There is a scene in episode three of Netflix’sBridgertonwhere the Duke of Hastings (played by Regé-Jean Page, who is the kind of hot that makes you want to throw yourself into a lake) seductively licks a spoon. Any pre-conceptions of a straitlaced period drama go swiftly out of the Stately Home window from hereon in.
The rest of the series is dedicated to the ins and outs (literally) of Regency-era sex among the upper classes: silk gloves are peeled off arms; corset strings are suggestively loosened; and leather riding boots are kicked off quicker than you can say ‘are you blushing, your Grace?’.
But one of the central Bridgerton storylines suggests something particularly shocking and seemingly far-fetched about sex in the early 19th Century – that, before they married, young aristocratic women were completely clueless when it came to intercourse and how babies are made.
Daphne Bridgerton (played by Phoebe Dynevor) marries Simon, the Duke of Hastings, and they spend what looks like an exuberant honeymoon christening every room in the Duke’s mansion. Before this, Simon tells her that he can’t give her children. What he really means is he doesn’t want children, cue a number of sex scenes where the Duke grabs for his handkerchief as he pulls out to avoid impregnating her.
For what feels like an inexcusable amount of time considering she’s supposed to be 21, Daphne doesn’t realise what he is doing, until she asks her maid to explain exactly how a woman comes to be ‘with child’. Well, if this level of sexual naivety among upper class women is historically accurate, maybe that’s why King George III went mad!
Kathleen Lubey, an English Professor at St John’s University in New York, who specialises in sex and sexuality in 18th Century Britain, says women of Daphne's age and rank would likely be very sexually inexperienced.
‘Unmarried couples rarely had conversations unsupervised, much less any opportunity for physical intimacy - and the conversational decorum of the period would have prohibited topics like the mechanics of penetrative sex and the specifics of conception,’ she says.
The higher the rank, the more sheltered a woman probably was from candid conversation about genital sexuality.
‘The higher the rank, the more sheltered a woman probably was from candid conversation about genital sexuality,’ she explains. ‘Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous late 18th century feminist, urged parents to keep their children away from household servants, since she believed their bawdy talk was morally corruptive.’
What Professor Lubey found implausible was that Daphne’s mother did not fill her in.
‘Intimate conversations of the kind they have about love and marriage would have been a likely context for sexual instruction, especially since Lady Bridgerton clearly cares so much for her children's well-being,’ she adds.
Sarah Richardson, a history professor at Warwick University, says it was really important for upper class women to be seen as ‘pure, virginal and untouched, so in that respect they wouldn’t be expected to know an awful lot.’
She says this sort of ignorance of sex was quite common.
‘It was, in a way, to make her more marketable as a possible marriage partner,’ she adds. ‘Coming out as a debutante was basically the start of the marriage market and there was a lot of pressure on young women to get a suitable partner. It is literally a market. If they don't get married within a year they're often seen as unmarriageable, it's really brutal,’ she adds.
In terms of Daphne turning to her maid for answers, Professor Richardson thinks it's highly likely the lower classes would be more aware of sexual behaviour. How about Daphne not realising that pulling out meant no pregnancy?
‘I think that’s less accurate,’ she adds. ‘I think once she was married it would be very odd that she didn't know about that sort of thing. The withdrawal method is literally the only sort of contraceptive method that's really acceptable in that period. I do think her naivety is a bit extreme, but not surprising, as they would have wanted her to be kept as innocent as possible until she's engaged, then I would have expected her education to have been filled in a bit more.’
So, not only is Bridgerton the sexiest show since Normal People, it has also given us all a history lesson. As for the Duke’s spoon, it quickly shot to fame as this year’s sexy inanimate object breakout star, overtaking Connell’s chain to become the accessory you’re most likely to leave your boyfriend for.
At a time when we’re all either sex-starved or sick of the sight of our partners, Bridgerton certainly brings the carnal energy we needed to get going this year.
The Best Behind The Scenes Photos Of Bridgerton
The best behind-the-scenes photos of Bridgerton
Glad to see the men of the cast keeping the heat under control.