One of my favorite books of 2013 is Caroline Linden’s Love and Other Scandals. It’s the first in a series in which young women discover an erotic serial called 50 Ways to Sin. Ms. Linden wrote a blog post about the inspiration for the book for Amazon. I wanted to know more and she graciously agreed to answer my questions about the racy side of the Regency world.
Dabney: In your Amazon post you wrote:
Erotica was hardly new in the nineteenth century—and it made Fifty Shades of Grey look tame. The School of Venus (1680) is written as a lesson from a woman to her young friend, instructing the young girl (in explicit detail) how to lose her bothersome virginity to a friendly neighbor. Stories featured sex toys, including one that could spurt warm milk at the press of a spring. Fanny Hill (1748) may be the most well-known bawdy book of the time, with Fanny’s exploits in prostitution described in such extravagant detail, the publisher was arrested and the novel banned. Naturally, it sold like hotcakes underground.
This was the model I used for the erotic stories in Love and Other Scandals, called 50 Ways to Sin. Lady Constance, a woman of London, describes her amorous adventures in a serial publication that is at once the most talked-about and taboo topic in town. Joan goes to great lengths to get copies, and then to hide them from her mother (obviously she would have wanted her own Kindle account). She debates their authenticity with her friends. When she starts falling in love with the hero, Tristan, she’s even more curious to know how accurately the stories depict love and sex.
Tell me more about these two books–I’ve heard about Fanny Hill but never read it.
Oh my! Well, there is plenty to say about those. Anyone who thinks earlier centuries were more prudish is…wrong.
Fanny Hill is pretty famous. According to one story, it was written on a dare to produce a lewd work without using any dirty words (which it doesn’t). Since the author was in debtor’s prison, I think he just wanted to make money and knew that sex would sell. It’s considered the first English pornographic novel, and both the author and publisher were arrested and charged with corrupting the king’s subjects for it. As late as 1963 the book was banned for being obscene.
Anyway, Fanny is a young woman who leaves her ordinary, honest life and goes to London to seek her fortune. She’s pretty, naive, and relatively free of inhibitions, and promptly gets swept up by a madam in search of fresh girls. From there she has quite the range of experience; a fellow (female) prostitute initiates her into sex, by letting her watch another couple and then with a little hands-on demonstration. Even though her first time with a man is painful she embraces it out of her instant, overpowering love for the man. Fanny seduces her keeper’s servant, enjoys an evening of sexual exhibition, and helps a fellow prostitute entice a mentally disabled man into bed for sport. She regrets that last one a bit, but the only thing that she really dislikes is the time she spies on two handsome young men getting it on together.
There are a few things that struck me about Fanny’s experiences. First, she likes being a prostitute. Despite being “an honest country maid” she gets past her blushes pretty quickly, whether it’s with the client who can only get it up when she’s beating him raw, or the night she takes turns with three other prostitutes doing their clients on the dining table for everyone’s enjoyment. Fanny’s libido is strong and healthy, and she views getting paid for her pleasures as a very equitable arrangement. It’s hard not to wonder if this is an 18th century man’s preferred view of prostitutes: they’re not victims, they are enthusiastic professionals! They like it! There is nothing at all wrong with patronizing them!
Of course, the second thing that one notices is that Fanny’s pretty lucky in her career; her lovers/clients generally take good care of her (in a sexual way as well as materially) and even when she gets turned out by one protector for shagging his servant, it’s done pretty politely. And at the end of the book, after making her fortune, Fanny manages to meet again the man who took her virginity, whereupon (spoiler!) she marries him.
The School of Venus (from 1680!) is less fanciful and less subtle. The frontispiece is an illustration of women choosing dildos from a market stall. It’s dedicated to a whore: “with what eagerness you perform your Fucking exercises is sufficiently known to the many who have enjoyed you… you scorn monopolizing your Cunt to a single keeper but have generously refused no man…” It’s written as a dialogue between Katherine, a curious young woman, and Frances, her older cousin (or friend). In the first part Frances relates, a little smugly, all the fun Katy is missing by obeying her mother’s commands to keep the men at bay.
Frances spells it out very plainly: “when a man thrusts his Prick into a Woman’s Cunt, it is called Fucking.” And Katy (who is 16) is eager to learn. She asks many questions, inviting Frances to instruct her on hand jobs, foreplay, sexual positions, masturbation, and finally advise her on how to find a “Fucking friend” of her own. Worried it might be a sin? Don’t be, Frances assures Katy. “I am sure it Women govern’d the world and the Church as men do, you would soon find they would account fucking so lawful that it should not be accounted a Misdemeanor.” In fact, it’s good for her, as “private fucking” will allow her to attain a confidence sadly lacking in most ladies. Did I mention it’s illustrated as well?
The second part is Katy telling Frances how effectively she took the lessons to heart with a neighbor named Roger (who, shockingly, was delighted and eager to help, as often as possible). My favorite story from that one is the time they wanted to get it on, but were at a party in full view of dozens of people. Happily Roger had a little penknife, so he just made a hole in her dress and petticoats and had her…ahem…sit on his lap. There is no explanation of how she explained the hole in her dress later…
Fanny is a prostitute, a fallen woman, but Frances and Katy are considered honest women–just really horny women. Even though the sex might be painful, especially in the beginning (Fanny is left bloodied more than once) the pleasure in the end makes them forget all about it and look forward to another bout. I think sometimes historical romance heroines take on that Victorian anticipation of “lying back and thinking of England.” I liked that anyone reading these stories–which were both SERIOUSLY underground publications!–would come away pretty intrigued by sex, and aware of the various ways people can pleasure each other and themselves. So that’s what I tried to get across in creating 50Ways to Sin.
