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Regency women were badly hemmed in. For centuries it had been assumed that women were far more libidinous than men, but in the middle decades of the 18th century the opposite conviction began to take hold.

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Women were regarded, not as lustful beings whose interest in sex could make them unmanageable, but as delicate, passive receptacles devoid of a libido and only interested in sex within the confines of marriage and for the God-ordained purpose of procreation.

The highly oppressive consequence of these strictures was that men and women came to occupy distinctly separate spheres, endlessly reinforced by a multiplicity of religious, legal, and social conventions. Men got a dynamic public world of politics, war, business, and adventure.

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Women got an airless private realm of purity and obedience in which their individual identities were submerged in their responsibilities as daughters, wives, and mothers. The women and men who belonged to these prudery brigades, and who raised their often clamorous voices on behalf of the dogmas of the separate spheres, made deep and sometimes salutary inro into Regency culture.

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Their initiatives were sometimes irrelevant, frivolous, or even irrational, but cumulatively they produced a burgeoning force of conservative reaction that claimed ever-widening circles of support and that soon brought the middle-class proprieties of the Victorian age clearly into view. The strident sexual proprieties of the Regency did not prevent its authors from writing about sex, but they did force on them a series of strategies to ensure that they stayed within the bounds of respectability.

Austen was the great master of the technique that used social constraint to heighten rather than reduce sexual tension. Yet their story is very different from what we might expect. Austen does not describe them as caught up in heated embraces or secretive trysts in the manner of so many romances both before hers and since. Instead, she conveys their passion for each other in fleeting moments that fall well within the confines of correctness but that carry a sexual charge that is all the more potent for being intermittent and so understated. Like Darcy and Elizabeth themselves, Austen makes us wait, interpret, agonize, and wonder.

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Nonetheless, their sexual attraction to each other is clear when they stare across the room, or touch hands, or dance, or even verbally spar, and eventually it proves overwhelming, both to them and to us. Other authors used code words to denote but not explicitly name sexual desire.

Private letters contain some of the most impassioned thoughts of the Regency. The painter John Constable had to wait seven long years to marry Maria Bicknell, for her family would not consent to the match until he had achieved a reasonable level of financial security.

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In early Junethe year-old William Wordsworth had been in London for several weeks and was missing Mary, his wife of nearly ten years, to the point where his body ached. My imagination is horribly vivid about her. Unlike writers, royal and aristocratic rakes did not attempt to work within or around sexual strictures. They merely ignored them.

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To be sure, they needed to marry respectably, to sire a legitimate heir, and to behave with courtly refinement to ladies in salons or wives in domestic settings, and while many privately sneered at these obligations they nevertheless retained a deep social commitment to them. Once they had stepped outside polite circles and posturings, however, they frequently reveled in almost unfettered sexual freedom.

According to the libertine creed, they were allowed—indeed entitled—to sow their wildest oats, and they proceeded to do so without guilt, guile, or the slightest intention of paying heed to the working-class radicals who despised them or the evangelical Christians who were working hard to raise the standards of male chivalry. The Regency was the last great brazen huzzah for rakes before the sobering and much stricter mores of the Victorian age took at least some of the wind out of their sails. Plenty of that! Perhaps the most notorious Regency dissolute, though, was Lord Yarmouth, later third Marquess of Hertford.

Used with permission of the publisher, W. All rights reserved.

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