The Flapper and the Virgin Birth: The Curious Case of Christabel Hart and John Russell

I enjoy writing about real people. For kiddos, I’m working on nonfiction books about Bethany Hamilton and Malala Yousafzai. For adults, I’ve got a fictional origin story about Bonnie and Clyde. What makes that story especially fun, besides digging into the lives of two of the most infamous outlaws, is that I’ve set it during the 1920s. The Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Age. The Age of Intolerance. The Age of Wonderful Nonsense.

During my research, I stumbled upon a dirty, sexy story that illustrates the age of intolerance and wonderful nonsense so well, and I’d love to share it with all you scandalous readers.

Meet Christabel Hart and John Russell.

christabel-hart-russellChristabel was a looker. She worked in a factory by day and, by night, danced the tango at high-society parties. She even shaved her armpits, something reserved for free-spirited flappers in sleeveless dresses. Here, she’s donning the large fur collar trend.

John was a 6’ 6’’ submarine officer, who often went by the nickname Stilts, due to his height.

Their “love” blossomed after Stilts put an advert in The Times looking for “young ladies” to correspond with him. Christabel answered. When Stilts was on leave, they met up in London.

Soon, Stilts proposed, and Christabel likely shrugged as she accepted, claiming, “I thought it would be nice and peaceful not to be pestered by men asking me to marry them.”
However, Christabel had a change of heart. She called it off. She then flippantly tried to elope with one of Stilts’ friends. The marriage never happened, due to legal formalities, and Christabel must’ve shrugged again as she telegraphed Stilts and agreed to marry him after all.

He telegraphed back an overjoyed, “Yes.” A week later, in 1918, they were married.

john-russell-in-dragBut Christabel wasn’t ready for children and didn’t want to consummate their marriage. In fact, the girl must’ve paid attention during PE class, and she insisted on abstinence. Zero hanky panky. Hell, Christabel insisted on different bedrooms.

Stilts agreed, to make her happy.

Some say Stilts’ pent up (and maybe backed up) frustration led to him attending dress balls in drag. That’s him on the left.

And during the few times he did sneak into her bed, Christabel declared that Stilts’ methods of birth control made pregnancy impossible. How? I’ll let your imagination do the work. But through it all, Christabel’s so-called virginity remained intact. So did her hymen.

Lo and behind, in 1921, Christabel realized she was five months pregnant. For me, this is a classic case of playing “just the tip”, but Stilts disagreed—even though it is possible for semen to pass through an unbroken hymen and also for sperm to be in the pre-cum. Nevertheless, Stilts was adamant Christabel was unfaithful and sued her for divorce, thus beginning a nasty trial.

Gynecologists confirmed her unbroken hymen. Christabel was cleared of any adulterous acts, though she did have “twenty to thirty [male] dancing friends.” Stilts was named the father. And, the trial even reached the likes of King George, who said the language used in court was worse than “the pages of the most extravagant French novel.”

So, there you have it. I call this the mother of 1920s scandal, lasting through 1937 when Christabel finally gave Stilts a divorce.becoming-bonnie-cover

Jenni L. Walsh is the author of Becoming Bonnie, a historical novel forthcoming from Tor/Forge (Macmillan) on May 9, 2017 that tells the untold story of how wholesome Bonnelyn Parker becomes half of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo during the 1920s. Learn more about Jenni and her books at jennilwalsh.com.

Sources

“John and Christabel.” Jazz Babies

Chicago Tribune Press Services. “‘Dream Baby’s’ Mother Given Final Decree” Chicago Tribune [Chicago] 22 January 1937 Published: Page 4. Print.

Venning, Annabel. “The Aristocrat in Frocks and His Man-mad Wife Who Gave Birth While Still a Virgin: Couple’s Grandson Sheds New Light on Britain’s Most Sensational Divorce Case.” Daily Mail Online. 01 Nov. 2013.

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Perfect Love and Sacred Sin: Sex and Rasputin

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Being a fan of both history and music, I’ve often wondered about the hypothesis presented by the great scholar, Boney M: Was Rasputin (Jan 21st 1869 – Dec. 30th, 1916) really Russia’s greatest love machine?

