Daphne, who is ignorant of the birds and the bees on her wedding night, might seem naive to contemporary viewers, but when it comes to courtship, marriage and sex, Bridgerton adheres to a certain level of social realism, even if it gets much more graphic than Jane Austen ever did.
“I refer to this season as ‘the education of Daphne Bridgerton’,” says Van Dusen. “She starts out as this young innocent debutante who knows very little of love. And she knows nothing of sex. And over the course of the series, we watch her transform entirely.”
Here’s a look at the realities of sex, romance and scandal in Regency England.
What was the marriage market?
Think of it as the high-society version of The Bachelorette.
Each year, a small group of aristocratic British families descended on London for the roughly six-month social season, when balls, concerts, dinners and other lavish parties brought together eligible young men and women, says Bridgerton historical consultant Hannah Greig. As depicted in the series, the season began when young women from noble families were presented before the real-life Queen Charlotte at the ball she first hosted in 1780 while standing beside an enormous birthday cake. (The tradition continued with each sovereign until Queen Elizabeth II nixed the practice in 1958.)
Romance was in the air, but the real aim was to bring together wealthy, influential families and “keep the money and the power within a fairly small circle of society by controlling the pool of suitors,” says Greig. Women such as Daphne would have had some control over who they danced with or agreed to court publicly, but the pool of candidates was limited, and perhaps only a few of the bachelors would have been especially desirable. “That’s what gives it the ‘market’ aspect,” she says.
Daphne and Simon stroll the promenade together to create the idea that they are a couple. Going public — with chaperones, of course — was a critical step in the courtship process. “People notice a couple together and it becomes taken as writ that they are engaged to be married,” Greig says. “Marriage is not just a private contract, it’s about presenting yourself in public.”
For women, there was enormous pressure to secure a marriage within a single season. If you returned for a second season, “you’re never really going to be seen as eligible”, Greig adds.
In Austen’s novels, courtship usually takes a year, says historian Amanda Vickery, author of The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England. Anything longer would “put female reputation at risk”.
There was not yet a formal age for debuting in society, but women were usually in their late teens, says Greig; men were a bit older, and had usually spent a few years on a “grand tour” of Europe — an extended gap year, basically — where they “pretended to look at art”, she says, and were known to visit brothels.
Would a single woman caught alone with a man be ruined?
If someone spotted an unmarried woman canoodling with a man in a dark garden, as happens to Daphne, she would have been in major trouble.
“No virtuous young lady could be alone with a man to whom she was not related. Not only should she be pure, she should be seen to be pure,” says Vickery. “Chastity, modesty and obedience were the pre-eminent female virtues. Her sexual virtue had to appear unimpeachable or she would be ruined on the marriage market.”
Vickery cites James Fordyce, a minister who published an influential book called Sermons for Young Women: “Remember how tender a thing a woman’s reputation is; how hard to preserve, and when lost, how impossible to recover.”
All this policing was more about money than morality, says Greig. “The point of marriage in the aristocracy is to produce a legitimate heir, so if there is any question abut the legitimacy of the person who is inheriting that estate, it throws the whole idea into disarray.”
Young women would be accompanied in public by a chaperone — an older family member or even a friend the same age. The point was to preserve their reputation and limit their contact with members of the opposite sex, lest they fall for an actor or footman or someone else inappropriate, Greig says. “There was a sense in which these women were considered property assets to be managed.”
So would Daphne know anything about the birds and bees?
Probably very little.
“There would have been nothing in the way of formal sex education — mothers might have given some premarital counsel to daughters, but although it almost certainly wasn’t actually ‘close your eyes and think of England’, it may not have been much more illuminating,” says Lesley A Hall, a historian of gender and sexuality.
“Married sisters or friends might have provided some information. Also, it’s clear that servants’ gossip also conveyed knowledge, though not necessarily helpful or accurate knowledge, to children.”
It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that feminists involved in the social purity movement began to argue “that it was wrong to equate ignorance with innocence and that girls should have some knowledge of sexual matters”. Hall says.
Since Daphne is the eldest of the Bridgerton daughters, she doesn’t have married sisters to turn to for guidance. Indeed, her younger sister, Eloise (Claudia Jessie), is baffled to hear of an unmarried maid who has become pregnant. The only counsel comes from her mother, who tells her what to expect on her wedding night using vague metaphors about rain.
