The Rakehell in Fact and Fiction

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A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth (1732-33). This progress was a series of eight paintings by William Hogarth showing the decline and fall of a man who wastes his money on luxurious living, sex, and gambling.

In modern historical romantic fiction, the hero is often described as a rake. Frequently, he has the reputation but not the behaviour. He is either misunderstood, or he is deliberately hiding his true nature under a mask, perhaps for reasons of state.

Even the genuine player is not what they would have called a rakehell back in the day. He cats around, sleeping with multiple lovers (either sequentially or concurrently) or keeping a series of mistresses, or both. But when he falls in love with the heroine he puts all of that behind him, and—after undergoing various trials—becomes a faithful husband and devoted family man.

Yesterday’s rakehell was a sexual predator

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John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester was part of the Merry Gang, the original Restoration rakes who surrounded Charles II. He is known for his lovers, his poetry, his profligate behavior, and an unending stream of scandal. He is said to have been constantly drunk for five years, and died at only 33 years of age.

The Georgian and Regency rakehell was a far less benign figure. Back then, a rakehell was defined as a person who was lewd, debauched, and womanising. Rakes gambled, partied and drank hard, and they pursued their pleasures with cold calculation. To earn the name of rake or rakehell meant doing something outrageous—seducing innocents, conducting orgies in public, waving a public flag of corrupt behaviour under the noses of the keepers of moral outrage. For example, two of those who defined the term back in Restoration England simulated sex with one another while preaching naked to the crowd from an alehouse balcony.

Then, as now, rakes were self-centred narcissists who acknowledged no moral code, and no external restraint either. Their position in Society and their wealth meant they could ignore the law, and they didn’t care about public opinion. What they wanted, they took. A French tourist, writing towards the end of the 19th century said:

“What a character! How very English! . . . Unyielding pride, the desire to subjugate others, the provocative love of battle, the need for ascendency, these are his predominant features. Sensuality is but of secondary importance. . . In France libertines were frivolous fellows, whereas here they were mean brutes. . .”

Most aristocrats in the 18th century would not have called themselves rakes

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Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer, fount time between his political duties and his promiscuous sexual activities to found and run the Hellfire Club, whose members included some of the most powerful men of the day. They gathered to share their interests: sex, drink, food, dressing up, politics, blasphemy, and the occult.

Historians have commented that we see the long Georgian century through the lens of the Victorian era, and our impressions about moral behaviour are coloured by Victorian attitudes. The Georgians expected men to be sexually active, and where women were concerned, they worked on the philosophy that if no one knew about it, it wasn’t happening. If visiting brothels, taking a lover, or keeping a mistress, was all it took to be defined as a rake, most of the male half of Polite Society would be so called. And a fair percentage of the female half.

Drunkenness certainly didn’t make a man a rake—the consumption of alcohol recorded in diaries of the time is staggering. Fornication and adultery weren’t enough either, at least when conducted with a modicum of discretion (which meant in private or, if in public, then with other people who were doing the same thing).

In the late 18th and early 19th century, one in five women in London earned their living from the sex trade, guide books to the charms, locations, and prices of various sex workers were best-selling publications, men vied for the attention of the reigning courtesans of the day and of leading actresses, and both men and women chose their spouses for pedigree and social advantage then sought love elsewhere. The number of children born out of wedlock rose from four in 100 to seven (and dropped again in the Victorian). And many women had children who looked suspiciously unlike their husbands.

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Lord Byron. Described as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Byron was admired for his poetry and derided for his lifestyle. When a series of love affairs turned sour, he married, but within a year his wife could no longer take his drinking, increased debt, and lustful ways (with men and women).

The more things change, the more they remain the same

Some of today’s sports and entertainment stars, and spoilt sons of the wealthy, certainly deserve to be called rakehells in the original sense of the word. And just as the posted videos and images of today show how much the serial conquests are about showing off to the rake’s mates, the betting books that are often a feature of historical romances performed the same function back then.

Given access to social media, yesterday’s rakehell would be on Tinder.

Lord Byron earned the appellation ‘rake’ with many sexual escapades, including—so rumour had it—an affair with his sister. His drinking and gambling didn’t help, either. But none of these would have been particularly notable if they had not been carried out in public.

The Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova mixed in the highest circles, and did not become notorious until he wrote the story of his life.

On the other hand, William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, lived with his wife and his mistress, who was his wife’s best friend. The three did not share the details of their relationship with the wider world, so there was gossip, but not condemnation. Devonshire is also rumoured to have been one of Lady Jersey’s lovers (the mother of the Lady Jersey of Almack fame). He was not, at the time, regarded as a rake.

Jude Knight

jude-knightJude Knight’s writing goal is to transport readers to another time, another place, where they can enjoy adventure and romance, thrill to trials and challenges, uncover secrets and solve mysteries, delight in a happy ending, and return from their virtual holiday refreshed and ready for anything.

