Baby farm via sheep-gut

PASSION AND PRINCIPLE: The Loves and Lives of Regency Women by Jane Aiken Hodge John Murray pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Love is a great antidote to idleness, especially for women, who, as the 18th-century writer Delarivier Manley pointed out in The New Atalantis "would by the charms of their beauty, and their sweet and insinuating way of conversation, assume that native empire over mankind, which seems to be politically denied them, because the way to authority and glory is stopped up". At no time was this more true than when it was just about to become obsolete, at the end of the 18th century, the age of revolutions, subversion and dawning independence. Sex cut through social barriers and women were quick to exploit every opportunity it offered, pursuing careers in the field of romance with the same vigour, ambition and self-interest that their husbands, lovers and brothers channelled into the church, the army or the law.

In her highly entertaining "pleasure cruise" along the wilder shores of Regency sex scandals, Jane Aiken Hodge, the author of numerous romantic novels and a good biography of Jane Austen, has put together accounts of the love-lives of 35 famous women of the period, from princesses to prostitutes, aristocrats to authors. Intellectual achievements are out; lovers and scandals are in, even when the material might seem heavily weighted the other way, as in the case of Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Fry, Mrs Inchbald and Jane Austen.

Many of the anecdotes will be familiar, from Lady Caroline Lamb's infatuation with Byron to Emma Hamilton's public affair with Nelson and the Prince of Wales's secret marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert. What is genuinely surprising is how incestuous it all was. A typical parenthesis goes: "Georgiana was hinted to be Fox's mistress, though everyone knew he was devoted to Mrs Armistead, whom he had acquired from the Prince of Wales." One is always falling over characters like Lord Granville Leveson Gower, who had a long affair with (and children by) Countess Bessborough, married her niece Harryo Cavendish, was loved by Hester Stanhope and blackmailed by Harriette Wilson. The fact that all the movers and shakers in society at the time seem to have had a blood- or bed-tie with each other helps to explain how the endless stream of scandal was contained.

Illegitimate children abounded in the age of the sheep-gut condom, and those substantial families smiling from portraits by Reynolds and Romney and Hoppner often had as many different parents as there were children. Sending your child to the brutally named baby farms was an option for the rich (Emma Hamilton got rid of one of her twins by Nelson this way, although it wasn't perhaps very tactful to name the other one Horatia) and it was quite fashionable among society beauties to become fat, as it helped to conceal the pregnancies. The Prince of Wales led the field in fathering bastards and yet had only one legitimate child, Princess Charlotte, who died with her only son and heir in childbirth, leaving the succession to the Duke of York and thence to his niece, Victoria. George III, with his plain foreign wife and 15 repressed children, may have set out to establish a high moral tone at court, but it was almost universally ignored; even the name of the period derives not from the monarch but from his good-for-nothing son, the Regent, and is fixed in the popular imagination as a time of almost unrestrainable libertinism.

For women of the middle class, marriage was the only alternative to genteel poverty or open scandal, as risked by Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. It is hard to take the stories of Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Inchbald in the light-hearted spirit intended by the author of this book, since they only escaped the dismal fate of lonely and impoverished spinsters by the skin of their teeth, or rather, by the use of their pens. The low status of daughters, and the drain they represented on the family purse made most women want to marry out of sheer guilt; the choice of husbands for poor women was limited and sex outside marriage resulting in an illegitimate baby was an unspeakable disaster. Austen spoke for a whole stratum of intelligent, dependent women when she wrote: "Poverty is a great evil, but to a woman of education and feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest." It makes rather a nonsense of the underlying message of this lively book, that love is every woman's birthright.

Comments