Every new century seems to force at least one society to undergo a complete overhaul, and the beginning of the nineteenth century was no exception. In Great Britain, it meant a shift in the population as people moved into the cities, an increase in trading with both the Far East and the new United States, and the development of new technologies that ushered in the Industrial Era. On top of that, England underwent a complete renovation both in fashion, especially for women, and in architecture.
What didn’t change was sex outside of marriage, especially by men.
The Georgian Era, which essentially includes the nine years that make up the Regency, was a time when society allowed men to employ prostitutes without reprisals. Maintaining that sex was considered necessary to relieve tension, men turned to “ladies of the evening” in their various incarnations rather than subject their wives to their carnal appetites beyond what was necessary for procreation.
So, who was satisfying those appetites?
In 1802, London was the largest city in the world with two million denizens, yet it was a city of the not very young and not very old. Most were under thirty and had come from all over the British Isles to the thriving metropolis in order to find employment as servants, shopkeepers, dockworkers, and laborers. Around ten percent of the girls (either 50,000 or 62,500, depending on the study) had to take up prostitution in order to survive, either because they were tricked into it by unscrupulous bawds or by simple poverty. Is it any wonder that fifty-percent of the babies born in 1802 were illegitimate?
Most of those girls didn’t choose their profession, but for the lucky few who made their living as a mistress, the higher class version of a prostitute, life could be quite comfortable, and in some cases, lucrative.
Wealthier gentlemen and those of the aristocracy openly employed their mistresses. An aristocratic man’s ideal of “love and lust”, a mistress allowed him to have an intimate relationship, one where he could choose a woman to pleasure him without duty to his station in life being a deciding factor. If he wanted exclusive rights to his mistress, he would form an alliance with the woman based on negotiations performed by mutual friends. Typical financial arrangements included a private townhouse, let on the woman’s behalf, where the couple could be together without risk of interruption. Staffed with a few servants, this love nest, along with an allowance to pay for gowns, fripperies, jewelry and sometimes even a carriage, was provided in exchange for sex and conversation. The mistress would always be on call, at her protector’s convenience.
For the man, it wasn’t just about the sex with the mistress; it was about finding a woman who was everything his wife wasn’t. If he tired of her, he could move her out while he was on the lookout for her replacement. And if he didn’t tire of her, the mistress could become his lifelong companion. They could share love and even children, but due to societal class rules, they had to do so outside the bounds of marriage.
So, where does the wife fit in?
When a gentleman was around the age of twenty-seven (the average age of marriage for men back then), it became his duty to select a wife. At the very least, he needed an heir, both to inherit title and entailed properties as well as to continue the family lineage. He might also need to marry in order to form an alliance between two families or find a wife with a substantial dowry in order to pay off debts.
Since a woman, even a lady of the gentry or aristocracy, possessed very little independence, she was essentially the property of her parents until she married. Then she became the property of her husband. Parents settled their daughter in what they hoped would be a good match, opting for security over love because, in a time when divorce was considered scandalous, marriage was a lifetime commitment.
For the man who married for fortune or to form an alliance, he could only hope that love would come later, at which point he would end his relationship with his mistress. If a marriage were more of a business relationship than romantic in nature, a man would simply elect to keep his mistress. And the wife? She was free to take a lover once she had fulfilled her obligation to provide an “heir and a spare”.
Now it’s time for the surprise.
Despite all the conditions under which an aristocrat married in the early 1800’s, he usually did so because he felt affection for his intended! And his wife felt affection for him! No wonder marriages in the Regency were as diverse as they are today!
In the book, THE SEDUCTION OF AN EARL, a newly minted earl is forced to find a wife because his childhood sweetheart, who has already borne him a son, refuses to marry him. She understands the societal rules that prevent her, a farmer’s daughter, from marrying into the aristocracy. Although she was never a prostitute, her status becomes that of a mistress upon the earl’s marriage to a woman who simply wants children.
When the new countess arrives with her large dog, she explains why she’s so tolerant of her husband’s mistress. “Men have no regard for their wives and only ever love their mistresses,” she claims. Having grown up in a household with a father who employed mistresses and a mother who busied herself with charities, she knows of what she speaks. The words are a surprise to the earl’s mistress—she expected the countess to banish her and her son from the earl’s life—but those words may also make it harder for her to give up the position she no longer wants and accept a completely different offer.