Regency Sex Ed

Characters in historical romance have wonderful sex lives. If it doesn’t always start that way, it’s certainly how it ends up. No one wants to read about a “roll over it’s Saturday night” couple. But it certainly helps if one half of the duo – and it’s usually the hero – has a good idea what he’s doing. But how does he (or she) learn how to be a skilled lover?

Here are three sources of “Regency sex ed” one often sees.

(a) The hero’s former relationship(s) with a widow or courtesan. 
(b) Living in India, home of the Karma Sutra and tangled limbs
(c) Reading dirty books. This is particularly useful for virginal heroines.

At this point I back up three years, when I decided to research “historical sex” by reading early pornography. (Not that it was so-called until the mid-19th century in England, derived from a French word for works about prostitution.)

The most celebrated pioneer of pornography was Pietro Aretino, a poet and satirist who wrote a series of sixteen sonnets to accompany a suite of illustrations of sexual positions, engraved after erotic paintings by the youthful Giulio Romano. Issued in 1527, both sonnets and prints caused a scandal and were hunted down for destruction by the Catholic Church. Only fragments of “the postures” exist (the last complete set is said to have been destroyed in 1829) but the sonnets survived. Aretino went on to write The Dialogues, supposedly a record of conversations between whores in a brothel.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Aretino’s model of lists of sexual positions and “whore dialogues” was much imitated in Italy, France, and England. The name Aretino came to be a sort of generic term for salacious literature. His name appears on the title pages of books he didn’t write, starting with La Puttana Errante in 1650, actually the work of Niccolo Franco. Franco’s work was translated and rewritten by French writers and, through them, the English.

I found distinct national differences between Italian, French, and English pornography. Aretino’s sonnets contain a good deal of anal sex, to preserve female virginity and guard against pregnancy. By the time we get to the English versions there is none. I wonder if it reflects the English heterosexual male’s taboo against buggery. French libertine literature tends to be combined with high-flying philosophical ruminations, particularly in the mid-to-late eighteenth century when intellectuals like Restif de la Bretonne, Diderot, and Voltaire were writing forbidden works as a subversive act. The sex lives of nuns and priests was not only titillating, but also a criticism of the existing order. Some of the descriptions can get quite flowery. Among the thirty-six positions listed in a 1783 work entitled Histoire et Vie de L’Aretin are “quand la femme embrasse le Dieu Priape ailé” (“when the woman embraces the winged God Priapus”) and “quand l’homme baisse la femme à la cave” (“when the man kisses the woman in her cellar”).

For scholarly discussion of these works I direct you to Robert Darnton’s Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France and Bradford Mudge’s When Flesh Became Word. I wasn’t reading with scholarship in mind, but looking for ideas for my books. 

Which brings me to The Genuine and Remarkable Amours of the Late Peter Aretin. I found this slim volume in the British Library when searching the catalogue for Aretino. Bearing the date 1796 on the title page, it’s a novel about the sexual adventures of a youth named Francis Featherbrain and his ardent pursuit of women on tables and riverbanks, in gardens, and brothels and just about anywhere else an Englishman of middling fortune might find himself. Reading it, I knew I’d struck gold. What if, I thought, a virginal heroine used this very book to get a bit of sex ed. So began The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (with help from the hero who does know what he’s doing.) Every hilarious word Celia reads comes straight from the original. “You think I could make this stuff up?” I asked my editor, when she expressed surprise.

This essay originally appeared on the Word Wenches blog.