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Natalie Hanley-Smith

About me

I am a fourth year Ph.D. student in the department of History. My project is supervised by Professor Mark Philp and Dr Sarah Richardson, and funded by a departmental scholarship. My research interests include marriage, love, sexuality, gender, and British society and culture in the long eighteenth century.

Current Research

My thesis is provisionally titled: ‘The Ménage à Trois and other Controversial Relationships, c.1780-1837’. Scholars have assigned the phrase ‘ménage à trois’ to a variety of historical trios, both those involving sexual relationships and those that did not, without being especially concerned about what the phrase means. Today the Oxford English Dictionary ambiguously defines the ménage à trois as ‘a relationship or domestic arrangement in which three people (usually a husband and wife and the lover of one these) live together or are romantically or sexually involved; (also) a sexual act involving three people.’ The phrase was not used during the period covered by the thesis - its first recorded use was in 1862 - which led me to question how these sorts of relationships - of which there are many examples for this period - were described by contemporaries and how they reacted to them. Thus, my thesis questions more broadly what types of relationships contemporaries might have classified as odd, inappropriate, or even deviant, largely outside of those which Leonore Davidoff termed ‘disruptive desires and behaviours’ – i.e. homosexuality and prostitution – which are the topics that scholars have tended to focus on.

The thesis examines several case studies, including conjugal households which involved a lover or a problematical sibling, alongside informal heterosexual unions, and lastly, what we might today refer to as ‘open’ marriages. Case studies include well-known examples, such as the ménage of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire with Lady Elizabeth Foster, alongside lesser known ones like Whig politician Benjamin Leigh Smith’s long-term union with Ann Longden. The cases are examined through the analysis of multiple perspectives: the first chapter examines the ways such relationships were brought to the attention of the press, how they were represented, and the different purposes such discussions served; the second chapter looks at the role gossip played within different social groups, and the distinctions that meant some relationships were just a topic of gossip whilst others caused their participants to be socially ostracised; the third chapter explores the attitudes of the wider family towards unconventional unions – what assumptions did they make about them, and did they attempt to intervene - and how bound up were these reactions with notions of reputation, morality and domestic ideology; the fourth chapter investigates how the relationships were negotiated domestically - did those involved experience conflict and how did they resolve it, what emotional cultures did they use, and what can they tell us about the emotional expectations of marriage and long-term sexual/romantic relationships; and the final chapter examines the experiences, motivations and justifications of individuals that participated in these relationships. The case studies are all sourced from the upper and middle sections of society. The primary sources consulted include newspapers, novels, satires, correspondence and journals. Examining the opinions of members of both ranks will illustrate the distinctions between their sexual codes and moral values, which several historians have noted were in conflict during this turbulent period in British history. Scholars who have studied the period, c.1780-1830, have interlinked a variety of topics, such as the turbulent political culture, the French Revolutionary Wars, and a shift in the structure of society, which they have attributed to changing ideas about the body, sexual behaviour and gender identity. Anna Clark describes the period as a ‘twilight’ moment - a time when the boundaries could be tested – and the relationships examined in this thesis remain in this ill-defined grey area. This project aims to further our understanding of this period by reconstructing social and sexual ‘norms’ and offering a cross-class analysis of the influence that behavioural codes and expectations had on how relationships that caused controversy were represented, discussed and experienced.

Academic Background

2015 – 2019: The University of Warwick, Ph.D Candidate, Department of History

2014 – 2015: The University of Northampton – MA History (Distinction)

2010 – 2014: The University of Northampton – BA History (First Class)

Awards and Scholarships

Humanities Research Centre Doctoral Fellowship, 2018-2019

The University of Warwick, Departmental Doctoral Scholarship, 2015-2019

The University of Northampton, Awarded ‘History Student of the Year’, 2014

Conference Papers and Publications

July 2019: 'Disapproval, Rivalry, and Compassion: Illicit Sex and Romantic Intrigue in Elite Expatriate Society in the 1790s', International Congress on the Enlightenment (University of Edinburgh).

June 2019: '"Tenderness for you may just now make me a little more afraid of exhibiting tenderness too much...": Expressing emotions in illicit relationships in the early nineteenth century', Social History Society Annual Conference (University of Lincoln).

October 2018: 'How can we infiltrate Fashionable Circles? Inclusion and Exclusion in Elite Society: c.1780-1830', Research in Progress Postgraduate Conference - Histories of Gender (University of Reading). 

May 2018: 'Tracing Gossip and Scandal in the late 18th and early 19th century Media', Department of History Postgraduate Conference (University of Warwick). 

January 2018: 'Concealment and Candidness in the Eighteenth-Century Ménage-à-Trois', British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Annual Conference (St Hugh's College, Oxford).

July 2016: 'Policing Elite Expectations of Marriage and Propriety in the Devonshire Ménage-à-Trois, c.1783-1806', Women's Society 1750-1830 (University of Notre Dame, London centre).

March 2016: ‘The “strange” behaviour of Miss Elizabeth Kent: Reconstructing Ménages’, Women’s Society Workshop (University of Warwick).

‘Embedding Gender’, part of ‘Student experiences of being taught women’s and gender history: gendering our historical past’, in Women’s History, 2:3 (Autumn 2015), 14.

Conferences Organised

Constructions of Love and the Emotions of Intimacy, 1750-1850 (9th February 2019)


  • 2019/20 Seminar Tutor for HI174: The Enlightenment
  • 2019/20 Seminar Tutor for HI2A5: Individual, Polis and Society: Philosophical Reflections in History

Other Activities

I am the administrative assistant for the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies.


Natalie Hanley-Smith