The Georgians: a true age of sexual discovery

The BBC’s adaptation of Vanity Fair may seem a little too sexy for some but all those bosoms and thighs are absolutely on target. In terms of raw sexuality, the Georgians are more than a match for the sophisticated post-modern Nineties. Anyone who saw the skin-tight breeches in ITV’s Hornblower can understand why the lack of birth control in the 18th century had very little impact on public morals. It was all there, out in the open, so to speak.

Georgian men and women not only enjoyed a robust attitude towards sex, they positively relished breaking the rules set by their puritan forebears. If anything, it is so-called cool Brittania which could learn a thing or two about honesty and tolerance. The formidable Duchess of Gordon, for example, knew exactly where her priorities lay. Discovering that her daughter’s fiancé had changed his mind because of the hint of madness in the Gordon family, the Duchess protested, “But my Lord, there is not a drop of Gordon blood in her veins.” The noble Lord pulled out of the match anyway but only because he was happily ensconced in the arms of his mistress Lady Melbourne and saw no need to change.

Hand in hand with their acceptance of sex as an inevitable and necessary part of life was a healthier attitude to emotion. Georgian men were and continue to be models of manliness because they were capable of expressing strong feelings. It was not uncommon to see men cry. The notorious libertine and Whig Party leader, Charles James Fox, famously burst into tears on the floor of the House of Commons after his mentor Edmund Burke denounced their friendship. William Pitt the Younger broke down in similar circumstances several years later when, in 1805, the House impeached his best friend Viscount Melville for embezzlement.

Although homosexuality was officially not tolerated and could result in the unfortunate man being placed in the pillory, the boundaries of accepted behaviour were extremely broad. There was none of the 20th-century insistence on defining what is heterosexual or homosexual. Charles James Fox, for example, adored dressing up and used to hobble around in high-heeled red shoes, frilly cuffs and bright blue hair. His friends were equally outrageous, particularly the Prince of Wales who had a penchant for bright colours even though they made him look fat.

Women, on the other hand, were much tougher both emotionally and physically. They had no choice. Often married to men they did not love, they conducted extra-marital affairs in the full knowledge that if they did become pregnant, they would not be able to keep the child.

Few were as fortunate as Lady Elizabeth Foster who not only managed to set up a ménage à trois with her lover the Duke of Devonshire and his wife Georgiana, but also had her two illegitimate children brought up in the nursery with Georgiana’s.

What usually happened to such women, as in the case of the Duchess of Devonshire who herself had an illegitimate child with the future Prime Minister Charles Grey, was that they were forced to pretend to be godmothers to their own children. Strange situations could arise as a result. Lady Bessborough, for example, had two children with her lover, Lord Granville Leveson Goser. He then went on to marry her niece Lady Harriet Cavendish who became stepmother to her own cousins.

Although lesbianism was probably rarer and certainly less publicised than it is today, Georgian women were no less aware of its existence than their modern counterparts. It is a myth that lesbianism is a 20th-century invention and there are diaries to prove it. The most famous of these is the secret diary of Anne Lister, an independently wealthy woman from Halifax, who kept a record of the women she seduced, nearly all of whom were married and neighbours.

The Georgian era was ended by the rise of evangelical Christianity, the prolonged war with France and the growing power of the middle classes. By the 1830s, Britain was far more sober and serious. Lord Palmerston found himself the only politician still wearing rouge in Parliament.

Those whose hearts belonged to the previous generation struggled to adapt to the new spirit of sexual propriety. Lord Melbourne, the illegitimate son of Lady Melbourne and Lord Egremont, protested to Queen Victoria that things had come to a pretty pass with religion being allowed to invade private life. She did not share his sentiments.

The Victorians have much to answer for. They exerted a baleful influence on the modern understanding of sexuality. their prudery about all things physical. Their notorious habit of putting wives on pedestals and mistresses on the payroll, not to mention their obsession with prostitutes and flagellation, have caused the widespread misunderstanding that human beings discovered the joy of sex only with the help of Dr. Alex Comfort.

This would indeed come as a surprise to the Georgians. At one point in the 1780s, George III was so worried about the moral health of his subjects that he issued his Proclamation on the Suppression of Vice and Immorality. It had very little effect, except to provide amusement among aristocratic circles.

The next time a politician harks back to the golden age of the family, he or she should think carefully about exactly which age that was.

Copyright© 1998 Daily Express