Every generation likes to think it invented sex. After all, the alternative is to accept your parents were at it, which is unthinkable. But attitudes towards sex – how we talk about it, how open and relaxed we are about it – do fluctuate. You can’t track a straight, progressive line from year zero to now, here in 2015.
My first two novels are set in 1720s London. This is long before the British Empire, long before we began to believe in that disastrous idea of the ‘stiff upper lip’. London was a city of 600,000 souls, with no police force. Its inhabitants were loud, demonstrative and prone to rioting. And with high mortality rates (thank you, gin and syphilis), disproportionately young.
Is it any surprise, then, that it was a wild, dangerous, permissive place? One shocked Swiss traveller to London in 1726 wrote that ‘debauch runs riot with an unblushing countenance’.
This was the age of bawdy houses, of rakes, whores and highwaymen determined to make the most of their short lives. The age of Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress. There was a huge, open appetite for sex and in a tough, unpredictable world, there were plenty willing to sell it.
It’s been estimated that one in every five women was involved in the sex trade in London. Brothels traded openly and girls stripped off in late-night coffeehouses. Some would dance over polished silver trays in the candlelight, casting reflections for the men (always men) to enjoy.
It was a hard life, fraught with the worst kinds of abuse and suffering. But high-class ‘courtesans’ were treated like celebrities, gossiped over in the taverns, criticised and adored.
If you preferred to read about sex, booksellers sold under-the-counter ‘whore’s dialogues’. In these astonishingly candid texts (even for today), an experienced woman teaches the art of lovemaking to a naive friend. The younger girl then rushes off to test this advice – and reports back every intimate detail. Everything is discussed, from foreplay to the best positions, even methods of contraception. And we thought Sex and the City was groundbreaking.
If you were attracted to your own sex, of course life was very dangerous indeed. Four men caught in a molly house (a gay brothel) were hanged for sodomy in 1726. There were no direct laws against ‘the game of flats’ – lesbian sex – but a woman who dressed and acted as a man would be severely punished if caught.
There were also secret places that catered for more unusual tastes. While researching my second novel, I discovered the short memoir of Thomas Neaves, the captain of a gang of thieves, hanged at Tyburn in 1728. He describes a brothel specialising in what we would now call fetish. In one room, a dominatrix called ‘Mrs Margery’ sits eating her supper, ‘whilst a Man lyes under the Table imitating a Dog, and gnawing the Bones, which Mrs Margery throws under the Table’. What happens in the next room is too extreme to describe here. When it comes to sex, there really is nothing new under the sun.
But for every rake enjoying a life of debauch, there was an outraged citizen, disgusted and appalled by the immorality of the town. After all, this was also the age of The Society for the Reformation of Manners, headed by the zealous magistrate Sir John Gonson. The Society sent informers into brothels, and was responsible for hundreds of sex workers being punished with hard labour.
As for the ruling classes, they enjoyed much greater freedom – but then that’s one of the few fixed truths of history. Lord Hervey was known to have had affairs with both men and women. (Leading Mary Montagu to declare, ‘there are three sexes: men, women and Herveys.) It didn’t stop Hervey becoming Vice-Chamberlain and the Queen’s closest confidant. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales had a mistress called Miss Vane, who described her royal lover as being ‘ignorant to a degree inconceivable, but not impotent’. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
As the century wore on there was a change in attitudes. Decades of vice had taken their toll on the populations’ health. Social and religious reformers campaigned to clean up the streets. By the time Queen Victoria reached the throne, most people were shocked by their ‘wicked’ ancestors. An introductory essay to Lord Hervey’s letters, written in the 1930s, apologises to readers for some of the language and attitudes of the time. Two hundred years on, and the early Georgians were still scandalising future generations.
Well, they weren’t perfect – but they certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. That Swiss traveller to London in 1726 also reported that the English were ‘mighty swearers’ and ‘very fond of liquors’. Perhaps we haven’t changed so much after all.
If you’re interested in reading further on this subject, I would recommend Julie Peakman’s Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century and The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala. For a more general and very entertaining account, there’s The Secret History of Georgian London by Dan Cruickshank.