I’ve wondered about this for years. Over time, Rasputin’s life has become more legend than fact thanks to a campaign of propaganda so scathing that most people today have not only heard of him, but associate him with evil. Even now, his life is usually viewed through the lens of our own morality.

Rasputin’s views, like the man himself, are rather more complicated that you might expect, and cannot be reduced to simply good or evil. He was a monk with deeply held religious beliefs that developed out of Orthodox tradition as well as his experience with the Khlyst sect, a group that believed that true joy could only be achieved through forgiveness, and therefore the surest way to God is to sin for the purpose of being forgiven, usually through ritual orgies.

This is not a biography. Rasputin’s life and death are well-documented and will be revisited on this site in the future. Today, with the 100th anniversary of his assassination barely a month away, I am looking at Rasputin’s views on love and sex in order to see if Boney M was right.

The part about him being a love machine, that is. Not the part where he’s also “the lover of the Russian queen.”

That is a post for another day, I’m afraid.

rasputin_listovkaThe Man

During his lifetime, Rasputin was hated, feared, and revered in equal measure. In the last days of Imperial Russia, he was seen to have too much influence over the royal family and the government. He was a peasant with the ear of the Tsar; an untrustworthy figure at best, and at worst, a convenient scapegoat for the political unrest that plagued the empire. Because he was seen as undesirable or even dangerous, a campaign of misinformation and unflattering political cartoons was launched against him, the effects of which are still felt today.

Keep in mind that sources from this period are maddeningly unreliable: due in no small part to political upheaval and the subsequent revolution, records are full of omissions, contradictory accounts, and outright lies. This, coupled with the rumors widely circulated about Rasputin, makes it difficult to get a read on him. He was rumored to be an insatiable lecher, a filthy peasant who was at once so dumb he was barely coherent but at the same time, intelligent and calculating enough to single-handedly overthrow Russia. He’s said to have been hideous, stinking, and with food perpetually stuck in his beard, but women loved him. Because he hypnotized them, probably.

It’s a lot to live up to. It’s difficult to imagine someone being both a genius and complete idiot, repellent and irresistible. This view of him begins to unravel with the account of Filippov. Desperate to understand how he was so attractive to women, he checked him out in the public baths:

“His body was exceptionally firm, not flabby, and ruddy and well-proportioned, without the paunch and flaccid muscles usual at that age…and without the darkening of the pigment of the sexual organs, which at a certain age have a dark or brown hue.”

Filippov reports finding nothing unusual about Rasputin’s physical appearance, and further describes him as an exceptionally clean man who bathed and changed his clothes frequently, and ‘never smelled bad.’

For a man in his late thirties/early forties, Rasputin was in good shape. He was clean, “exceptionally firm,” and he had abs! It’s also worth noting he was 6’4” and had eyes so hypnotic they were described as “phosphorescent,” beautiful, and maniacal.

We begin to understand what Filippov missed: Rasputin was pretty hot.

Okay, I can hear you laughing from here, but bear with me: great body, ridiculous beard, eyes that are both crazy and beautiful, and the supernatural ability to drop panties at fifty paces?

Come on, he’s totally the Tom Hardy of Imperial Russia.

Theory and Practice

Rasputin himself was not as indiscriminately lustful as he was made out to be. His voracious sexual appetite plagued him, and he made it his mission not only to conquer it, but to use his experience to help others to do the same.

Many women acquainted with him reported that in spite of frequent advances, he did not seem to be overly interested in physical relations. During this same time, however, he was very fond of prostitutes, but his behavior with them is not what the tabloids would have led us to believe. According to ‘Peach,’ an ex-prostitute who in the 1970s still referred to him as Grishka, he was a little odd:

“He took her to the same cheap hotel where they all took her and ordered her to undress. He sat down across from her. And sat and watched in silence. His face suddenly turned very, very pale, as if all the blood had left it. She even got scared. Then he gave her the money and left. On his way out he said, “Your kidneys are bad.” He took her to the same hotel another time. And even lay down with her but did not touch her.”

Rasputin was right; years later, Peach had to have a kidney removed.

Why didn’t he touch her? It was an exercise in restraint. Rasputin believed the way to refine his nerves was by mastering his flesh, and so he would put himself in situations of great temptation and actively improve his spirit by resisting. In his words, as recounted by Filippov:

“(It) is something womenfolk do not understand…The saints would undress harlots, and look at them, and become more refined in their feelings, but would not allow any intimacy.”

