Sex, romance, love and marriage – these are the themes we seem obsessed with. They dominate our popular music, most films, and the vast majority of our books. Yet we cannot always agree with each other even on such universal subjects, so it is normal to presume that in the pa
st folk were as individual in their wishes and beliefs as we are now.
It is therefore a continuing problem for authors of historical fiction since there
is considerable argument over how sex and romance were viewed in centuries past, in particular regarding the place of women.
Now the recent 50 Shades of Grey has been such a bestseller, the question of how much sexual content a bo
ok should (could) contain, and how graphic the text should (could) be, has become even more problematical. How do we approach the new standards? Yet are they so new? We appear to forget that several decades ago the sexual content in films and television in many European countries was often far more provocative than today. In other words, a so-called sexual revolution has occurred on many, many occasions over the years.
Of course human desire has always been a part of human nature, but how we behave is invariably coloured more by the society in which we live. It is exceedingly difficult to judge the attitudes of our ancestors as regards culture and society unless clear contemporary documentation still exists. Luckily some does.
For instance, artists of the Renaissance brought a new perspective, and the previous religious monopoly was no longer the master of the arts. Nudity was unashamedly depicted. At the same time in England, however, massive new Tudor taxes began to undermine the tentative prosperity of the increasing middle and working classes, and women in particular began to lose much of their previous independence.
Moving onwards through history, Restoration theater and literature was, for instance, clearly unabashed. Women could appear publicly as actresses on the stage for the first time, but most were also prostitutes on the side. Has anyone read the beautiful but frequently pornographic poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who wrote during the late 1600s? Obviously sexual liberty, in particular at court, was fully accepted even though rigid standards applied elsewhere. It appears that for many the Puritan attitudes immediately preceding this period had a thoroughly contradictory affect. Rather like the American Prohibition, it served to increase the public taste for whatever had been banned. I believe this is precisely how human nature so often works, and has worked constantly over the centuries.
Following the horrors of WW1, the flappers of England in the 1920s startled conventional society, and another sexual revolution was born. It happened again in the 1960s following the deprivations of post-war rationing, when it was humorously suggested that sexual intercourse was virtually invented. Free love was the motto, public nudity was promoted by some and accepted by many, and an abhorrence of prim conservatism seemed normal especially amongst the carefully non-conformist youth.
Certainly we accept more now than we imagine was normal in the Victorian era – but are we even sure about that? We are told that Queen Victoria was not amused (although this is entirely apocryphal) and pianos had to wear skirts to hide their legs, while certainly my respectable grandmother would never have mentioned anything more shocking than a vague reference to birth pangs. But the slums of London were rife with drunkenness and prostitution, and the literary giants of the times were indulging – and writing about – practises which the good secluded ladies of the era would not even have understood. The birth of the Gothic novel may not have contained explicit sexual language, but a brooding undercurrent of lust was certainly guiding the plot.
With regard to the late medieval period which serves as the background to most of my novels, there seems to be some considerable modern misunderstand concerning that period’s attitudes to sex and romance. Our historical fiction tends to swing between extremes – either the heroine is presented as a feisty modern miss who rebels against her father’s insistence on an arranged marriage – or she is a ‘pawn’, reluctantly forced into dreadful situations by an ambitious father, leaving her powerless even to complain.
Frankly I am quite
sure both these extremes are exceedingly misleading. Women, especially those of aristocratic families, were often strong-minded, determined and ambitious. And not all marriages were loveless by any means, whether arranged or otherwise many developed into deep love and friendship, and both men and women (of various classes) were frequently married to the partner of their choice. Depending on class and financial status, parental pressure was not normally tyrannical and most young women were at least consulted on their choice of bridegroom. In particular, widows and widowers usually had free choice. But yes, marriage was a practical business and arrangements were generally accepted and also welcomed.
These invariably benefited both parties and the poor little pawn in the hands of the cruel and ambitious father was far more likely to be a well satisfied miss, extremely pleased to find herself betrothed to a man of influence and wealth. The woman came with a dowry, but that did not make her a chattel, and the extent of her dowry could also be considered her power. Even the po
orer classes frequently made such arrangements, and so a woman brought her share to enhance the marital prosperity. It was not considered humiliating – it was good business. And after all, the young man was equally expected to conform to his parents’ plans – but no one seems to call him a pawn.
However as usual society covered all shades and some prospective brides did complain – and were forced. Some unwelcome male suitors could also be chastised. There were famous instances of just those situations (Abelard and Eloise, for example). Even those who did not outwardly object did still dream of some more romantic situation in private. We know this from the extreme contemporary popularity of romantic books and stories. There is nothing unexpected in this. Happily married women who love their husbands still read romantic novels and secretly fall for fictional heroes and celebrities, while India, a culture of arranged marriage, proudly presents us with the ultra-romance of Bollywood.
But sex is a rather complicated subject – and the woman’s place is just as varied. So – PART TWO to follow!