Fanny is dense and florid reading, with sentences that go on forever in that 18th C. way. Venus is sharper and quicker, with lots of vulgar language (Frances really doesn’t want Katy to go forth uneducated in any way; she gives lots of synonyms).
Dabney: I have to ask, did you think up the title 50 Ways to Sin? And do you plan to reveal the writer of 50 Ways to Sin?
No, 50 Ways to Sin was not my title. I had a long list of possibles, but in the end Avon chose the title. Apparently there was a marketing meeting and they voted…
I do plan to reveal the author! Eventually. Why? Do you think it’s already obvious???
Dabney: No, I do not think it is obvious.
The things that happen in 50 Ways to Sin are quite bawdy and are read as though they are fact disguised as fiction. Is it really likely that lusty lovers debauched one another in their boxes at the theatre?
Thank god. That would have been a real downer, if I’d given it away already…
I want the stories to be on the line between fact and fiction–just possible and plausible enough that people couldn’t declare them fictional, and of course they are even more shocking if factual. Are they likely? No, that wouldn’t be titillating. Incredible but technically possible, in a “how-could-she-get-away-with-that?” way… ? I felt that would be more likely to rivet people, since everyone would be very keen to solve that mystery as well.
Like the opera scene: I think it’s just possible for a man to hide out of sight in an opera box, especially if he slipped in after the lights were dimmed. Skirts in the 1820s were much wider and fuller than in earlier decades, making it easier to reach up them. And an opera is pretty loud and distracting. Could two people in a dark corner get down? Yeah, if they were determined and somewhat cautious–not something most people would ever attempt but I bet a few of them considered the feasibility of it.
I think of the stories as Fanny Hill’s letters to Penthouse, if that explains it any better.
Dabney: Have you done research on the sexual mores of the ton? I’m always wondering where all those rakes get so much experience from. Yes, I know there are brothels, but did all these other sexually voracious married women, widows, and mistresses exist in reality? If so, I’d imagine sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies abounded.
I have, but darned if I can find most of it now that you asked. The Regency *was* a fairly liberal time in terms of morals, certainly relative to what came after. Most marriages (especially among the older members of the aristocracy) were far more business/political unions than love matches, which meant a bunch of people generally unsatisfied at home. So yes, plenty of men and women turned elsewhere for their personal pleasures.
Jane Harley, Lady Oxford, is a notable example. She married the Earl of Oxford but hooked up with a number of other guys including Byron, after he broke up with Caroline Lamb (who was also married–as was Byron). Lady Oxford had at least 7 children, by more than one lover (but probably at least one by her husband). Her brood was called the Harleian Miscellaney. She was considered to have crossed the line, in terms of morality, but her husband didn’t leave her. And she was a minister’s daughter!
And widows were often the most liberated women of the time! There’s a reason lots of authors write about them; they were free of all that chaperonage (virginity was no longer an issue), they could actually own property so they could set up their own private homes, and they had a clue, sexually. I think remarriage must have been sort of a double-edged sword for a lot of them, especially if they had some money, given what they would give up. So I suspect people understood, if a widow discreetly took a lover.
Other women, such as those who had lost their reputation somehow, may have had less choice, but some just wanted to live a wilder life, like Harriette Wilson, Wellington’s famous mistress, who became a courtesan at the age of 15 (just like three of her sisters!). Wilson and her sisters deliberately chose their career; they didn’t want to be tied down, they wanted to live well, and they wanted to be free to follow their fancy.
19th c. folks had some idea about disease, but it was rudimentary. Bad cases were obvious on a person’s face and skin, where it was hard to hide. There were condom shops, but the condoms were expensive and not very good; the “best” ones were animal skin or gut, and they usually tied on with a ribbon. Casanova used to blow up his before use, to see if they had holes. Condoms could also be bought second-hand, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how helpful they were against STDs….which were incurable and very much around. The French pox (syphilis) was well-know, as was gonorrhea (the clap). Who had it? Hard to say, right? Sometimes diaries seem to indicate someone had it, but not everyone kept them. But I’m sure there was more of it than one reads about in most historical romance.
If a married woman had a child, legally it was her husband’s, unless he could demonstrate that he couldn’t possibly be the father, like if he’d been away at sea for a year. Rumor might say differently, but only the woman would know (or maybe not!) for sure. Courtesans did have children, but they also knew more about birth control. They could send out a child to be raised by others, or give it up for adoption, and who would know? Widows could do the same, retiring to the country when they got too big to hide the baby bump (although those high waists did allow for a good amount of discreet expansion). This is almost harder to know than STDs, though, for obvious reasons. But when you think of all the birth control options women have today, and how many unplanned pregnancies there are, of course there must have been more back then. I just think it was easier to conceal a child back then because there were no birth certificates, hospital records, DNA testing, etc.
Dabney: On the whole, I’m glad to be living in a world without second hand condoms!
Thank you so much for sharing your historical porn expertise! I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, It Takes a Scandal. I can’t imagine what Lady Constance will get up to next but, whatever it is, I suspect it will be scandalous… even by the standards of today.