The idea was that if one could refine their nerves and reach the highest Platonic states, they could literally float and even walk on water through the heightened ability of their soul.

That is not to say he was celibate.

To understand Rasputin’s view of sex, there are two key things you have to understand:

1. God is Love
2. Love > Marriage

Many of Rasputin’s devotees were married women, but he never slept with them if they were in love with their husbands. Love is sacred, while marriage is a social construct. If one had a loveless marriage, it would not be a sin to find love outside of it: rather, the sin would be to remain faithful within it and to never experience real love (God). None of his devotees who we’re reasonably certain did sleep with him ever admitted adultery. He advised them not to not only for his own protection, but because he did not believe it was adultery to have sex outside of a loveless marriage.

As Edvard Radzinsky explains: “Love was the chief thing for him. Love everywhere overflowing. The pagan Love of nature, of trees, grass, and rivers. Only Love was holy. And therefore if a married woman loved her husband, she was for Rasputin untouchable. But whatever was not love was a lie. (…) If a woman did not love her husband and remained in the marriage, she was sinful. Rasputin was against love’s being subordinated to the laws of marriage. It was for him something terrible that came from the official church. Everything that was not true love was to him criminal and subject to change.”

The relationship between sex and love was a little more complicated. Sex was still a sin, but the best way to be cleansed of it was to have it and thus be freed of the impulse.

Until it struck again, in which case he was only too happy to take that sin upon himself. For the spiritual well-being of the women, of course. At one point, he advised his coterie to visit him daily to be purged of any sinful impulses that might arise.

This practice is part of why people of a more traditionally religious persuasion dismiss him as “evil”: his understanding of the nature of God and the purpose of love and sex was different from that of mainstream Christianity. That is not to say he exploited it for his own purposes; he genuinely believed that his was the surest path to God. Like the Khlysty, he believed that true joy was obtained through forgiveness, so communion with God could be found on the other side of sin.

It’s worth noting that if we disassociate sex with sin in this case, it becomes something altogether more benign. If sex is not inherently sinful and is practiced as an expression of love, the only thing you can reasonably object to in this instance is the women’s marital status.

So was Rasputin really Russia’s greatest love machine? If we look at the love aspect outside of the euphemism here, maybe he was. After all, love was central to his spiritual mission and understanding of God. From what remains of his personal life, remembered conversations, and the evident swarms of female devotees, we can draw our own conclusions. It’s safe to say he was not as promiscuous as he was made out to be, and sex for him and with him was more than an expulsion of sinful impulse: it was a spiritual experience.

Jessica Cale

See also:
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Rasputin File. Anchor Books, 2000. New York.
Boney M: “Rasputin.” Nightflight to Venus (1978).

Love Below Stairs: Rembrandt and His Maids

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Bathsheba at Her Bath. Rembrandt (1653)

Tales of masters involved with their maids have as much allure today as they did in history. In the news, we read sordid tales of Hollywood stars romantically involved with their personnel and the scandal reports of shameless household help preying on vulnerable celebrities. But what makes these relationships so intriguingly immoral? Is it the element of adultery because many of the employers are married? Or is having a relationship in the workplace what makes this arrangement taboo?

Analyses of the behavioral patterns between employers and employees fill volumes of psychology books. A certain power imbalance arises when two people enter into a vocational relationship. The employer has the upper hand, holding not only the threat of termination over the employee’s head but also holding the purse strings. One could say, the employer holds an employee’s very existence in his hands. As with any power imbalance, there is a risk that this power could be abused. Or a more commonplace risk could arise: a romantic relationship could develop in the workplace. These risks compound the intrigue, especially when the employees are working in private homes.

Let’s concentrate on the recipe for a good master and maid tale: a household hires a housekeeper. The household does not fit into the modern concept of the nuclear family in a loving marriage. Maybe this is a marriage arranged for business and social reasons. For some reason the husband and wife live together but separate. The husband may travel frequently. The wife may be preoccupied with childbearing. The housekeeper has daily and intimate contact with the master. A kind word, a smile, a wink, a touch, a kiss…The master feels he has the right to take his maid, however he desires, with her consent or against her will. Maybe some gratuity changes hands.

