When most of us imagine Jane Austen romanticism, it's all about fashionable dresses, handsome suitors, and witty repartee. But what about intimate relations in Georgian England? It turns out Austen left out the more salacious details of her era. Wedged in between the Puritan beliefs of the 1600s and the rigid rules governing relations in the Victorian era, the Georgian period witnessed a revolution that was anything but repressed.
Premarital relations in the 1700s were on the rise: men and women openly bragged about their escapades, men attracted to other men visited molly houses for covert love affairs, and one enterprising lady of the night bragged that she slept with 100 men in a single week. Even British royals got caught up in the atmosphere: George III's brother was sued for sleeping with an earl's wife, and George IV cried on his wedding day because he didn't want to leave his mistresses (spoiler: he kept them around).
Not everyone agreed with the liberated atmosphere of the Georgian period. Undercover agents infiltrated clubs to report on their salacious activity, and Parliament even considered a bill accusing women who "tricked" men into marriage by wearing makeup of witchcraft. Despite these attempts to wipe away the stains of disrepute, not many eras can compare with the steamy scandals of Jane Austen's age.
The Duke of Devonshire and his wife Georgiana had a very modern living arrangement. Their marriage was a patent failure, and eventually the Duke began to look elsewhere for satisfaction. When his eyes fell on Lady Elizabeth Foster he became infatuated. There was only one problem: Lady Foster was his wife's best friend. Georgiana and Lady Foster were so close that they even had a portrait painted of them together.
Regardless, the Duke took Lady Foster as his mistress, eventually moving her into his house. Despite this, the three appear to have found something that worked for them. The mistress, the Duke, and the Duchess agreed to a ménage à trois of sorts, and the Duke's illegitimate children were raised in the nursery along with his legal heirs.
Duchess Georgiana also carried on her fair share of affairs, including one with the future Prime Minister Charles Grey.
Unlike their Puritan forebears, the Georgians were more open about their dalliances. Men and women both openly talked about their infidelity, even among the nobility. When the Duchess of Gordon discovered her daughter's fiancé was getting cold feet due to the history of mental illness prevalent within the Gordon family, she chose to alleviate his fears in an unusual way: namely, telling him her daughter was most likely fathered by another man. The Duchess proclaimed, “But my Lord, there is not a drop of Gordon blood in her veins." Who her daughter's real father might have been is a different matter entirely.
The argument didn't convince the fiancé to go through with the marriage, in part because he was happily engaged in a relationship with his mistress, another noblewoman.
Yes, gay bars existed in the 18th century – at least that's how we would think of them in modern terms. They were known as molly houses, named after the term "molly," a slur for men who were, in today's terminology, members of the LGBTQ+ community. They were one of the few places such men could come together to meet and drink, among other things. One undercover agent reported that in a Beech Lane molly house, "I found a company of men fiddling and dancing and singing bawdy songs, kissing and using their hands in a very unseemly manner."
Some molly houses even hosted drag balls. Men dressed in "gowns, petticoats, headcloths, fine laced shoes... some had riding hoods, some were dressed like milkmaids, others like shepherdesses with green hats, waistcoats, and petticoats," reported a witness. Homosexuality was still against the law, but molly houses provided a (mostly) safe space for England's LGBTQ+ population at the time.
Cathouses and courtesans were popular in the Georgian period, but it was a profession made for the young. When one particular aging courtesan ran short on funds, she decided to blackmail some of the most powerful men in Britain. Harriette Wilson was desperate for money when she published her memoir in 1825, releasing the salacious document in 12 installments. To maximize her earnings, Wilson wrote her former clients demanding money to keep their names out of the next installment.
Wilson's tell-all included an ambassador, a foreign secretary, multiple dukes (including the Duke of Wellington, the era's foremost military hero), and the king himself. One of Wilson's targets even sent the letter she'd written him to The Times, which published it in full, and others sued the publisher.