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Birth Control, Shopping, and Restaurants

I was having an interesting conversation the other day with one of my early readers for The General's Mistress. I'm paraphrasing her here, but she said, "I was surprised by the use of birth control in The General's Mistress. I've read a boatload of Regencies over the years, and I've never seen a condom in any of them. Did they really have condoms then? And use them that casually?"

Yes, they did have condoms in the late eighteenth century! They were usually made out of sheep's gut, like sausage casings. (There are still a few brands that are made this way today, and yes, you can find them on the internet.) They were intended to be used several times before they tore, as they were more fragile than rubber or latex, and so were generally saved and washed out. In England, they were called "French letters". Of course in France they were called "English letters", which tells you a great deal about Franco-English relations! They were generally sold folded into little paper envelopes, hence being called letters.

So why haven't you seen them in Regencies since it's the same period? There are two good reasons, other than the reluctance of publishers to break the romantic narrative with birth control. First, for the most part the heroines of Regencies are young ladies of good family. They're still in their teens or at most early twenties, they have very respectable backgrounds and are relatively innocent. They've been very sheltered, or at least have lived in genteel poverty. They don't know anything about condoms or birth control because they don't know a great deal about sex. They don't know anything about a lot of other things either, because they've been reading appropriate improving works or possibly daring novels, not pornography. The rakes in their world may know perfectly well what a French letter is, but they're not discussing them with young ladies! Elza, however, is a courtesan. She's in her twenties and she's been around the block quite a few times. She's not a respectably sheltered girl. She's an actress and a kept woman. Knowing a lot of things respectable young girls don't is her job description.

Secondly, there is a major difference of culture between England and France which has only been exacerbated by the Revolution. In France, when the Revolution ended church law, it legalized a lot of things which had previously been forbidden, including birth control, non procreative sex acts, and pornography. Of course these things had existed before (Robert Darnton has a fabulous book, The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre Revolutionary France, about pornography in this period) but they had been illegal and hidden. Respectable young girls in France in 1785 didn't know any more about birth control than their sisters in England. However, in 1796 where the book begins, that had entirely changed. It's perfectly legal to openly sell condoms and instructions on how to use them. It's perfectly legal to provide advice about the rhythm method or about non procreative sex acts. It's perfectly legal to sell novels in which there are explicit sex scenes featuring those acts.

Which brings us to access. If the Regency heroine knew about French letters, she'd have no way to get them. There is nowhere a respectable woman can buy such a thing! Not true in France. When the Revolution abolished the old aristocracy and the nobility went to the guillotine, to prison, or more likely fled, there was a second group of people who were profoundly affected as well -- the enormous household staffs of the aristocracy. A townhouse might employ a staff of forty or fifty people to tend to the needs of three or four aristocrats -- cooks and undercooks and scullery maids and spit boys, valets and footmen, ladies' maids and hairdressers and seamstresses and parlor maids, coachmen and gardeners. The female employees in particular found that their lives were changed. Under the Revolution, women could now own property, own their own wages, sign contracts and rent, and have their own bank accounts. But what's a ladies' maid to do with no lady to tend?

Many of the female employees went into business on their own. A seamstress sets up shop working for herself, making clothes for many women of more moderate means rather than clothing for the household of one wealthy woman. A hairdresser sets up shop doing hair for many clients, or goes to the houses of women once a week to do their hair for a social event, rather than being on retainer in the household of one wealthy woman. For an additional fee she'll pumice your feet and rub them with lavender cream and buff and paint your toenails. A ladies' maid opens a shop selling cosmetics and perfume, ribbons and gloves and fancy clocked stockings -- and yes, condoms. Little parfumeries and cosmetics shops carry condoms in their discreet little envelopes, along with blemish cream and garters and rouge and beeswax for your stretch marks.

