Affairs, diseases and menages a trois – real Regency sex was even raunchier than Bridgerton suggests

Many fans of the Netflix Regency series, Bridgerton, tune in for the steamy sex scenes, as much as the period drama. But how authentic are the show’s love scenes compared to the experience of sex in real Regency Britain?

One reality not mentioned in the show is how common sexually transmitted disease was. An estimated fifth of Londoners suffered from syphilis in the late 18th century. And a greater proportion would have suffered from other afflictions, such as gonorrhoea or chlamydia.

William Buchan, a doctor who wrote a popular medical tract on the Prevention and Cure of the Venereal Disease, attributed the spread of “the gentleman’s disease” to lewd women prowling the streets of London with no restraint, and to a lack of moral education from parents.

Buchan advocated cleanliness and frequent washing or douches with solutions of quicklime, alkali or extracts of lead. The treatment for syphilis, once contracted, was equally perilous with pills or ointments made of mercury.

Read more: Bridgerton: in a show full of sex, many of the characters know little about it – the real ladies of the ton weren't so ignorant

Knowledge of contraception was also patchy. James Boswell, the Scottish biographer and diarist who suffered 19 bouts of gonorrhoea, would frequent prostitutes clad in “armour” (a condom made of sheep’s gut). However, this was less to prevent pregnancy and more as protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

It was not until 1823 that there were attempts to widely educate the population in matters of birth control when the radical, Francis Place, published his pamphlet, To the Married of Both Sexes. Place, influenced by the economist Thomas Malthus, was convinced of the need to control the population and saw preventing conception as the best means of achieving this.

Double standards and dangerous liaisons

Double standards were hardwired into society. Debauched women were seen as the carriers of sexually transmitted diseases, infecting the male population. But there was no sense that men bore any responsibility. Unmarried aristocratic women were expected to be chaste and were chaperoned at all times when in public. For aristocratic men, there were no such strictures – sexual conquests were signs of virility and masculinity.

However, this was not the full picture, and behind the closed doors of country houses and London mansions, the reality could be quite different.

Take for example, the close female relatives of the novelist (and lover to Lord Byron), Lady Caroline Lamb. Her aunt, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was in an unhappy marriage and lived in a menage a trois with her husband’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster.

The Duke and Bess had two illegitimate children, Caroline St Jules and Augustus Clifford. Georgiana also had affairs and in 1791 became pregnant by her lover Charles Grey (who later became prime minister). She was dispatched to France for two years and forced to give up the child to Grey’s family.

Caroline Lamb’s mother, Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, also had numerous lovers including the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Lord Granville Leveson-Gower.

Read more: Clairmont tells the story of the woman Byron cast aside

Ponsonby had two children with Leveson-Gower and manged to conceal her pregnancies from her husband. Her relationship with Leveson-Gower ended when she encouraged him to marry her niece, Georgiana’s daughter, Lady Harriet Cavendish, to advance his political career. Aristocratic women tended to have more freedom to partake in extramarital relationships once they had produced the requisite heir.

There are numerous examples of both aristocratic men and women having affairs, illicit relationships, dalliances and liaisons in Regency England. They graced the pages of the popular Tệte-à-Tệte series in the Town and Country magazine, which would thinly disguise their identities.

However, while men could generally escape condemnation (although particularly juicy gossip might result in bawdy ballads or caricatures), women who transgressed could face social ostracism and effective exile from polite society.

There were some who got revenge, nonetheless. Harriette Wilson, an accomplished courtesan had connections with those at the very top of society, including the prime minister, Lord Wellington. In 1825 sensing she might be at the end of her “career”, she published her memoirs, which quickly became a bestseller, and charged previous lovers £200 to keep their names out of print.

Unlike other concubines and mistresses, discarded when their charms faded, Wilson ensured she received some recompense and her death certificate described her as a “woman of independent means”.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Sarah Richardson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.