A woman of Daphne’s stature might have glimpsed fashionable visual pornography, such as that by Thomas Rowlandson, says Vickery, or seen animals mating on the farm. But her exposure would have been severely limited.
Whatever the case, sexual naivete — or at least the appearance of it — would have been vital for a genteel young woman hoping to marry well, says Vickery.
“Doubtless her mother would have tutored her on the importance of submitting to her husband and producing an heir and a spare. But she would still be expected to be an innocent virgin on her wedding night. Any knowledge she might have had would be carefully concealed.”
Even their consumption of literature was restricted, says Greig: “There was great concern if they read too many novels that might give them lots of sexual ideas.”
But what about her period?
Women understood the significance of their menstrual cycle but not how it affected fertility, says Vickery.
“I have come across women’s diaries that note their monthly periods as ‘the arrival of the flowers’ and ‘the French lady’s visit’,” says Vickery. Women also knew that “if they bled they had not conceived”.
But ovulation was “little understood by the medical profession and there was disagreement about when a woman might be most fertile. However, all agreed that male ‘seed’ was crucial to conception.” It was also erroneously believed that female orgasm was critical to conception.
Would Daphne’s maid have known more than her mistress?
Frustrated by her lack of knowledge about sex, Daphne eventually turns to her maid, Rose (Molly McGlynn), for straight talk about the facts of life. It’s not a stretch to think Rose would have known more about intimate matters.
“Amongst the labouring poor, premarital sex was a common and accepted part of advanced courtship,” Vickery says. “A high proportion of ordinary brides were pregnant on their wedding day. The servants would likely be much more experienced.”
They may not have had much choice in the matter. Domestic servants were routinely regarded as prey by their male employers, says Greig.
Weren’t Georgians known for being a little decadent?
Yes, but as we see in Bridgerton, the lusty behaviour is carefully excluded from the ballroom, says Greig. Many historians view the Georgian period (1714 to 1837), which includes the Regency era (1811 to 1820), as the real “sexual revolution” in the Western world, not the 1960s. Over the course of a century, British society became much more secular and church laws regulating sexuality were left by the wayside.
“We know that Regency society is a very bawdy society, generally,” Greig says. “Extramarital sex is no longer illegal, most adult consensual sex is within the law, there’s a very open culture of prostitution in London. We get celebrity courtesans and mistresses.”
This permissiveness started at the top: The Prince Regent (later King George IV), who ruled as proxy for his father, the mentally ill King George III, from 1811 to 1820, had numerous mistresses, a secret illegal marriage and several rumoured illegitimate children.
Wouldn’t a man like Simon have wanted kids?
Yes. Simon’s stubborn insistence on not becoming a father may be one of the more implausible things about Bridgerton. “Noble men married to secure the dynasty. A peer determined not to have children would be absurd,” says Vickery. “Virility and potency were seen as archetypal male positive attributes.” At the same time, “Women were under considerable pressure to produce heirs” and were usually blamed when they didn’t. “Infertility was a source of shame,” she adds. It is likely, however, that withdrawal would be Simon’s preferred method of birth control.
Was there a double standard when it came to sex?
Bridgerton captures this aspect of Regency society well. “Genteel girls were expected to be innocent virgins on their wedding day to men of the world who had already practiced on married women abroad, servant girls, the odd actress and prostitutes,” Vickery says. “Men’s diaries are extraordinarily casual in reporting sex with servants. After marriage, a man had a right to demand sexual servicing. There was no such crime as marital rape. Women were everywhere told to turn a blind eye to men’s peccadilloes and indiscretions.” Until 1922, a man could divorce his wife for adultery alone but the same was not true for women.
This double standard meant that men were apt to despise and devalue those women who were prepared to sleep with them outside marriage, Vickery explains, quoting the elder Lord Sandwich’s colourful admonition: “He that doth get a wench with child and marries her afterwards is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it on his head.”
It was not unheard of for a married woman to have an affair once she’d produced an heir and as long as she kept it private, Greig says. “If it makes the scandal sheet, it’s a problem.”
Los Angeles Times