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.

Caroline, Countess of Harrington and The New Female Coterie

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Caroline, Countess of Harrington: “The Stable-Yard Messalina.”

I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for my book In Bed With the Georgians and one of the things I found really fascinating concerned what was known as The New Female Coterie. It was a sort of ‘club for fallen women’ and was headed by Caroline, Countess of Harrington.

Rumour has it that she was black-balled for membership of the altogether more salubrious and uber chic Female Coterie – a group of ‘ladies of quality’ which met at London’s Almack’s Assembly Rooms. They would link up at Almack’s for a spot of supper, a good natter, and a round or two of loo (a popular card game).

But there was no way that these good ladies wanted to have anything to do with Caroline, Countess of Harrington, who had altogether too racy a reputation. So Her Ladyship went off in a huff and founded her own club. It wasn’t an association with formal rules or membership – more an informal gathering of people who had in common the fact that they were expelled from ‘polite society’. In other words, they were linked by the fact that they had been caught out committing adultery.

So where did they meet? Appropriately, in a top class brothel! It was run by Sarah, a well-known member of the Prendergast family. Her premises at King’s Place were able to attract some of the best known and wealthiest men in the country.

Caroline was originally known as Lady Caroline Fitzroy and was born on 8 April 1722 as the daughter of Charles Fitzroy, 2nd Duke of Grafton and Lady Henrietta Somerset. She married William Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Harrington, in 1746 and died on 26 June 1784 at the age of sixty-two. Her somewhat colourful lifestyle makes it important to distinguish her from the ‘other’ Countess of Harrington, namely Jane, Countess of Harrington.

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The impeccably well-behaved Jane, Countess of Harrington

Jane married Caroline’s son, who went on to become the 3rd Earl. As such Jane led a blameless life, and was, with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, one of the beauties of the Age. Ironically Jane’s younger sister, the scandalous Seymour Dorothy Fleming, was to join Jane’s mother-in-law Caroline as a member of the New Female Coterie. Seymour also figures in my book in her own right – she was the notorious “woman with twenty-seven lovers” who figured in the infamous Crim. Con. case between Sir Richard Worsley and George Bisset.

But back to Lady Caroline: she was regarded as a great beauty and was renowned for her love of a bit of bling. At the coronation of George III, Lady Harrington appeared “covered with all the diamonds she could borrow, hire, or seize,” and was “the finest figure at a distance.” She was the subject of much comment by that notorious old gossip Horace Walpole, and she revelled in the notoriety.

Lady Caroline Harrington may have had seven children by her husband, but she apparently had an insatiable appetite for sex. She was an enthusiastic bisexual whose conduct scandalised Society.
Her husband, who acquired the nickname ‘the goat of quality’ was too busy bedding other women to bother about what his wife was getting up to. However, the couple maintained some shred of respectability because the profligate Lord Harrington wasn’t hypocritical enough to divorce her for following his example.

The Press nicknamed her the “Stable Yard Messalina” — Messalina being the debauched wife of the Emperor Claudius. The “stable yard’ was a reference to the name of their home near St James’ Park, and her title of the “Stable Yard Messalina” was intended to convey her ardour, stamina, and enthusiasm in the bedroom. She was portrayed as a nymphomaniac “of highly refined salaciousness” who had enjoyed illicit sex with dozens of men, including her footman. An article in the Town & Country Magazine said that there were many reports of her amours “with lovers from a monarch down to a hairdresser and every member of the diplomatic body” as well as a Northern potentate and several of her own servants.

She had a weakness for both sexes and when her lesbian lover Elizabeth Ashe deserted her for a diplomat she “was quite devastated…her character was demolished by the desertion.” Denied social acceptance elsewhere, she formed the New Female Coterie where members would meet up once a month to catch up with other women ostracised by society. Here the great-but-no-longer-good would meet to have a good natter, and get drunk on champagne and nostalgia. It had the advantage that if any of the ladies felt so inclined, they could take their pick of lovers from the gentlemen visitors. For Sarah Prendergast, it must have been good for business being able to call on the services of such ladies, and for the women it gave them an opportunity to make a few guineas while finding an outlet for their sexual desires.

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“The Goat of Quality:” The Second Earl of Harrington, also known as “The Stable Yard Macaroni.”

Caroline’s husband the 2nd Earl Harrington was also known as “Lord Fumble”, and was described as being as “lecherous as a monkey.” He frequented the same Prendergast brothel as his wife, and turned up regularly as clockwork, four times a week. Once, he grew bored with the resident whores on offer and so he asked Mrs Prendergast to send out for more, from a nearby emporium run by a Madam known as Mother Butler. He was loaned the use of two girls known as Country Bet and Black Susan, and passed a few hours in their company. He then paid them each a miserly three guineas, much less than the going rate.

When the girls returned to Mrs Butler she demanded her cut of twenty-five percent and was furious to discover the underpayment. She apparently didn’t believe the girls, and seized their fine clothes as a punishment. The girls retaliated by accusing her of stealing the clothes and suddenly the whole thing snow-balled: the magistrates investigated the claim of theft, and statements were read out in Court that the Earl of Harrington always attended Mrs Prendergast’s every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and that it was his custom to ask for two girls on each occasion.

All this was reported in the Morning Post and the Morning Herald. The Earl was furious and demanded that Mrs Prendergast buy up all copies of the papers. She was terrified at the thought of losing a valuable customer, so she employed all six of her girls to do just that. They couldn’t buy the ones already in circulation in the various clubs, coffee shops and taverns which stocked them, so these were simply stolen. She also paid five guineas to Country Bet and Black Susan to drop the case, and wrote letters to all her clients assuring them that their anonymity was safe and that nothing like this would ever happen again.

It was all a bit like some of the leaks on the internet we read about, where members names and passwords are hacked from dating sites!

Mike Rendellin-bed-etc

Mike’s book In Bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal & Satire in the 18th Century comes out with Pen & Sword at the end of November. It is available at a discounted price of just under £12, direct from the publisher here. Mike also does a regular blog on all-things-Georgian at http://mikerendell.com/blog/