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Frances Osborne

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Sex In The Downton Abbey Era

Posted: 06/14/2012 4:11 pm

Women in the time of Downton Abbey were far more sexually misbehaved that you might think. Lady Mary and her heartbreakingly handsome Turkish visitor were far from alone in going to bed together out of wedlock. Here are ten facts that guided the evolution of sexual behavior of women in Edwardian Britain through World War One and out the other side -- after all, the human race hasn't grown through virginity. They play a part in all my books about women of this period, and are key to the plot of my new novel, Park Lane.

1. In the Edwardian era, adultery among the highest echelons of British society was institutionalized and followed a strict set of rules. Women came from within the man's tight social circle, were married and had children -- preferably two sons, known as "an heir and a spare," so that their husband could be sure that his own children would inherit. Any of his wife's lover's children could then be absorbed into the family. Unmarried women, on the other hand, had a duty to remain virgins -- encouraged by the fact that, in Edwardian times, abortion (necessarily illegal) was at least as dangerous as giving birth.

2. If your husband was unfaithful, you couldn't divorce him unless you could show that he had also committed either one of a number of unpleasant sexual offences, cruelty or abandonment. In order to prove the latter, my great-great-grandmother, Muriel, had to write a letter to her husband pleading for "the restitution of conjugal relations," literally, to come back to her bed. He refused by return. The letters were then, humiliatingly, published in the (London) Times as part of the evidence in the divorce trial.

3. A woman could, however, be divorced by her husband if he could prove that, on the balance of probability, adultery had taken place. Even if he had also been unfaithful, it was the wife who would then be ostracized from society. However, as divorce was both rare and a huge scandal, both parties were expected to hide themselves away or abroad for a year so that there would be no sightings for the press to report and keep the story alive. After a year, no doubt another scandal would have taken its place. Divorce made a good story. When my great-grandmother, Idina, (daughter of the above), like her parents, divorced in Britain, the front page of the Washington Post ran a story headed "Divorce runs in the family."

4. When Britain entered World War One in 1914, young women suddenly broke through the boundaries of accepted sexual behavior and started chasing soldiers around the streets, attempting to foist their sexual favors upon them. This was known as 'Khaki Fever.' Groups of girls would lie in wait for soldiers "seizing them by the arm as they passed," writes author Edith Sellers in Boy and Girl War Products. She continues, "I saw some English Tommies, who were being pursued by girls, spring in onto an omnibus for safety. The girls sprung after them, whereupon the boys promptly betook themselves to the top, although it was raining in torrents at them time."

4. The age of sexual consent had only been raised from 13 to 16 in 1885. Many of the girls running after the soldiers were between these two ages and were still wearing pigtails that flapped against their shoulders as they ran. This earned them the nickname "flappers."

5. Sexual couplings became a public nuisance. As not all of the soldiers were as unwilling as the ones who fled to the top of the bus in the pouring rain, couples found what privacy they could. Stepping aside into deep doorways to let somebody pass could mean finding it occupied, and the bushes in public parks rustled with activity.

6. Morality Patrols were set up in order to combat this problem. A morality patrol consisted of a pair of older uniformed women armed with torches. 2,000 patrols were set up around Britain, 400 of those in London alone. They even patrolled the cinemas -- recommending that lights were not dimmed between performances. However, these patrols soon became as much of a nuisance as the couples themselves, even chasing apart men and women having quite innocent conversations. "It is about time," wrote one anonymous complainant to his local newspaper in 1915, "something was done about ancient spinsters following soldiers about with their flash lights."

7. What was even more shocking at the time was that middle-class women succumbed to khaki fever. The young women involved were often well-dressed and of "no particular class or district," wrote Mary Allen, who was Sub-Commandant of the Women's Police Service during the War. And as the playwright Laurence Housman wrote to Janet Ashbee, wife of the architect Charles, "a friend of mine in the police tells me... that in his district absolutely 'respectable' and 'virtuous' young women have given themselves day after to day to different soldiers as if it were a sort of religious duty." One explanation for this behavior was that at first it was the only way women could be involved in the war!

8. Taxis were used for illicit rendez-vous by those who could afford them -- usually the upper classes. Actress and Society beauty Lady Diana Manners wrote in her autobiography The Rainbow Comes and Goes of having to stay until the end of a wartime dance: "I wanted to leave at a reasonable hour, drive twice around Regent's Park with a swain, and be dropped home at an hour compatible with hospitable duties next morning.... I wonder," she continued, "if the young go round Regent's Park as often we did?... that 'little house on wheels' as we called our taxi, represented the only complete immunity from surveillance that I knew." Prime Minister H H Asquith was believed to have had an affair with a young aristocrat Venetia Stanley because, inter alia, they used to circle Regent's Park in a taxi.

9. The duty to remain a virgin until marriage faded to some extent during World War One. Even though Khaki fever subsided once women were included in war work, the duty to show soldiers who came to Britain on a fortnight's leave a good time began to override the old rules. Women found their sexual drive increasing and their emotions running high. As Helena Swanwick, daughter of artist Oswald Sickert, and sister of Walter, summed up in her autobiography I Have Been Young: "Sex before marriage was the natural female complement to the male frenzy of killing. If millions of men were to be killed in early manhood, or even boyhood, it behoved every young woman to secure a mate and replenish the population while there was yet time." In Park Lane, both the principal characters, Beatrice and Grace, find themselves in sexual situations that they could not have imagined before the war.

10. New attitudes to sex survived the war. Women from the poorer classes who had babies out of wedlock but with long-term partners were treated as war widows. And, in March 1918, the publication of birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes' Married Love enabled women to become equal sexual partners. Those women whom the shortage of men might now deprive of a husband had to be a good deal more sexually predatory to find one -- and willing to engage in extra-marital sex if they did not. And the khaki-fevered flappers had grown into the famous flappers of the early twenties. Post-war, as much as some people wanted to return to the old world, many believed that the rules by which people used to live had led to war and needed to be overturned. Party-loving flappers embodied this nihilism in a sexual way -- instead of playing the sexual innocent until marriage, they appeared not to care a jot whether they looked sexually available or not.


Park Lane was published by Vintage on June 12.

 
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