Since publishing Candle’s Christmas Chair in December 2014, Jude’s name has seldom been off Amazon bestseller lists for one or more books. She is a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, and of the Beau Monde chapter of Romance Writers of America. You can visit her at http://www.judeknightauthor.com

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For Jude’s new companion piece, Writing a Believable Rakehell, please visit our sister blog here.

For a related history piece, check out Jude’s excellent Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

For more on John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, read our post John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester: Satirist, Poet, and Libertine.

“Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

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After. William Hogarth, 1730.

As you’re reading my series, you might notice that condoms (or “cundums”) are present. “Now, Jess,” you might be thinking to yourself, “I know you’re obsessed with contraception, but were people really using condoms in 1671?”

Yes, reader. Yes, they were.

The invention of modern condoms has been attributed to many people, and one of the front runners was Gabriele Fallopio (three guesses what he gave his name to) who recommended linen sheaths soaked in salt and herbs to prevent disease in his De Morbo Gallico (1564), a treatise against syphilis (translation: About the French Disease).

He was hardly the first person to use them for this purpose. Condoms have been used in various forms as far back as ancient Egypt (and beyond, if you believe that cave painting). By the Restoration, a Colonel Quondam, believed to have been a physician in the Royalist army, was rumored to have invented one made of animal gut for the notoriously amorous Charles II.

The first known mention of using sheep’s innards as a barrier method dates back to Minos, but we’ll let him have this one.

The process of producing condoms made of sheep intestines was lengthy. In The Sexual History of London, Catharine Arnold writes:

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This is a condom from 1640. Check your expiration dates, folks.

“(The) process involved soaking sheep’s intestines in water for a number of hours, then turning them inside out and macerating them again in a weak alkaline solution, changed every twelve hours. The intestines were then scraped carefully to remove the mucous membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats, and exposed to the vapor of burning brimstone. Next they were washed in soap and water, inflated, dried, and cut into eight-inch lengths. Finally, the open end was finished with a ribbon that could be tied around the base of the penis, and the condom had to be soaked in water to make it supple before use. After use, it could be washed and hung up to dry, ready for another excursion.”

Condoms became incredibly popular and were even lauded by the Earl of Rochester in 1667 as a protection against both disease and pregnancy in his Panegyrick Upon Cundums:

Happy the Man, who in his Pocket keeps,
Whether with green or scarlet Ribband bound,
A well made Cundum — He, nor dreads the Ills
Of Shankers or Cordee, or Bubos dire!”
Thrice happy he — (for when in lewd Embrace
Of Transport-feigning Whore, Creature obscene!
The cold insipid Purchase of a Crown!
Bless’d Chance! Sight seldom seen! and mostly given
By Templar or Oxonian — Best Support
Of Drury and her starv’d Inhabitants

He later died of syphilis.

Rochester definitely had the right idea, but at the time, there was a popular belief that venereal disease could not be spread between men, so some men took to entertaining themselves with their own sex to avoid disease, with small groups even swearing off women altogether. That sounds like a great excuse to me and will be the subject of an altogether different post.

But we’ll get there.

In the meantime, you can read Rochester’s Panegyrick Upon Cundums in its entirety here, and I recommend you do. It’s amazing. I’ll leave you with another little excerpt. Rochester makes a guest appearance in Tyburn, and Sally could be somewhere in this passage:

That when replete with Love, and spur’d by Lust,
You seek the Fair-one in her Cobweb Haunts,
Or when allur’d by Touch of passing Wench,
Or caught by Smile insidious of the Nymph
Who in Green Box at Playhouse nightly flaunts,
And fondly calls thee to Love’s luscious Feast,
Be cautious, stay a while ’till fitly arm’d
With Cundum Shield, at Rummer best supply’d,
Or never-failing Rose; so you may thrum
Th’ ecstatic Harlot, and each joyous Night
Crown with fresh Raptures; ’till at least unhurt,
And sated with the Banquet, you retire.
By me forwarn’d thus may you ever treat
Love’s pleasing Paths in blest Security.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages.

Fallopio, Gabriele. De Morbo Gallico.

Wilmot, John. A Panegyrick upon Cundums.

Previously published on authorjessicacale.com

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester: Satirist, Poet, and Libertine

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Portrait by Sir Peter Lely.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was a Restoration courtier, poet, satirist, and libertine. He was lauded by Andrew Marvell and Voltaire, who described him as a man of genius and translated some of his work into French. Entertaining and offending with works such as Signior Dildo and Panegyrick Upon Cundums, his life was no less exciting than his verse. He inherited his title at age eleven, kidnapped his future wife at seventeen, trained one of the period’s most famous actresses, and fell in and out of the King’s favor until his death from syphilis at age thirty-three. A rake and accomplished wit, his actions and works would impress and offend in equal measure for centuries to come, and he even received the compliment of being banned in the Victorian period. 

So who was he? 