These tales often concentrate on male employers and their use and misuse of their female help. Surely, male household employees are misused as well, but the majority of these cases involves women. The proof of female employees caught in unsavory circumstances is often obvious in the form of an unwanted pregnancy and the subsequent fall from grace forever.

In his book The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany, Joel Harrington reports the case of a young maid and her descent into disrepute by bearing a child, the result of a unwanted pregnancy caused by her employer. During Harrington’s research, he notices that the legal records were crammed full of reports of maids involved in fornication, abortion, abandonment and infanticide cases. He reasons that “domestic service entailed geographic and thus social displacement. Most young women…served fairly near their homes but far enough away to require a new social network.” Considering the stage in their development, that being late teens and early twenties, the young women were exposed to a multitude of “voluntary and involuntary sexual relations.”

They were almost completely dependent on their employers for food and board and leaving even abusive circumstances would result in forfeiting pay and termination of the contract, as well as shame to their families. “A maid impregnated by her employer was in fact the most common adultery scenario among married men throughout the early modern era.”

As with many historic vocational relationships, payment would only ensue at the end of the employment contract, be that a year or two years, and termination could mean forfeiting all the wages due. Historically, the best-paid women employees, like cooks and nannies, were maybe paid as well as their worse-paid male counterparts. But there were ways maids could better their positions. The master may have hinted that there were extra jobs to do and money would change hands. Maybe even a promise of marriage would preceded a sexual encounter. Although, in his book, Joel Harrington says, “…marriage was at best a cruel delusion.”

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The French Bed. Rembrandt (1646)

To be fair, there are reports in historical records of genuine love and affection between masters and maids, even if the relationships between them did not end in marriage. A famous example of a master involved with his maid(s) is that of the Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Born in 1609 in Leiden, Holland, and educated there too, he soon made himself a name and moved to Amsterdam in 1631, a promising career budding. There he met his art dealer’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, he married her. The couple lived in better circumstances even though a dark cloud shrouded their affluence. Saskia bore three children and none of the three infants survived. Then in 1641, Sakia gave birth to their son, Titus. Saskia sadly died a year later. During the time of Saskia’s illness, Rembrandt hired a governess, Geertje Dircx, to help him raise Titus. Around that time, he also hired a housemaid, Hendrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt’s relationship with Geertje was an intimate one, to the point that he gave her a silver marriage medal, although not engraved. At this time he painted his most sexually explicate works like The French Bed (above) and The Monk in the Cornfield (below), considered pornographic for the 1640’s. He also gave Geertje some of Saskia’s jewels. Although Rembrandt and Geertje were betrothed, even though he later disputed this, they never married. He would have lost Titus’ trust fund, money set up in Saskia’s will, had he remarried and he could not afford to do that. Even though Rembrandt was a successful portrait painter, he was known to live above his means and had money problems.

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The Monk in the Cornfield. Rembrandt (1646)

When did the relationship between Rembrandt and Geertje sour? When did Geertje notice that Rembrandt preferred the young maid, Hendrickje? Maybe when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt looked “…at the young woman (Hendrickje) an instant longer than was quite necessary between a master and a maid,” as reported in the book Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama. Maybe when Geertje began to hint that a Christian marriage was what she really wanted. Maybe the problem escalated when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt took Hendrickje into his bed and no longer wanted her.

In 1649, Geertje was ousted, out of the relationship and out of the house. Rembrandt demanded that Geertje make a will leaving the jewelry he gave her to his son, Titus, should Geertje die. Geertje could ‘use’ the jewels, promising never to sell or pawn them, and he would pay her a yearly stipend, as long as she made no further demands on the artist. Hendrickje was even summoned in front of commissioners to testify that Geertje had agreed to this arrangement in front of witnesses and had no further claim on Rembrandt. The situation escalated further when Geertje pawned the jewels and continued to escalate until Rembrandt testified that Geertje was of “unsound mind.” Her detention ensued. In 1651, Geertje was confined to the Gouda Spinhuis, a correctional spinning house for wayward women. Even after her release in 1655, she continued to pester him.