A respectable woman can certainly visit a cosmetics shop! There is nothing Elza or a Parisian woman of her time would find unusual in a modern Sephora or The Body Shop or Bath and Body Works! Bath salts, pomanders, soap. Lip paint, witch hazel, rice powder. And birth control. Respectable women can buy condoms easily from other women in an unembarassing atmosphere. And so condom use spreads, the French birth rate beginning its Industrial Age decline in the 1790s rather than in the 1830s as in England.

This displacement of servants is also where the restaurant comes from. Think about the English Regency for a moment -- what's missing in the list of "dates" that our heroine can have? The restaurant. Never will the rake "take her out to dinner." There are pubs and clubs, taverns and taprooms, but there are no restaurants. Women don't go to restaurants in London in any modern sense until late in the Victorian period. Not so in France. The revolution left enormous kitchen staffs without employment, from chefs to spit boys. From high to low, many of these cooks opened restaurants. A famous chef might have commanded a good salary from a prince or a bishop, preparing luxury meals consumed by a few people on a daily basis. Now he cooks for the masses, for anyone who decides, for one evening in their life, to eat like a prince -- a fine restaurant with the elaborate food once served to kings, available for one evening to anyone who has money to spend and the desire to taste what it's like. A regular cook, who once provided three meals a day to an upper class household, opens a bistro (the slang word won't be used for another fifteen years, but this is where it begins), serving good solid food to the neighborhood for reasonable prices. A pastry chef opens a patisserie, cakes and eclairs and tarts. An undercook opens a hole in the wall serving soup and bread to working men, just a counter and stools.

Suddenly, for women of every class, there is the restaurant! There is nothing at all unrespectable about middle class women eating at a neighborhood bistro. It's perfectly fine to have pastries and coffee with girlfriends. And there is the date -- the elegant restaurant with crystal chandeliers and the very best haute cuisine, gentlemen in evening dress and ladies in diamonds. Any woman can be a princess for an evening. But how do you tell the princess from the courtesan? Especially when they show up on consecutive evenings with the same man?

This is part of a massive cultural change that is beginning in France much earlier than in England, the movement of most social space to being coed. It's not simply that Elza has far more equality under the law than the heroine of the English Regency -- it's that she can go more places and do more things, as can every woman in her culture. Public space is ceasing to be uniquely male. And when public space is less uniquely male, it makes her consider the places she still can't go. If now she can do X and Y and Z, why can't she do T, U, and V? If, ten years ago, beautiful meals and theater tickets were something reserved for a very small number of people in the upper class, and now anyone can enjoy them if they save their money to go, how many people are finding that they like and want these things? Moreover, what if the kind of high culture formerly reserved for the very rich became common currency? What if everyone had the same cultural references, listened to the same music, saw the same plays, rather than there being operas for the rich and Punch and Judy shows for the poor?

That's an idea we take for granted. Almost everyone in the US has heard Michael Jackson or seen Star Wars. The Beatles or Elvis or Harry Potter are ubiquitous to their generations, completely cutting across class lines. Having read Harry Potter says nothing about either your money or your sex. But it wasn't always that way. This is the beginning of that revolution as well, a revolution that could have ended abruptly and violently.

And that's what The General's Mistress is about, this book and is sequels in the Age of Revolution. It's about how the world changed, and how Elza and her friends and lovers changed it.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 19th, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
Yay! I so hope you enjoy it!
Dec. 19th, 2011 04:04 pm (UTC)
Dec. 19th, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)
Yes indeed!

The thing is that they won. It's not actually about a battle or about which government held power -- it's that twenty five years of cultural changes can't be erased. When Elisa, one of the characters who doesn't appear until the third book, learned that the schools she had opened for girls in Italy were being closed, she said, "They can't make them forget how to read."

Twenty five years of people's own experiences can't be forgotten. Past a certain point you can't put the genie back in the bottle, make peasants and women illiterate again, make people forget they liked plays and books and restaurants. You can ban the porn, but you can't make people actually stop doing it!

And past a certain point, it's impossible to get any kind of majority behind getting rid of many cultural changes, like restaurants and other coed public places, because most people just like them too much. That never works. (We should prohibit alcohol and ban the Charleston! We decry rock 'n roll. This is your brain on drugs.)

