By Mike Rendell

Pen & Sword Books. 191 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-52675-562-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

We live in an age of supposed sexual liberation and yet it’s true to say that certain attitudes remain much the same as they were three hundred or so years ago. A man who brags about how many women he’s slept with will be considered a bit of a lad and is sure to be admired by numerous people. Let a woman admit to all the men she’s had in her bed and she will be looked on with scorn, and often by those of the same sex as well as by men. We really do revel in hypocrisy.

Mike Rendell’s lively survey of sex and sexuality in Georgian Britain (mostly Georgian London, if the truth be told) makes no bones about the fact that it was largely a time when men were firmly in control and determined to keep it that way. When women did succeed it was usually because they knew how to exploit their availability as objects of sexual desire. But the numbers achieving any sort of status or wealth were few. For most women life was a limited affair, and those attempting to break away from it through the use of their bodies more often than not ended up poverty-stricken and diseased. The heroine of Fanny Hill may have been shown to have romped through a variety of sexual adventures without too much suffering, or bouts of gonorrhoea and syphilis, but like pornography in any period it didn’t represent how things truly were.

Why has the Georgian age – Rendell defines it as between 1714, when the first George became monarch, and 1837, when the young Victoria ascended to the throne - exerted such a fascination on our imaginations? What do we see in it that appeals? Is it the seeming openness, the apparent bawdiness, the supposed opportunity for unlicensed personal behaviour? It seems to have been a time when rogues and rascals flourished and don’t we all secretly like to read about them? Books like Fanny Hill and Moll Flanders, and especially films like Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon, have perhaps painted a picture for us that doesn’t offer a totally accurate view of what it was like to be around in the stench and squalor of the eighteenth century. But we prefer the romance to the reality.

If the comments of foreign observers are to be believed, London did offer open displays of sexual availability that surprised them. As one of them said: “Debauch runs riot with an unblushing countenance”. Another commented on the number of prostitutes accosting passers-by “in broad daylight”. And a third remarked on the availability of young girls of the age of twelve or thereabouts. Twelve had been the age of consent for “some 500 years”, according to Rendell, and when those who could afford it believed that deflowering a young virgin was a cure for syphilis, it’s easy to understand why child prostitution was not seen by many men as something to be abhorred.

Prostitution generally was a way out of poverty, or so it seemed, though the financial rewards could often be meagre. And it’s more than likely that some of the females only took to it on an occasional basis. It helped to boost the low wages they earned as milliners, shop assistants, and such. But there were rich pickings to be had, provided a pretty woman had the ability to dress well, conduct herself with decorum in fashionable company, and the intelligence to discuss matters beyond the purely mercenary. The kind and quality of the sexual services on offer would also have been a key factor in any arrangement.

The well-known women – courtesans – who took up with a variety of wealthy patrons were written about in the newspapers and magazines of the day, recognised on the streets, and frequently satirised by illustrators such as Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson. Hogarth I see as something of an exception in that he was more of a moralist than the others. His wonderful works, The Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode, point to how easily someone could slip into debt, disease, and death by being involved with loose living. It’s interesting to note that the first illustration in The Harlot’s Progress, where the innocent country girl comes to town and is greeted by a procuress, alluded to two well-known characters of the time. The procuress was Elizabeth Needham, a noted brothel keeper, and lurking in the background was the notorious Colonel Francis Charteris, a man who could rape with impunity knowing that his “friends in high places” would soon secure his release if he was arrested and imprisoned.

It’s a fact that a few of the courtesans did manage to survive and milk enough money out of their admirers, sometimes by marriage, sometimes by other means. Harriette Wilson wrote her memoirs and mentioned many of her lovers, but withheld some names if paid enough to do so. One of her liaisons had been with the Duke of Wellington, and when she attempted to blackmail him he responded with the now-famous phrase, “Publish and be damned”. Rendell runs through a short-list of a few of the better-remembered ladies, including Kitty Fisher, Frances Abington (“she finally retired at the age of sixty and spent her last seventeen years in comparative wealth, courtesy of an inheritance from a wealthy admirer”), and Elizabeth Armistead, who took up with Charles James Fox, a politician, gambler, womaniser, and drinker. They seemed an odd couple but were genuinely fond of each other, and her charm, good nature, and tolerance won people over. She lived until she was ninety-one, and was “untouched by scandal, never once attempted to ‘kiss and tell’, and died beloved by the local community”.

Providers of sexual services at the brothels they ran could also sometimes come out on top in financial terms. Rendell relates how Theresa Berkley, who had an establishment that concentrated on flagellation and other deviances, was highly successful. Her services had a price, of course, and when she died she left an estate valued at £100,000, a tremendous sum at the time. Her brother, a missionary among the aborigines, returned to claim his inheritance, but on learning where the money came from fled back to Australia. The Government wasn’t as fussy and stepped in to seize it.

