Warning: this post (though quite erudite and tasteful) may not be safe for work.
I’m delighted to welcome back my good friend and fabulous author Miranda Neville for a visit with the Wenches. For those of you who might not have met Miranda, she grew up in England, attended Oxford, and is—among her many prodigious talents—an expert bibliophile, having worked at Sotheby’s writing catalogues for the rare books and manuscripts. She has put that knowledge to great use in her Regency-set romances, which feature the gentlemen of the Burgundy Club, an exclusive group of book collectors.
The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, the third in the series, hits the shelves this month . . . and in keeping with the long, hot, steamy summer we all have been experiencing in the States, she decided to share some of the rather “hot” research that went into the book. So gird your loins—so to speak— and let’s join Miranda as she takes us on a short romp through the history of how a good girl might learn some . . . naughty things.
Characters in historical romance have wonderful sex lives. If it doesn’t always start that way, it’s certainly how it ends up. No one wants to read about a “roll over it’s Saturday night” couple. But it certainly helps if one half of the duo – and it’s usually the hero – has a good idea what he’s doing. But how does he (or she) learn how to be a skilled lover?
(a) The hero’s former relationship(s) with a widow or courtesan. I’ll admit to sometimes feeling skeptical about the latter. Seems to me her job is to make sure the client has a good time regardless of her own pleasure. But never mind. It could happen.
(c) Reading dirty books. This is particularly useful for virginal heroines.
At this point I back up three years, when I decided to research “historical sex” by reading early pornography. (Not that it was so-called until the mid-19th century in England, derived from a French word for works about prostitution.)
The most celebrated pioneer of pornography was Pietro Aretino, a poet and satirist who wrote a series of sixteen sonnets to accompany a suite of illustrations of sexual positions, engraved after erotic paintings by the youthful Giulio Romano. Issued in 1527, both sonnets and prints caused a scandal and were hunted down for destruction by the Catholic Church. Only fragments of “the postures” exist (the last complete set is said to have been destroyed in 1829) but the sonnets survived. Aretino went on to write The Dialogues, supposedly a record of conversations between whores in a brothel.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Aretino’s model of lists of sexual positions and “whore dialogues” was much imitated in Italy, France, and England. The name Aretino came to be a sort of generic term for salacious literature. His name appears on the title pages of books he didn’t write, starting with La Puttana Errante in 1650, actually the work of Niccolo Franco. Franco’s work was translated and rewritten by French writers and, through them, the English.
I found distinct national differences between Italian, French, and English pornography. Aretino’s sonnets contain a good deal of anal sex, to preserve female virginity and guard against pregnancy. By the time we get to the English versions there is none. I wonder if it reflects the English heterosexual male’s taboo against buggery. French libertine literature tends to be combined with high-flying philosophical ruminations, particularly in the mid-to-late eighteenth century when intellectuals like Restif de la Bretonne, Diderot, and Voltaire were writing forbidden works as a subversive act. The sex lives of nuns and priests was not only titillating, but also a criticism of the existing order. Some of the descriptions can get quite flowery. Among the thirty-six positions listed in a 1783 work entitled Histoire et Vie de L’Aretin are “quand la femme embrasse le Dieu Priape ailé” (“when the woman embraces the winged God Priapus”) and “quand l’homme baisse la femme à la cave” (“when the man kisses the woman in her cellar”).
For scholarly discussion of these works I direct you to Robert Darnton’s Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France and Bradford Mudge’s When Flesh Became Word. I wasn’t reading with scholarship in mind, but looking for ideas for my books.
Which brings me to The Genuine and Remarkable Amours of the Late Peter Aretin. I found this slim volume in the British Library when searching the catalogue for Aretino. Bearing the date 1796 on the title page, it’s a novel about the sexual adventures of a youth named Francis Featherbrain and his ardent pursuit of women on tables and riverbanks, in gardens, and brothels and just about anywhere else an Englishman of middling fortune might find himself. Reading it, I knew I’d struck gold. What if, I thought, a virginal heroine used this very book to get a bit of sex ed. So began The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (with help from the hero who does know what he’s doing.) Every hilarious word Celia reads comes straight from the original. “You think I could make this stuff up?” I asked my editor, when she expressed surprise.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the book:
Minerva slid down from the bed, carried The Genuine Amours off in triumph to the far side of the room and settled on the stool next to her dressing table. Celia waited in dread as the girl opened the book to the bookmark and began to read aloud.
“A man who seeks pleasure in casual f… Oh my goodness. I can’t say that word!”
“Then don’t. Stop now.”
“Never! This is fascinating. He can never find it but in the senses, while he who has love on his side, is stretched on the rack of delight, by those able ministers of pleasure, passion and imagination.” She looked up. “That seems a proper sentiment. The author advocates the act of you-know-what only when love is present.”
“Believe me,” Celia said. “He does not practice what he preaches.”
Minerva read quickly down the page. “No, I can see that. Now he is engaging his master’s daughter. How very interesting. They are doing it outside on a downward slope. Listen to this. This posture greatly enhances the pleasure, as it admits of the most perfect entrance that possibly can be conceived of every inch of a prick.”
“Truly?” Celia asked, torn between interest and the conviction that Minerva should not be using words like “prick.” Not at least in that particular meaning of the word. “I didn’t get to that bit.”
“Where did you get this book?”
Celia blushed. “I believe it belongs to Tarquin.” She explained how she found it.
“I knew he collected books, but not this kind. I didn’t even know this kind of book existed. How fortunate that you found it. Finally I can learn something useful.” She flipped a page. “What do you suppose this means? A deluge of spermy rapture.”
There’s just no end to the trouble we historical writers will take to bring you an authentic story. Do you find the great lovers in romances credible? Or ask me a question about my researches and I’ll try to answer without getting the Word Wenches shut down.
Miranda has kindly offered to send an autographed copy of The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton to one lucky winner, who will be chosen at random from those who leave a comment below between now and Sunday morning.
Third picture from top and bottom picture courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection