It’s all very nice when a girl and her hero unite happily ever after in a novel. It’s even nicer when readers get a peek (or more) at the consummation of that union. Having given my affection to the characters, I kind of want to watch them give it to each other, so to speak, don’t you? But when one of the couple is a virgin, do you ever think about exactly how much of that flushed complexion we should attribute to passionate activity or to innocence?
Really, how much would a virgin in a historical romance actually know about sex?
It’s different for contemporary romances; they have the advantage of being set in worlds that resemble our own. The characters very often watch the same shows and movies. Nowadays, there’s arguably a whole lot that an enterprising virgin can learn about sex from television alone. She has access to uncensored conversations in private, if she pleases, or in public waiting for the bus, even if she doesn’t really please. And anything she ever needed to know about sex but didn’t want to ask, she can learn from Google. We know what she knows and how she got that way.
We can’t say that about virgins in historical romance novels. What have they been exposed to? Was their gossip as G-rated as we might think, or did their tongues loosen like their corsets when they rested in their rooms? Maybe Andrew Davies is right and they did actually lounge around doing each others’ hair and talking about sex. Or maybe the poor things were sheltered from any sexual knowledge. How can we judge the likelihood of a character’s sexual IQ?
Hmmm. What to do? What to do? Perhaps, that’s just what a Victorian heroine from the upper classes would be thinking just before her first time. With those high collars and the no-no of showing so much as an ankle, it’s probably not so wrong to assume that sex education was nowhere on the lesson plan of our heroine’s governess. What about her mother? Well, they always seem so sour-faced with their pursed-lips and tsk-tsk sounds on those costume dramas. No birth control or voting rights can do that to a woman, I imagine. And, let’s face it, imagining is what I’m doing based on stereotypes and some history classes. But how reliable is all that?
I mean, what about a girl on the farm in Victorian times. Wasn’t everyone needed back then to help out? Surely some girls found their way to the barn; a milkmaid certainly spent some time there. Wouldn’t she have gleaned a thing or two from the cows during mating season? She’d have access to educational opportunities that a young lady embroidering at the manor house wouldn’t. Right?
Beyond economic status, there’s also historical era to think about. I, for one, have an easier time imagining Paris in any century to be a bit more ooh la la than, say, colonial Boston and the Puritans. And I’ve read some ribald stuff in novels set in the Middle Ages that would probably mortify my Victorian heroine. But I could easily be wrong.
The answer to the question “How much would a virgin in a historical?” is probably as complicated as life in any era; and, as you know, that’s pretty complicated. There were wanton people, uptight people, cloistered women, shy men, progressive mothers, fire-and-brimstone invoking mothers and many other types of people with various weaknesses and hang-ups throughout history. And, they all lived in the same world. There’s a lot of possibility there.
Happily, all we really need is a good backstory to help us understand what any one character may or may not know about sex. Reading Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Wild Hunt and Anya Seton’s Green Darkness opened my eyes to the ribald possibilities of life in the Middle Ages. Both books feature innocent heroines as well as debauched men and women. Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati does a great job of showing the heroine go from inexperienced to womanly in rural 1700s New York. And Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander features an 18th century virginal hero and a married heroine from the 21st century who introduces him to sex.
I’m not putting too much faith in popular belief or in my old history classes to help me with the question of the sex smarts of romance-novel protagonists. Case in point: I recently read a history book that claimed half of the brides in colonial Boston were pregnant at the time of their weddings. That’s not something they taught us in school. And, it pretty much shoots my Paris versus Boston theory out of the water.
So when do you think they knew what they knew?
Aniko Eva Nagy reads, teaches and writes in Boston, Massachusetts which she is happy to call her hometown, perhaps one of the best cities for a book lover. Head over to her blog, bookbash.wordpress.com, for thoughts on the joy of books, and a bunch of general bookishness.