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!