, at which point nookie can start, to be followed by marriage when mutual fertility is shown….

  16. “never are enough men looking for paid nookie to support 20% of the female population.”

    Yes there are and you are assuming one man does not want many prozzies.

  17. Or the Welsh version of the joke:

    I see Myfanwy’s getting married at the chapel.
    Oh. Does she have to?
    No.
    Well, there’s posh for you.

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