The key is getting to that certain point, to the tipping point where the change can't be undone. (Always the key, isn't it?) And that's the battle they win.
Dec. 19th, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC)
Part of what I so enjoy about how you write this era is the ways in which you deftly show how this moment in historical time is a direct antecedent to the moment we inhabit now. Elza and her world are familiar to me -- more familiar than I would have imagined -- and that is precisely because, as you say, they won.

And this is why fiction can be more powerful than history books. *grin* Because I don't know that I would have picked up a pure history text on this period, but thanks to Elza and the way you tell her story, you've made this moment in time come alive.
Dec. 20th, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC)
Elza and her world are familiar to me -- more familiar than I would have imagined -- and that is precisely because, as you say, they won.

I think that's the big thing! And it's the thing we take for granted, the difference in thought. When I was writing so much Pirates of the Caribbean fanfic, one of the things that fascinated me writing Elizabeth Swann back to back with Elza is that they're only a generation apart -- Elza is the age of Elizabeth's son. But they might as well be a million years apart in terms of what they assume about the world. Elizabeth can think about and desire freedom. She can want to break the rules personally and live outside society as a pirate, can consciously choose to wear men's clothes and to fight. But she doesn't even have the word for liberty. To her, the word liberty is a synonym for license. She can't imagine as Elza can saying, "What if instead of making me the rare exception to the rules, what if we completely changed the rules? What if we were all pirates?" What if, instead of freedom meaning living outside of society, liberty meant redefining society?

Isn't that a huge idea? :)
Dec. 19th, 2011 09:16 pm (UTC)
I love your historical info posts! The cause and effect of society changes was rarely - if ever - discussed in my history classes in school, and if we had been told these things I would have loved history even more.
Dec. 20th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you! The cause and effect is one of the things that fascinates me -- and how people consciously choose to steer their era and culture. I do believe that history is the story of our choice, as individuals and as groups.
Dec. 20th, 2011 05:01 am (UTC)
You should write nonfiction history books. People would actually read them. And like them.
Dec. 20th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I don't think I could, however. I was asked to leave a masters in history program because I wasn't smart enough.
Dec. 20th, 2011 10:59 pm (UTC)
Don't sell yourself short. Academic history writing and popular history writing are different beasts, and not everybody can be good at both. And the more theoretically inclined a history program is, the more difference there is.
Dec. 20th, 2011 11:10 pm (UTC)
Ugh, lame! Did you go back to them with all your books and say "Neener neener, I'm a successful author! Suck it!" or maybe something more decorous? I'd be tempted....
Dec. 20th, 2011 11:19 pm (UTC)
No, I've never said a word. I don't think they'd be very impressed by what I've written. After all, it's not "serious literary fiction!"
Dec. 21st, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
I was asked to leave a masters in history program because I wasn't smart boring or pompous enough.

There, I fixed that for you.
Dec. 22nd, 2011 10:27 am (UTC)
Heh! :)
Dec. 21st, 2011 04:13 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating, and you are awesome for sharing these perspectives. I can't wait for these Revolution books to come out!
Dec. 21st, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you! This is what fascinates me -- how people's choices change their society.
Dec. 22nd, 2011 05:18 am (UTC)
Linked to this in a new entry: http://selki.livejournal.com/179365.html
Dec. 22nd, 2011 10:27 am (UTC)
Oh thank you!
Dec. 23rd, 2011 02:15 am (UTC)
Followed your link here. Fascinating! Thanks to Jo for bringing up things i'd never thought of, despite my having read quite a lot (of fiction) about that period!
Dec. 23rd, 2011 12:52 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Dec. 21st, 2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
Which is, of course, why certain politicians are currently blaming the World As It Is on Elza and her contemporaries.

What a comfort that would have been for her to know for sure at the time.
Dec. 22nd, 2011 10:20 am (UTC)
It certainly would be! ;)
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )