Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sex and the City, c.1711

I've always loved the past. Growing up in Australia I was addicted to children's historical fiction by English writers like Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease. I don't think American children read those books, but they're absolutely fantastic.When I was writing my Ph.D thesis about garbage in eighteenth-century London, I ended up feeling that the past was more familiar to me than the present.
I wanted to give other people that same feeling, and by writing a fun, sexy historical novel. I didn't want it to feel "olde" or antique -- I wanted it to read like a modern comedy of manners, a "Bridget Jones' Diary" happening three hundred years ago.
So when I started writing the Scandal of the Season I knew I had to find out what eighteenth-century dating was like, and I suspected that fashionable women in London in 1711 weren't so very different from the girls in "Sex and the City." The London of the early eighteenth century wasn't like the world of Jane Austen novels -- people hadn't yet started behaving well!
Women could receive male visitors in their bedrooms in the morning -- in fact it was fashionable to do so. Couples could travel together in carriages with the windows shades down, and get up to all sorts of mischief. Men and women met in restaurants, at masquerade balls, bath-houses and public assemblies, and could behave more or less however they wanted to. Affairs were very common both for men and women -- married people took lovers so frequently it was considered more or less a matter of course among fashionable Londoners. Rich widows were especially desirable on the dating scene. They had their own houses, they were independent and respectable, and they could entertain male guests whenever they wanted.
Men often arranged to meet prostitutes and other "low" women in the bath-houses of London; it was equally common for a man to pick up a prostitute in his carriage on a street corner, drive around the block a few times and then let her out again.
Masquerade balls were all the rage because people were entirely disguised. It was not uncommon for a man to enter into an affair with a woman thinking that she was from the upper classes, only to discover that she was a whore dressed to look like
a duchess. In 1724, a London newspaper wrote that, “fishes are caught with hooks, birds are ensnared with nets, but virgins with masquerades.”
I realized that Alexander Pope had all of this in mind when he wrote his poem "The Rape of the Lock" -- about the fashionable, wealthy "bright young things" in early eighteenth-century London. It was exactly the world I wanted to write about, and so my first novel came into being.
People often ask me whether the sex scenes and the dating behavior and the dirty words in my novel are historically accurate -- they assume they're not. But that's because we're used to BBC adaptations of Austen. This is a very different world, 100 years earlier. It's much more like our own -- sexually free, disorderly, uncontrolled -- and therefore very risky for women who are trying to make their fortunes by marrying well. All these ideas are there in "The Scandal of the Season," which made it a very exciting book to write.

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