In the meantime, Hendrickje proved to be a valued companion for Rembrandt, although he never married her, either. The immoral relationship did not go unnoticed by the Dutch Reformed Church. Hendrickje was summoned by the Church Council in 1654 when the swellings of her pregnancy were noticeable. She was “informed of the full depths of her depravity and wickedness…and formally banned from the Lord’s Supper, the Calvinist communion.”

Rembrandt painted what was considered the most beautiful of his nudes, the last nude painting of his career, in 1654, Bathsheba at her Bath (top), supposedly modeled by Hendrickje. They had a daughter, Cornelia, in 1654. Hendrickje remained with Rembrandt as his companion and business administrator until she died in 1663. Rembrandt died in 1669.

main-photo-very-smallLaura Libricz was born and raised in Bethlehem PA and moved to Upstate New York when she was 22. After working a few years building Steinberger guitars, she received a scholarship to go to college. She tried to ‘do the right thing’ and study something useful, but spent all her time reading German literature. She earned a BA in German at The College of New Paltz, NY in 1991 and moved to Germany, where she resides today. When she isn’t writing she can be found sifting through city archives, picking through castle ruins or aiding the steady flood of musical instruments into the world market.

Her first novel, The Master and the Maid, is the first book of the Heaven’s Pond Trilogy. The Soldier’s Return and Ash and Rubble are the second and third books in the series, to be released 2017. A great way to get in touch is through https://about.me/lauralibricz for all the important links to her books and social media!

Sources

Harrington, Joel. The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Schama, Simon. Rembrandt’s Eyes. New York: Random House / Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Stop by Sartle for more on Rembrandt’s work here

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.

the-impeccably-well-behaved-jane_countess_of_harrington

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/

Death and the Maiden: Macabre Desire in Renaissance Art

After the Black Death killed an estimated sixty percent of the European population in the fourteenth century, Death himself haunted art across the continent. Always a popular theme in the middle ages, it nevertheless adapted from primarily religious art into paintings of plague and the always unsettling Danse Macabre, depictions of the dead dancing, often with the living. By the early sixteenth century, however, the Danse Macabre theme had progressed into something far creepier.

Death was no longer so much dancing with the woman as embracing her. The courtly dance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had taken an erotic turn, and now Death was kissing, fondling, and all but making love to women in art across Europe. The progression can be seen in two works of art from the Swiss artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Dance of Death and Death and the Maiden:

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Dance of Death. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1517.

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Death and the Maiden. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1517.

That escalated quickly.

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The Rape of Proserpina (detail). Bernini, 1621. Photo by Int3gr4te.

The theme of Death and the Maiden was nothing new. The Greeks and Romans had their own version in the story of Persephone, kidnapped by and eventually married to Hades, the god of the underworld. While Hades has been presented at turns as a handsome goth, an old man with a beard, or bafflingly, a purple cartoon character, he is often used to represent death, a man being ever so slightly more appealing than the skeletons in Deutsch’s work.

It’s interesting to note that although there are many artistic renderings on the theme of the Rape of Persephone, it isn’t clear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses whether this rape was literal or just referring to her abduction. Nevertheless, Persephone married Hades and ruled over the Underworld by his side, and many traditions depict them as happily married and, atypically for the gods of Olympus, monogamous.

So why did Death fancy young women rather than knights or minstrels? There are a couple of different theories. Death may serve as a reminder not only of mortality, but of the inevitable passage of time. As we see skeletons embracing young women, we understand that youth and beauty cannot last forever. Alternatively, the sexualization of Death can be read as a warning, given how many women died in childbirth during the middle ages. (Art or the most intense abstinence-only program ever? You decide.)

It could also be the artists wanted to paint pretty girls in various states of undress. You know, because art.

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Death and Life. Edvard Munch, 1894.

As for the maidens in these paintings, they really vary. While some of them submit to Death’s grasp with all the enthusiasm of an awkward hug from a bad blind date, many of them embrace him with passion. Is it fate, a metaphor, or a macabre exaggeration of the kind of man a young woman ought to avoid?

While we may not be able to ask Deutsch and Grien what is was about 1517 that had them painting erotic pictures of skeletons fondling women, the theme proved to be a persistent one and enjoyed a resurgence in the romantic period of the late nineteenth century. Edvard Munch imagined a relationship dominated by the maiden in Death and Life, the sexual aggression of the Renaissance balanced with a rather sweet-looking kiss.