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious  creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own share
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational. (1)


John Wilmot was born, appropriately enough, on April Fool’s Day, 1647. His father, Henry, Viscount Wilmot, was a Cavalier hero credited with assisting the future Charles II’s escape to the Continent after the battle of Worcester in 1651. For his service to Charles II, he was created Earl of Rochester in 1652. John inherited the title at the age of eleven with his father’s death in 1658.

As an act of gratitude to his father, Charles II himself sent the young Earl of Rochester on a Grand Tour of France and Italy that would last three years and acquaint the fourteen-year old with a great deal of European writing and thought. He returned at seventeen and formally entered the court on Christmas Day of 1664.

Charles II suggested the relatively impoverished Rochester marry heiress Elizabeth Mallet. Mallet was not opposed: “He was handsome: tall, graceful, well-shaped. His complexion was fair, of a rosy hue; and his good breeding and wit were striking… He was far too attractive for a flirtatious fifteen year-old to reject out of hand. Moreover, he could write the sort of fashionable, amorous, pastoral poetry that delighted (her) girlish heart.” 

That poetry is still pretty effective today:

My rifled Love would soon retire,
Dissolving into Aire,
Should I that Nymph cease to admire,
Blest in whose Arms I will expire*
Or at her Feet despair.


Elizabeth understandably was no opposed to the idea of marrying the gorgeous, intelligent, and very witty earl, but her relatives were less keen on the idea. When they refused the match, Rochester handled their refusal with dignity and grace.

Just kidding. He kidnapped her.

According to Pepys’ diary entry for May 26th, 1665:

“Here, upon my telling the story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallet, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men and forcibly taken from him, and put in a coach with six horses and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoken to the lady often, but with no success) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower…”


Rochester spent three weeks in the Tower for this stunt, but his bravado paid off. Two years later, after he distinguished himself in the second Dutch War and was installed a Whitehall as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Elizabeth defied her family and eloped with him in January of 1667. 

He was reputed to be among Nell Gwyn’s lovers, and they remained close throughout their lives. His affection for the theater extended to writing plays, scenes, and prologues for the stage, including the delightful sounding Sodom, of the Quintessence of Debauchery, which has never been definitively proven to be his. He trained actress Elizabeth Barry, who later became his mistress, and was one of the most renowned actresses of the period. 


Rochester giving his laurels to a cute monkey

Rochester was a renowned libertine, raising hell with a group of like-minded gentlemen referred to by Marvell as ‘The Merry Gang.” He told Gilbert Burnet that he had once been drunk for five years, and was almost certainly referring to the time he spent with them between 1668 and 1672. Among their numbers were the Earl of Dorset, the Earl of Mulgrave, Sir Charles Sedley, playwrights William Wycherly and George Etherege, and the Duke of Buckingham himself. Like many of his contemporaries, Rochester was bi-sexual, and spent his evenings (and mornings, and days) in the company of both sexes. Though Rochester doubtlessly loved his wife, he benefited from the sexual double standard that allowed men to please themselves as they saw fit while their wives remained, as Elizabeth did, at their homes in the country. His “extravagant frolics” with the libertines led to his banishment from court in 1669.

It was not the last time he was banished from court. He returned shortly thereafter, and was sent away again after Christmas on 1673 when he presented In the Isle of Britain, a satire poking fun at the King during the holiday festivities. He returned to court in February of the next year, only to be exiled again in June of 1675. 

After he fell out of favor again in 1676, he began to impersonate a fictional “Doctor Bendo,” specializing in infertility and gynecological disorders. According to Gilbert Burnet, Rochester personally cured a few patients of infertility. 

He died at age 33, almost certainly of syphilis. Gilbert Burnet reported that Rochester renounced his life of libertinism, but it’s debatable whether or not this actually happened, as his conversion may have been embellished by Burnet to improve his reputation. If it was, it worked. Burnet later became the Bishop of Salisbury. 

His wisdom did his happiness destroy,
Aiming to know that world he should enjoy.
And wit was his vain, frivolous pretense
Of pleasing others at his own expense.
For wits are treated just like common whores:
First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors.
The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains
That frights th’ enjoyer with succeeding pains.
Women and men of wit are dangerous tools,
And ever fatal to admiring fools:
Pleasure allures, and when the fops escape,
‘Tis not that they’re beloved, but fortunate,
And therefore what they fear, at heart they hate. (1)


Rochester appears as a peripheral character in Tyburn. Derby and Conley are active members of his band of libertines, and Sally’s friend, Bettie, is half in love with him. I tried to fit his appearances in the book within the timeline of his life, and though you don’t get to see inside his head in this book, you can feel the effects of Derby’s hangover following one of their “extravagant frolics.” I hope you enjoy it. 

(1) A Satyr against Reason and Mankind. You can read the full annotated text of the poem here
(2) James William Johnson. A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

*This is in no way a euphemism for orgasm. 

You can read more about syphilis in my post Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and the Sickness of Naples, and more about seventeenth century condoms and Rochester’s verse in praise of them in my post Love’s Pleasing paths in Blest Security: Condoms in Restoration London.