Jessica Cale talks about sex in historical fiction

Jessica CaleToday, I welcome Jessica Cale to the blog. Jessica is the author of Tyburn and her new release, Virtue’s Lady (see below the article). She describes herself as a recovering journalist with rather a lot of Nick Cave records writing historical romances out of a grey bedroom in North Carolina.

Sex in historical fiction

Sex can be a tricky topic in historical fiction because I think there are a lot of assumptions made about it that aren’t necessarily based on reality. There’s a tendency to believe that people were either better at abstaining or had enormous families, but the belief that the past was inherently more virtuous than the present is problematic. The truth is that people weren’t more sexually repressed or guided by some divine will power, but that the specifics of sex in history are too often neglected in history books because it’s seen as irrelevant, sensational, or controversial.

Myths about contraception and childbearing

One of the things that surprises people the most about sex in history is that contraception existed before the twentieth century. Condoms had existed since prehistory as evidenced by a 12,000 year old cave painting of the first condom in the Grotte de Combarelle in France, and the Egyptians had spermicidal pessaries and reliable urine-based pregnancy tests thousands of years ago. Sylphium, a sort of giant fennel, was such an effective contraceptive that the ancient world farmed it to extinction within 6,000 years. Condoms came into their own during the Renaissance when they began to take on a form we would recognize today, and Casanova himself recommended them to put ladies’ minds at ease regarding unexpected pregnancy. Condoms were regularly used from that point onward to prevent sexually transmitted disease, especially the epidemic of syphilis that returned to Europe with Columbus from the Americas. The withdrawal method was used, as well, and if that failed, there were a number of herbal mixtures that served as potent abortifacients, the recipes having been passed down through the generations with the earliest known ones coming from Ancient Egypt.

Another misconception is that people wanted to have lots of children. During the Restoration, as many as three in four children didn’t live to see their sixth birthday. Miscarriage, abandonment, and even infanticide were tragically common, as sanitation standards were abysmal and the poor couldn’t afford to have larger families. Furthermore, childbirth was the most common cause of death for women, with almost fifty percent of the female population losing their lives as a direct result of it. For common people, children were as much a burden as a blessing. The average age of marriage for men was between twenty-seven and twenty-eight, and for women it was between twenty-five and twenty-seven, so family sized tended to be naturally smaller, as well.

Myths about virginity, lesbianism, and marriage

It might also surprise you to learn that seventeenth century couples commonly cohabited before they married, sometimes for years, and virginity was not so carefully guarded a prize as it was for the upper classes that required it to ensure succession and inheritance. Women (and sometimes even men) commonly worked as prostitutes, and sometimes only for a short period of time to get ahead before they ultimately settled down or opened a business for themselves. Marriage for the poor could still take place with nothing more than a declaration and a witness.

Interestingly enough, lesbians existed and were tolerated or accepted in Britain over the last few centuries. There wasn’t always a term for it, but girls being unusually close was fairly common and even seen as innocent. What harm could come from a union that couldn’t result in pregnancy? There were even a few cases in the nineteenth century where women were allowed to marry, provided one of them presented herself as a man and attempted to serve the same role in society, which was seen by some as being more valuable and honorable than continuing to live as a woman.

The idea of the past being a time of virginity, strict heterosexuality, and repression is based on nostalgic nonsense. Sure, if your heroine’s life is riding on making a good marriage, she might be sheltered and totally inexperienced, but for the majority of the population, that just wouldn’t have been the case.

And a thought to consider

To wrap up, I’d like to leave you with a fun fact I’ve learned just this week. From at least the middle ages up until the nineteenth century, the female orgasm was believed to be necessary for conception, so the men of the past not only knew what it was, but they were good at making it happen. So much for sex in history being stuffy!

virtuesladyVirtue’s Lady

Lady Jane Ramsey is young, beautiful, and ruined.

After being rescued from her kidnapping by a handsome highwayman, she returns home only to find her marriage prospects drastically reduced. Her father expects her to marry the repulsive Lord Lewes, but Jane has other plans. All she can think about is her highwayman, and she is determined to find him again.

Mark Virtue is furious when Jane arrives in Southwark. In spite of his growing feelings for her, he knows that the crime-ridden slum is no place for a lady. Jane must set aside her lessons to learn a new set of rules if she is survive and to prove to Mark—and to herself—that there’s more to her than meets the eye.


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18 thoughts on “Jessica Cale talks about sex in historical fiction

  1. Jessica, you are so correct in your summary. During my doctoral studies, I focused on sex and sensuality in Renaissance lit., and people are so mistaken about things such as premarital sex, which was far more prevalent than most readers realize.

  2. Interesting post. I also thought big families (if possible) were desirable in the past. My great-great grandparents on one side had 14 children plus they adopted 3. Then all of them had large families. 🙂 Not that large but my own great grandparents had 10. But the most interesting fact was that plant that went extinct. I guess they weren’t much better about conservation than we are. 🙂

    • Thanks, Carly! I think larger families were definitely desirable (and more common) toward the nineteenth century. It must have fun to grow up in a household of seventeen children — how nice that your great-great grandparents still wanted to adopt! They must have been wonderful people. The sylphium is definitely an interesting plant; all the contemporary sources swore that it was very effective, but it was unfortunately a very difficult plant to grow — it only grew in one sandy patch of land that was about a hundred miles long, and that single crop provided contraception to the whole Mediterranean world for six hundred years before it became extinct. (The 6,000 above is actually a typo of mine – apologies!) If you’re interested in the subject, I have another another blog post about sylphium here:

      Thanks so much for stopping by! 🙂

  3. I’m so glad I had some blog-reading time today! LOVED Tyburn, looking forward to some reading this. Your note about number of children was interesting to me. My aunt had 13 children (she was born in 1917). “We didn’t think they’d all make it” was her comment once (not that I asked, I’m one of 9).

    • I’m so glad you liked it, Tracey! Thank you! Wow, thirteen children is incredible (and nine’s not bad, either)! It’s crazy to think of how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth was until relatively recently, and how many children didn’t make it. My grandmother lost one of six as recently as the sixties. Reading these things always makes me feel so grateful for modern medicine. We have a long way to go, but it’s much better than it was!

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