Jessica Cale

Sources

LeClaire, Lance David. 10 Grim Themes of Death in Western Art. 

Ovid. Metamorphoses.

Pollefeyes, Patrick. Jeune Fille et la Mort, La Mort Dans l’Art.

Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Cyrene_and_Cattle_-_Edward_Calvert

Cyrene and the Cattle, Edward Calvert. Beloved of Apollo, Cyrene was the mythological namesake of Cyrene in Libya.

Silphium was a type of giant fennel that grew in Cyrenaica (present-day Libya) between the sixth century BCE and the first century CE. It was so central to the economy of Cyrene that most of their coins had images of the plant or its seeds. It was delicious, smelled wonderful, and could treat everything from sore throats and indigestion to snake bites and epilepsy. It was its other uses, however, that made it famous and caused its eventual extinction.

Silphium was known throughout the Mediterranean as a highly effective contraceptive and abortifacient. It was regarded as “worth its weight in silver,” and was believed to be a gift of Apollo. The Egyptians and the Knossos Minoans had a special glyph for it. Even Catullus, my favorite of all of the classical perverts, alluded to it in his naughty, naughty poems:

You ask, Lesbia, how many kisses might
You give to satisfy me and beyond.
Greater than the number of African sands that
Lie in silphum-bearing Cyrene between the
Sacred sepulcher of ancient Battus
And the oracle of agitated Jove,
Or than the many stars that, when night
Is still, see the secret loves of men.
It is enough and beyond to love-stricken
Catullus for you to kiss so many kisses
Which neither busybodies can count,
Nor can evil tongues curse. (Catullus 7)

Apollo_Kitharoidos_BM_1380

Apollo Kitharoidos from Cyrene. Silphium was thought to be a gift from Apollo. You’re welcome.

Pausanius’ Description of Greece leaves little doubt as to what it was used for in his story of Dioscuri meeting Phormion’s daughter:

“By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”

Given the fact that the plant looked more or less like a big modern-day fennel, it probably wasn’t there for decorative purposes.

Women were commonly advised to mix the juice from a small amount of silphium with water to “regulate their menstrual cycles”. Silphium water was also effective when applied to wool and used as a pessary. Its effectiveness was unquestioned and may even help to explain the exceptionally low birth rates in Ancient Rome. (The other explanation? Lead poisoning. See Contraception in History, Part I)

Unfortunately, silphium was a very temperamental plant and could only really grow on one narrow coastal area about a hundred miles long. That doesn’t sound like so much when you consider that this plant provided contraception to much of the ancient world. It was thought to be farmed to extinction within six hundred years.

Although Pliny the Elder reported the plant extinct by the first century CE, we have not been able to positively identify it, so it is impossible to know for certain whether this is truly the case or if it was as effective as it was believed to be. Related plants have been used for similar purposes over the years with mixed results. Asafoetida was once used as a poor substitute, but these days it has been consigned to the spice rack.

Silphium

Ancient coin from Cyrene depicting a silphium seed

Many explanations have been given for the origins of the heart symbol over the years. Actual human hearts are not particularly heart-shaped, and as for the upside-down heart shape of a woman’s arse? Please. One more likely explanation is that it comes from the image of the silphium seed that was etched onto coins and known by sight throughout the Mediterranean world. If there was a plant you could eat that provided effective contraception without otherwise killing you, you’d want to know what it looked like, too.

And what does it look like? A heart. (right) 

Upside-down arse, indeed!

Jessica Cale

Sources

Bellows, Alan. The Birth Control of Yesteryear.

Catullus, Poem 7.

Pausanias, Description of Greece.

Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories.

[An earlier version of this appeared on authorjessicacale.com.] 

Riding Saint George: Regency Sex Terms You Won’t Find in Austen

I’m a big fan of profanity. Some people aren’t crazy about, but I fucking love it. I was one of those kids that makes other people’s parents uncomfortable; at age nine I had a vocabulary that wouldn’t have been too far out of place in the navy. It’s not that I had bad parents; my parents are great, they just had their priorities straight. Swearing was not at the top of their list of concerns, and they didn’t confuse it with lack of intelligence or disrespect. Profanity can’t be reduced to abuse or threatening language; it can also be used effectively for levity or, if you’re a writer, to inject some authenticity into your work (but we’ll get to that).

