Tales of Ribaldry
Hot males, rambunctious females and the rise of Girl Power: Tony Perrottet's rambling account of his visit to the estate of the Georgian-era rake Sir Francis Dashwood recreates the apparently great days of sex-mad aristocrats:
A couple of years ago, while researching a treatise on salacious European history, I discovered the phantasmagoric wonderland of sex that was Georgian Britain, the era from 1714 to 1837. Long before the heyday of Austin Powers, debauchery proliferated up and down the rain-soaked land, fueled by riotous boozing and self-indulgence. "There was a gusto about 18th century vice unmatched before or since," writes historian Fergus Linnane with tangible nostalgia, in London: The Wicked City. A flood of wealth from the budding empire allowed the leisured classes to fulfill their carnal fantasies without restraint. And perhaps the most striking feature of the age was the explosion of British sex clubs, where a colorful array of rakes, libertines, courtesans, and aristocratic adventuresses dressed up in outrageous outfits for kinky ceremonies. Each club accumulated its own peculiar regalia, such as erotic drinking vessels, sleazy curios, and obscene ballot boxes modeled on human torsos (yay or nay votes going into respective orifices). There would be ribald toasts, poring over the latest dirty books, and visits from comely young "posture molls," who posed nude on tables and gyrated like modern lap dancers. Special rooms were provided so members could retire in pairs or groups, and ladies of fashion could unwind with handsome rent boys. Surviving accounts suggest that some clubs would spice their orgies with a dash of Satanism, while others focused on elaborate rituals of self-abuse.
The narrative (from Slate) starts off with a locket containing pubic hairs clipped from "the Mons Veneris of a Royal Courtesan of King George IV," then detours into Perrottet's own present-day journey through a Little England time capsule of quaint villages, Bakelite phones and country estates, yet it's entertaining from start to finish, winding through such curlicues as the efforts by Dashwood's descendants both to rehabilitate and to cash in on the reputation of their roué ancestor.
Perrottet helps out a little with the current Baronet Dashwood's special pleading, and in the course misses an opportunity to avoid taking cheap shots at the Victorian period. Note how the "posture molls" were both "comely" and "young." Apparently during the Regency no lap dancers were single mothers with daddy issues. It is possible to celebrate the awesomeness of Georgian priapism without engaging in unearthly fantasy.
And it's not fair to crank up the Phonautograph to repeat tired snipes about the "prudish Victorian era" that makes us "often forget that the pre-Victorian era was more lusty than today," and even trampled the buildings of the randy clubbers under "ponderous Victorian institutions." Whatever you want to say about the period of Victoria's reign, the population curve indicates that people were fucking in England during those soot-choked days of bitterness. Historians, check my work: The Victorian period was also characterized by vast and enduring improvements in the rights of women, and a substantial increase in social mobility in British society. Yet when the current Baronet wants to defend his ancestors (not that they need to be defended), he does so on the grounds that they were the Right Sort:
"Yes, they all dressed up and drank a hell of a lot, and, yes, there were women involved. But look at the men who were members. They were erudite; they loved the classics, astronomy, and astrology. They weren't into black magic—it was Victorian accounts that turned them into devil-worshippers—but they were interested in exotic philosophies. I'm sure that was what drew Sir Francis to the Ottoman Empire, this chance to investigate Eastern mysteries."
Just when "She Wasn't Unresponsive" was my final pick for favorite 2009 catchprase, along comes "Yes, There Were Women Involved." Can't we all come out of the closet? If you pine for a world where women weren't allowed to vote or own property -- and I'm pretty certain that most men still do -- just come out and own it.
Courtesy of stalwart commenter John, who is unashamed to come out and own that this article is that rare "something in Slate not named Dear Prudence that is worth reading."
Related: Tales of Ribaldry will titillate you with bawdy sauciness.