Between The Sheets, by Elaine Owen

Between The Sheets, by Elaine Owen

Today I’d like to talk about a subject that has drawn a lot of attention recently among fans of regency romances:  

The first time I heard about the new Netflix series Bridgerton was when I saw fellow regency fans online talking about the “mature” scenes in it. Judging by the buzz created, there must be quite a few! Mature scenes are not my thing so I have not seen any episodes, but I was surprised that many regency fans do not know the historical context of these scenes. Fans of Jane Austen and regency literature may think that affairs and liaisons were rare in that time period, but that is a modern misconception. The strict sexual mores of the Victorian era were years in the future. During Austen’s day, illicit “between the sheets” activities were much more common than many people think!

This rather relaxed attitude started at the very top, with the prince regent himself, who would later become King George IV. The prince was renowned for liaisons and affairs. He had at least six long term mistresses and fathered an unknown number of illegitimate children. Many monarchs had mistresses, of course, but this was an impressive number even for a future king, The prince’s long suffering wife, Princess Caroline, eventually had an affair of her own.

The prince and princess were not alone. Among the aristocracy at this time adultery was commonplace. Lady Caroline Lamb, the daughter of an earl, famously had a fling with the poet Lord Byron. Other well known philanderers included August Fitzroy, the third duke of Grafton, and his wife Anne. Both of them carried out extramarital affairs and were caught in the act, causing no end of gossip and scandal. There were also Lady Rosebery, who carried on with her own sister’s widower, and the duke of Wellington, who was a notorious “lady’s man.”. Dorothea Lieven was a Russian aristocrat who lived in England and became one of the most popular socialites in London during the regency. She carried on an affair with more than one politician. In fact it was the scandalous behavior of the aristocracy in Jane Austen’s day that led to the much stricter standards and restrictions in the Victorian age. (It didn’t help that Queen Victoria’s own father and uncles had mistresses, and her mother may have had affairs as well.) Illicit sex was everywhere!

With all of this going on, we may be asking how none of these kinds of activities made it into Jane Austen’s novels. But the truth is that they did! Austen’s novels have plenty of “between the sheets” scenes, if you read them carefully.:

  • Pride and Prejudice Lydia and Wickham live together for a number of weeks without the benefit of marriage. There is no question that they are living “in sin.” 
  • Sense and Sensibility Colonel Brandon’s brother seduces and abandons the unfortunate Eliza. Willoughby seduces Eliza’s daughter. Naturally neither man faces any real consequences for their rakish behavior.
  • Persuasion At the end of the book Mr. Elliott, Anne’s cousin and one time suitor, takes Mrs. Clay, Anne’s former friend, “under his protection.” This is a euphemism for taking her as his mistress. 
  • Mansfield Park Maria Bertram enters a marriage with a man she does not love or even respect. Consequently she has a torrid affair with that scoundrel, Henry Crawford, who ultimately abandons her.  Maria’s husband then divorces her, leading to her exile from polite society. One feels a little sorry for Maria, who manages to ruin her life not once but twice in the same novel!
  • Emma Harriet Smith is the illegitimate daughter of an unknown gentleman who has never stepped forward to claim her as his daughter, which sparks Emma’s curiosity and imagination. She is convinced that Harriet’s father must be a wealthy aristocrat so she tries to steer Harriet towards men who would be worthy of such a rank. Eventually, however, the absent father turns out to be just an ordinary tradesman, and Emma learns a lesson about interfering in other people’s lives. 
  • Lady Susan Do I even need to spell this out? If you haven’t done so yet, do yourself a favor and watch the movie version of this novella. (Love and Friendship) Let’s just say that Lady Susan’s behavior would be scandalous even by today’s standards! You’ll never look at Jane Austen quite the same way again.

Of course there are many differences between Austen’s novels and the scenes in Bridgerton, principally that, in Austen’s books, anything racy takes place out of sight. Austen doesn’t feel the need to spell out anything that happens in details. Also, she writes about the affairs but she doesn’t glamorize them. In Austen’s world there are usually consequences for going against the rules of society, especially for the women involved.

What do you think? Are there any other off scene scandalous moments that should be included in the list above? Please drop a line and let me know!

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April 2, 2021 9:46 AM

Enjoyed the post and agree with everything that’s been said. I was surprised by the explicitness of Bridgerton as typically scenes are more sanitized or occur offscreen. I would rather it be that way as I don’t find these scenes necessary and I would have watched with my daughter if it wasn’t for this content.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
March 25, 2021 8:25 PM

Isabella Thorpe and Captain Tilney come to mind. She was horrid to poor James Morland. In Mansfield Park, we aren’t sure what Tom Bertram was up top when he was off getting drunk and such. Julia Bertram ran off with Yates. Hopefully, they behaved themselves before they wed. This was an interesting post. Thanks for sharing. Stay safe and healthy.

Gianna Thomas
March 25, 2021 2:52 PM

Mature scenes are not my thing either, Elaine, reading or writing. As to immorality, it has been in existent almost since the garden of Eden and is frequently referred to and condemned in scripture especially when it was tied in with false religion. Jane Austen was a very astute student of human nature. That’s why her writings don’t skip even the bad conduct of some of her characters. She just doesn’t write the gory details about such goings on, but she was realistic in the happenings and conduct of the people in her novels. Perhaps that’s why they are so popular because she was honest about life and people’s dealings with one another.

March 25, 2021 9:08 AM

My understanding of the Victorian era is that the strict mores were on the surface only, and there was a lot of hanky panky going on — just a little more discreetly. I’ve always presumed that one reason why JA did not feature physical expressions between people, including kissing, was because she had never experienced any of it herself. But yes, it is hardly surprising that this was happening in JA’s time — after all, people are people and there’s nothing new under the sun. Many thanks for a well thought-out post.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
March 25, 2021 9:04 AM

Great post! I got that impression too about high society.

Elin Eriksen
March 25, 2021 8:28 AM

I heartily agree with your conclusion.

In an era where one in five women in London worked as some form of a prostitute, it is obvious it was not a virtuous period. The low necklines, translucent fabrics and wet dresses is another indication that beneath the somewhat contradictive surface, more nefarious motives ruled.
It was not uncommon to anticipate their wedding vows either as statistics made from church registers shows about 40% of the brides were pregnant when wed.

This topic is a pet-peeve of mine, that we believe the Regency era to be virtuous and chaste but nothing I have researched have indicated that has any truth to it.

Jane Austen knew about the ways of the world, as you describe. She does not expound upon the incidents but that is one of the traits I adore about JA’s writing. The sexual tension in PnP is easily felt but it is hidden between the lines, a mark of an excellent author (although when reading fanfiction, I personally do not mind if the fic is chaste or steamy.)

Thank you for sharing!

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
March 25, 2021 8:13 AM

Great list. In the world of music I read it was considered an honor to be an illigetimate child of a noble for then you had a patron to support your work even though you weren’t openly acknowledged. Interesting article.

March 25, 2021 5:25 AM

In Northanger Abbey Isabella Thorpe expects Cap. Tilney to marry her after being “between the sheets” with him.
I always got the impression that the looser morals was a part of higher society. That lesser gentleman and trades people had a stricter view point of moralistic behavior.

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