It’s important to know how to swear properly. Nothing’s going to make you sound more awkward than dropping an f-bomb in an unnatural place. Likewise, all Americans should know how to say ‘twat’ properly (rhymes with cat. Trust me). Unfortunately, American profanity is relatively limited when compared to the colorful vocabulary of the British.

As much as I’d like to use names like knob jockey or twat waffle in my books (I’m not being funny, I would LOVE to), these terms of endearment* are relatively new. Swearing, however, is not. It’s nice to imagine that people of bygone eras engaged in squeaky clean cap-doffing a la Mary Poppins and didn’t feel the need to use rude language (much less engage in rude activity), but that’s just not the case.

You want proof? Let’s look at Captain Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

While many of the words in here are not what we might consider profanity** and the phrases are largely bonkers, this book is a fantastic reference for any fan of history. 135 pages of cant and “vulgar language” cover everything from terms for flattery to fornication and include sixty-one words for prostitute.***

One common issue romance writers have in particular is finding historically appropriate euphemisms related to sex. If you’re writing a Regency or Georgian romance and you’re puzzling over another way to say throbbing member, the dictionary has you covered. Let’s take a look at some period terms for naughty bits.

Penis

Arbor Vitae
Gaying Instrument
Horn Colic (“temporary priapism”)
Lobcock (“a large, relaxed penis or a dull inanimate fellow”)
Matrimonial Peace-maker
Piss-proud (“a false erection”)
Plug Tail
Prick
Roger
Pego
Silent Flute
Sugar Stick
Tackle (also a mistress)
Thomas
Tool
Whore Pipe

Vagina

Bite
Carvel’s Ring (“The private parts of a woman. Ham Carvel, a jealous old doctor, being in bed with his wife, dreamed that the Devil gave him a ring, which, so long as he had it on his finger, would prevent his being made a cuckold: waking he found he had his finger the Lord knows where.”)
Cauliflower
Cock Alley (or Lane)
Commodity
Crinkum Crankum
Cunt
Dumb Glutton
Dunnock
Eve’s Custom-House
Fruitful Vine
Madge
Man Trap
Money
Monosyllable
Mother of All Saints
Mother of All Souls
Mother of St. Patrick
Muff
Notch
Quim
Rum Goods (“a maidenhead, being a commodity never entered”)
Tu Quoque
Tuzzy-muzzy
Venerable Monosyllable
Ware
Water-mill

Breasts

Apple Dumplin Shop
Cat Heads
Dairy
Diddeys
Dugs
Kettledrums
Cupid’s Kettledrums
Chest and Bedding (sea term)

Testicles

Nutmegs
Ballocks
Bawbels
Trinkets
Cods
Gingambobs
Thingamabobs
Tallywags
Tarrywags
Twiddle-diddles
Wiffles (“a relaxation of the scrotum”)
Whirlygigs

raphael_-_saint_george_fighting_the_dragon
St. George. Raphael, 1504

Sex

Basket Making
Beast With Two Backs (to make the, from Shakespeare)
to Blow the Grounsils (“to lie with a woman on the floor”)
to Dock
Dog’s Rig (“to copulate until you are tired, then turn tail to it”)
a Flyer (with clothes on)
to Give a Girl a Green Gown (sex in the grass)
to Grind
Hump (at this point an unfashionable term)
to Lay Cane Upon Abel (sex between men)
to Jock
Jockum Cloy
to Keep it Up (“to prolong a debauch, a metaphor drawn from the game of shuttle cock”)
to Knock
to Mow
to Occupy
Prigging
to Relish
Riding St. George (“the woman uppermost in the amorous congress, that is, the dragon upon St. George. This is said to be the way to get a bishop.”)
to Roger
Rutting
to Screw
Shag
State (“to lie in state; to be in bed with three harlots”)
Strapping
Stroke (“to take a stroke”)
to Strum
to Swive
Tiffing
to Tup
Two Handed Put
to Wap

Arse

Blind Cheeks
Blind Cupid
Bum
Bumfiddle
Ars Musica
Cheeks
Double Jugg (a man’s arse)
Pratts
Round Mouth
Wind-mill

