Bodice heat

Seventeen sex scenes - and more on video! Moll Flanders delivered what bawdy costume drama always does: a sexual Utopia. But where did we get the idea that eighteenth-century sex was easy?
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In the course of his hilariously candid London Journal, James Boswell describes a tricky encounter with one of the semi-professional friends - "escorts", he might call them now - with whom the young Scots lawyer slept while he chased fame in the English capital. He had met the woman more than once, and she seemed to fancy him. The problem was that - despite the sheep's-bladder condoms widely used in the 1760s - she had left him with a troublesome dose of clap. It wasn't the first time this had happened to the future biographer of Dr Johnson, and it wouldn't be the last. He still sounds crestfallen and a little hurt. It's a sad, funny, touching moment, quite unlike anything that might appear in a stay-busting, petticoat-rustling TV costume drama.

The ratings triumph of Granada's Moll Flanders, with its 17 transmitted sex scenes and even more on the video - has revived an oddly persistent British myth. For some reason, we want to believe that the 18th century and the decades either side of it - the Restoration to the Regency, more or less - offered a guilt-free sexual playground peopled by comely wenches and swaggering rakes ready to roll in the hay at the drop of a hanky. Popular culture last went down this road on the brink of the Swinging Sixties. Paperbacks of John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (aka Fanny Hill) vied with the Penguin Lady Chatterley as a token of liberation. Meanwhile, Tony Richardson's rambunctious film of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones established itself as the godfather of all romps. If sexual intercourse began for Philip Larkin in 1963, many others then seemed to think that it had peaked around 1763.

Back in the Sixties, the appeal of this fantasy of Georgian dalliance seemed pretty clear. It coincided with a revolution in contraception, the waning fear of disease and the trickle-down effect of a blitz on Victorian values that started in Edwardian Bloomsbury. Thirty years on, the cult has a number of fresh cues. It owes a lot to the brash provocations of the Loaded culture: ITV executives greeted Alex Kingston's Moll with plenty of delighted get-your-tits-out-for-the-lads banter. On the plague front, heterosexual folklore now basks in the consoling idea that Aids has passed by on the other side. And feminism has accustomed us again to the sassy and predatory roaring girls who flounce through 18th-century fiction.

All this amounts to good entertainment, but dubious history. Sex, for all but the richest of our ancestors, tended to be nasty, brutish and short. True, they seldom suffered from the disabling sexual myths that hamstrung the 19th-century middle classes. And when they got things wrong, their delusions often erred on the side of generosity. Many people in early modern Europe, for example, thought that women were unable to conceive unless they had an orgasm: a belief enshrined in the best medical textbooks.

Intriguingly, the sexual variations on view in Andrew Davies' adaptation of Defoe do have some grounding in hard evidence. David Nokes - professor of English at King's College, London and the co-adapter of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa for the BBC - comments that Aretino's famous Renaissance sex manual, the Postures, enjoyed a huge vogue in the 18th century. "It initially began with 24 positions, but new editions added more and more until it reached the fifties." Engravings done to illustrate Aretino reveal, says Nokes, that Moll's on-screen expertise is more than just "modern virtuosity" backdated to an earlier age. However, Aretino's work was "very much an aristocratic book"; as so often in period drama, the pleasures served up to a contemporary audience derive from the de luxe end of the market.

But physical constraints and moral pressures hampered enjoyment for the humble in ways that TV series often miss, even though the makers toil to get every detail of frocks and furniture correct. Few people outside the elite had any privacy; they usually lived in large households that combined family and business under one roof. Sex, even between married couples, had to take place within earshot (if not within sight) of children, siblings, parents, fellow servants or work mates. Anyone familiar with the cramped multi-generational flats of (say) modern Moscow will have a fair idea what this meant.

Even those merrily creaking beds that feature in period drama were in short supply. Evidence from court records about 17th-century seductions shows that the "floor, bench and table were often more accessible than the bed". Young people of the same sex - apprentices or housemaids, for example - would often chastely share a rare and much-coveted bed for years, much as Eric and Ernie did in those beguilingly innocent Morecambe and Wise shows. (Thriving gay subcultures did exist, though historians have only recently begun to discover just what went on in the male brothels, or "Molly Houses", of Georgian London.)

Most people, moreover, would have smelled far from sweet, and bad hygiene led to recurrent skin diseases. It's no accident that the most sophisticated erotic lore of the pre-modern era comes from regions - especially the Islamic world and Japan - where regular washing counted for more than it did in the Continent, where Louis XIV invited courtiers to his annual bath.

Contraception and abortion practices varied hugely, even in the same country, although birth rate data hints that British women did manage to acquire some degree of control over their fertility. But nothing was remotely fail-safe. Worries over unwanted pregnancy - not to mention the disgrace that it might bring - haunts many realistically described erotic interludes from the era. Even if you didn't pong too much, and overcame anxieties about conception, there was still the great or lesser pox to fret about. DH Lawrence once wrote a remarkable essay in which he claimed that the impact of syphilis on Elizabethan England soured our view of sex for centuries to come. True or not, a play such as Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida - crammed full of pox-related puns - reveals that the dread of Aids that has cowed the sexual imagination for 10 years draws on ancient terrors. If you did find yourself wounded in love's wars (a favourite Georgian euphemism), the highly toxic mercury "cures" for syphilis and gonorrhoea were often more likely to be fatal than the disease.

Moll's contemporaries did still find ways of reducing risks while having fun in the odd free spots of time and space available to them. Take, for example, the widespread practice of "bundling", common in pre-Victorian life, but seldom to be found in the TV director's repertoire of Georgian raunch. Bundling involved sleeping (or rather, not sleeping) together with your clothes on. Sources such as Pepys's Diary imply that it happened among men and women married to others, as well as couples who were courting or betrothed. It may well have involved most of the practices that a modern health educator would designate as "safe sex", but broke no social or religious taboos and carried no stigma.

In every case, it's easier for today's adapters to expose the flesh rather than the spirit. Any subtle sense of what went on in heads - rather than in beds, or even on tables - tends to be the first casualty in period drama. David Nokes suggests that Andrew Davies's portrayal of Moll "made her more guilt-free than she is in the book". He disputes the assumption that "if it's 18th century, it has to be a romp. That's why we wanted to adapt Clarissa, which is much more guilt-ridden." Yet guilt and misery (as Jane Austen knew) offer little in the way of ratings bonanzas. Moll's success will ensure that the turnstiles go on clicking in the lewd corner of the Georgian theme park. Every age has intimate troubles enough to send it off in search of a sexual Utopia. And it should come as no surprise that a heritage-obsessed society should locate its own in a romanticised past rather than a threatening future