Professor Sarah Richardson explains some of the rules of engagement when it came to love in the aristocratic circles of Georgian England.
1. Curtseying to the Cake
Aristocratic families would descend on London from October to May, partly to further the marriage market but also for entertainment as they were confined to the city whilst Parliament was in session. The season would begin when young women from elite families were presented to Queen Charlotte at her birthday ball in the hope that over the next few months they would find their marriage partner. The tradition began in 1780 and young women curtseyed to the queen who stood beside an enormous birthday cake!
2. Dancing Dalliances
There were strict protocols to be followed. If a couple danced more than two sets together they would be considered to be engaged by society. Couples could not exchange letters unless they were engaged, or even call each other by their first names. Young women would be chaperoned in public at all times in order to preserve their reputation. A family’s fortunes relied on women making ‘good’ (lucrative) matches, and their virtue had to be protected.
3. Virtuous Virgins
Young women received virtually no education in sexual matters and could be extremely naïve. They may be lucky to get some advice if they had older, married sisters, but otherwise innocence in sexual matters was considered essential to demonstrate their purity. Once engaged, women may get some advice from their mothers or older relatives but mainly to ensure they quickly produced an heir.
4. Manly Matters
The strictures on women did not, however, apply to men. They married later and would often travel Europe on ‘The Grand Tour’ gaining sexual experience with apparent impunity. They applied different standards to the women who may become their wife, to those they slept with. The latter were akin to prostitutes whilst the former’s reputation would be destroyed if they so much as spoke with a single man whilst unchaperoned.
5. Female Fun
Once safely married, and especially if an heir had been produced, women were able to enjoy more freedom. Affairs, ménage-à-trois, and even same sex relationships were not uncommon in the libertine atmosphere of Regency England. Famously, William, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, his wife, Georgiana, and her friend Elizabeth (Bess) Foster lived together at Chatsworth. Bess had two illegitimate children by the Duke, whilst Georgiana had an affair with the future Prime Minister, Charles Grey.
11 February 2021
Professor Sarah Richardson is a research historian at the University of Warwick. She is an expert in women and political culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century.
Professor Richardson is currently leading the Mapping Women's Suffrage project, seeking to map all known women’s suffrage activists in England.
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