Masturbation

To Box the Jesuit and Get Cockroaches (a sea term)
Toss Off

Condoms

Mrs. Phillip’s Ware
Armor
Machines

Venereal Disease

Blue Boar (“a venereal bubo”)
Bube (see above)
Burnt
Clap
Clapham House
Covent Garden Ague
Crinkums
Drury Lane Ague
Dumb Watch
Fire Ship (“a wench with venereal disease”)
Flap Dragon (clap or pox)
French disease
Frenchified (to be infected with venereal disease)
Job’s Dock (“laid up in Job’s Dock, after the ward for venereal patients in St. Bartholomew’s hospital”)
Peppered
Pill or Peele Garlick (“someone whose skin or hair had fallen off from venereal disease”)
Pissing Pins and Needles
Poulain (French, a bubo)
Scalder
Shanker
Venus’ Curse

hogarth2bstocking
A Harlot’s Progress, detail. Hogarth

Prostitute

Petticoat Pensioner (a man, “one kept by a woman for secret services”)
One of Us
One of My Cousins
Barber’s Chair
Bat
Blowen
Bunter
Buttock
Buttock and Twang
Buttock and File (a prostitute who is also a pickpocket)
Case Vrow
Cat
Cattle
Convenient (usually a mistress or concubine)
Covent Garden Nun
Covey (plural prostitutes, a covey of harlots)
Crack
Curtezan
Dirty Puzzle (a loose woman)
Drury Lane Vestal
Easy Virtue
Family of Love (plural prostitutes or a religious sect)
Fancy Man (kept by a lady for secret services)
Fen
Hedge Whore (one who works outdoors)
Impure
Laced Mutton
Left-Handed Wife
Madam (also used for bawd)
Madam Ran
Merry Arse Christian
Miss
Miss Laycock
Mob
Mab
Moll
Peculiar
Proud Ledger
Punk
Trull
Quean
Queer Mort (“a strumpet with venereal disease”)
Receiver General
Rep
Room (“she lets out her front room”)
Short-Heeled Wench (“a girl apt to fall on her back”)
Squirrel
Stallion (a man kept by lady)
Star Gazer (see hedge whore)
Strumpet
Tail
Thorough Good-Natured Wench (“one who being asked to sit, will lie down”)
Three-Penny Upright (one who works standing up)
Town (a woman of)
Trumpery
Madam Van
Unfortunate Women (a termed by other “polite” women)
Wasp (“an infected prostitute, who like a wasp carries a sting in her tail.”)
Wife in Water Colors (a mistress or concubine)
Woman of Town
Woman of Pleasure

Brothel****

Academy
Pushing School
Bordello
Buttocking Shop
Cab
Cavaulting School
Corinth (likewise Corinthians are people who frequent brothels)
Nanny House
Nugging House
Nunnery
School of Venus
Seraglio
Smuggling Ken
Snoozing Ken
Vaulting School

A few extra terms, just for fun:

Duck Fucker (“man who has care of poultry on a ship”)
Kiss Mine Arse (“An offer, as Fielding observes, very frequently made, but never, as he could learn, literally accepted.”)
Queer As Dick’s Hatband (“out of order, without knowing one’s disease”)
Smack (to kiss)
Urinal of the Planets (Ireland, due to its frequent rain*****)

Notes

*I’m totally shitting you, these are not terms of endearment. Don’t call your gran a twat waffle!
**Words we would consider profanity or at least rude such as fuck, arse, piss, whore, cock, etc are used by the author in definitions but he takes for granted the reader is familiar with these and he does not define them.
***It’s interesting to note that prostitutes are referred to affectionately and none of the terms used for them are really insults. The author’s contempt is reserved for celibate women, who are called Ape Leaders (an old maid; their punishment after death, for neglecting increase and multiply, will be, it is said, leading apes into hell) and may suffer from Green Sickness (the disease of maids occasioned by celibacy). Equally, “whore” is not presented as an especially strong insult. Bitch is far worse. He says this is “the worst appellation that can be given to an English woman.”
****Notice how many of these are related to schools. Likewise, “college” was used to refer to prison, college being a natural progression from a school or academy.
*****This book has an incredible number of derisory terms for the Irish…and Welsh, Scottish, Jewish, mixed-race, religious, and people from Boston.