It’s interesting to note that several of the courtesans were painted by one or other of the leading artists of the day. And some had worked as actresses on the London stage. Models and actresses were often considered as no better than common prostitutes. Sir Joshua Reynolds produced a portrait of Kitty Fisher, and another of Francis Abington. George Romney painted Emma Hamilton long before she became associated with Horatio Nelson. Rendell says that she had worked in a brothel as a “posture moll”, the slang name for a girl who didn’t engage in direct sexual contact but posed naked so that men could inspect her closely. Rowlandson, of course, came up with an illustration entitled “The Cunnyseurs” which showed a trio of elderly males peering at a young woman’s private parts. Reynolds and Romney were far more respectful of their models. But it is amusing to think that, when their pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy, they were shown alongside portraits of members of the supposed great and good.

Rendell points to the “terrifying increase in incidents of venereal disease”, and there was a popular phrase which said, “One night with Venus, a lifetime with mercury”. Cures for syphilis were often based around the use of mercury, and that in itself could be a cause of death. Quack doctors added to the confusion with claims of special remedies. And there was a widespread belief, even among so-called qualified doctors, that it was women who were responsible for the spread of venereal afflictions and not men. Rendell writes about a Doctor Rock who advertised that if people called on him at the Golden Head and Key they could purchase for six shillings a pot of his “miraculous cure-all”. Hogarth pictured Rock arguing with another quack in the fifth scene of The Harlot’s Progress” “while their patient lies dying from venereal disease”.

It’s easy to mock the quack doctors, but some of the beliefs of the medical profession generally do tend to make one wonder just how much they knew. There was a famous case in 1726 when a woman named Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to rabbits. Various people, including some from the ranks of professional doctors, visited her and backed up her claim. In time it all turned out to be faked. But one of the doctors who believed her, John Maubray, a “qualified physician and a teacher of midwifery”, had written that in pregnant women “an overfamiliarity with household pets could cause their children to resemble those pets”. Mary Toft had worked in fields where rabbits were seen, so he perhaps thought it added weight to his theories?

There were some quacks who, even if they weren’t medically qualified, did possibly propagate a few useful ideas. Doctor Graham’s Temple of Hymen and Health had lectures which “propounded on women’s rights, promoted vegetarianism, and drove home the qualities of exercise in the fresh air. Above all he promoted personal hygiene in an age when cleanliness was definitely not next to godliness”. Doctor Graham seems to have been well ahead of his time in some respects. 

As I noted earlier, Rendell’s book is essentially about London, and the rest of the country is allocated only brief asides. There were obviously prostitutes in most towns and cities, and particularly in ports where sailors came ashore to spend their earnings and let off steam. But London had a large and growing population, the court was there, and the nobility, even if they had estates in the counties, gathered in the city to socialise and, as we’ve seen with regard to the males, sow a few wild oats. The pleasure gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh laid on pageants and other performances, and the bushes and trees and shady nooks were ideal for assignations. As we know from our own recent experiences, people gathering together and losing some of their inhibitions can make for an ideal situation in which viruses (and in Georgian times venereal infections) can easily spread.  

If it sometimes seems that the whole population of London was engaged in one long, unregulated orgy, it wasn’t quite the case. The authorities, at least the more-responsible of them, did attempt to keep some sort of order, though their efforts were often hindered by long-established habits of thought regarding the role of women in society and what were seen as the “rights” of Englishmen to mostly do what they wanted without restriction. This was especially true of the upper classes. They were more concerned about robbery rather than rape, so the theft of a handkerchief might be seen as deserving a heavier punishment than the ravishing of a child.

There was a Society for the Reformation of Manners (for “manners” read “moral behaviour”, says Rendell) and it co-operated with the police in trying to limit the number of brothels, molly houses, and other establishments catering for various sexual activities. The churches often campaigned against licentious behaviour, and Rendell has them active with regard to the practice of masquerades. It was considered that allowing people to mix freely while wearing masks could lead to a breakdown in “social distancing” in the sense of different classes coming together without restriction. And prostitutes were able to practice their trade more easily. A mask could hide a syphilitic face with its recognisable sores.  

It is, I suppose, an undeniable fact that the Georgian years seem colourful in many ways. Rendell takes the reader on a tour of the brothels, and discusses dildos, homosexuals, lesbians, cross-dressers, bigamy, aphrodisiacs, and a few more subjects of a similar nature.  It’s not the whole story, of course, but he tells it in a spirited manner, and he is alert to the fact that it was not a good time for women generally, that paedophilia thrived, and the prevalence of venereal diseases brought misery to many people, including those who were innocent but were infected by those who weren’t. They suffered terribly through no fault of their own.