Apr 19 2012 9:30am

Virgins in Historical Romance: Chadwick, Seton, Gabaldon, and Donati

Madonna, Like A Virgin: She made it through, but how did Historical romance heroines?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?

Into the Wilderness by Sara DonatiBeyond 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?

Madonna image courtesy of cicconeboy via Flickr.


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,, for thoughts on the joy of books, and a bunch of general bookishness.

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1. Lucky4
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant addressed the issue of virginity in biblical times -- it was fascinating to read (though slightly horrifying). It's been quite a few years since I read it so I may need a re-read.
2. dick
I don't think we'll ever know for sure, but I also think people have changed very little, fundamentally, over time. The dress of beaus and belles of the Regency and the use of that dress in the marriage mart indicates that they had to have some knowledge of sex, doesn't it? Even the strict rules imposed suggest some knowledge, in my thinking.
3. EC Spurlock
In the ancient world, nudity and sex were no big deal; in Greece and Rome especially it was common for athletes and common laborers to run around naked so as not to damage their clothes, so one would think virgins would learn early how tab A went into slot B. The Middle Ages and Renaissance were fairly rowdy; children were considered adults at the age of 7 and could be married at that age. It was common "sport" in noble circles to put two young children in a bed together and stand around watching them try to figure out what to do. Likewise, all the guests at a wedding often watched as the bride was bedded, as witnesses to the consummation and thus legality of the marriage. So virgins in that era probably had a very good idea of what to expect. It wasn't until the Reformation that sex came to be considered something to be hidden and ashamed of and not spoken about. But even the Puritans had a custom of "bundling" a betrothed couple, that is, putting them in bed together with a board between them, so that they could get used to being in bed together and see how well they suited before marriage. And remember that many homes before the 19th century, and lower-class homes even into the 20th, often had only one room, or parents in the main room with a loft for the kids, so kids probably got a pretty good practical sex education just by listening to what went on between their parents.
4. wsl0612
I've been thinking about this post and I conclude that there's no one rule as to how much a virgin would know pre-marriage. I believe that many girls in the Victorian era had more knowledge than they let on because they were human and we're curious. But just like young women throughout the ages there were probably many who had the vaguest notion of what it entailed but were quite surprised at the reality. And if you think about the stupid urban legends people believe now, can you imagine the disinformation they were given then?
aniko nagy
5. anieva
Oh yes. I agree that people knew varying amounts - sometimes a great deal - at different points in history. Our ancestors could be quite a raunchy bunch, even surprising us with seemingly contradictory beliefs of purity and x-rated attitudes. I do believe that every novelist creates, to an extent, their own universe; that universe as they describe it will explain their protagonists' actions and feelings. But it's a very fun topic to think about, and it would certainly make an interesting history elective in college...
Robbie Thornton
6. Button
A few years ago, I listened to a conversation between 3 teenage girls, all roughly 16 or 17. They were discussing "men's and women's toilets", whether this separation of the sexes was warranted or whether it fell under some sort of sexual discrimination umbrella. One of the girls said, with the perfect conviction of the believer, that men's and women's toilets were separate so that the women did not use a toilet after a man and accidentally become pregnant.

Point is, there's still girls in the 21st century who worry about toilet seat conception. Sometimes accurate knowledge, or the availablility of accurate knowledge is not so much a factor as a persons upbringing, superstitions and beliefs. Some societies in our past have been more open about sexuality, some have more or less violently suppressed the subject. Still, it seems to me that individual personality and environmental factors have more to do with an individuals knowledge of sex (and the world in general) than the time period. Nothing unlocks knowledge like a curious nature.
aniko nagy
7. anieva
"Nothing unlocks knowledge like a curious nature."

I love that sentence.

And, great points here. I think time sets a context, but idiosyncracies, personalities and circumstances are needed to understand why people did and felt they way they did.
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