Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"A Rotten Orange"

It’s sometimes hard, as a twenty-first century reader and writer, to put myself in the heads of early nineteenth century characters. We think quite differently today about matters like duty, social equality, gender roles, and sexual morality. Views on that last issue, especially, have changed dramatically with the emergence of reliable birth control, women’s rights and even DNA testing.

"Past and Present I" by Victorian artist Augustus Leopold Egg illustrates a scene in the life of a fallen woman: a stricken husband discovers his wife’s infidelity through a letter from her lover, and the errant wife throws herself at his feet in unbearable shame and guilt.
At a time when women had little protection against pregnancy and men had no definitive way to prove or disprove the paternity of a child, female chastity was valued and stressed in a way that’s often difficult to understand today.

The prevailing nineteenth-century attitude—and keep in mind that this was a view that women as well as men bought into—was that any woman willing to sleep with a man before marriage was also likely to sleep with pretty much any man after marriage. Here’s how Lord Byron put it in 1820:
Where is honour,
Innate and precept-strengthen'd, 'tis the rock
Of faith connubial: where it is not - where
Light thoughts are lurking, or the vanities
Of worldly pleasure rankle in the heart,
Or sensual throbs convulse it, well I know
'Twere hopeless for humanity to dream
Of honesty in such infected blood,
Although 'twere wed to him it covets most...
In other words, a woman was either “honest” (virginal until marriage and therefore virtuous) or “dishonest” (willing to cast sexual morality to the winds), no matter what the circumstances:
The once fall'n woman must forever fall;
For vice must have variety, while virtue
Stands like the sun and all which rolls around
Drinks life, and light, and glory from her aspect.

Though Victorians were especially fond of this view, it was already old by the time Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing, in which Claudio refuses his bride-to-be at the altar because he believes she is no

Oh, the horror! Marcus Stone’s "Claudio, Deceived by Don John, Accuses Hero" (1861) shows a pivotal scene from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in which poor Hero faints dead away at the altar upon being accused of no longer being a virgin.
longer a virgin, calling her a “rotten orange” and vowing “Not to knit my soul to an approved wanton.”

Social inequality and male insecurities about paternity meant the expectation was very much a double standard; though young women were expected to remain virginal until marriage, young men were expected, if not encouraged, to sow their wild oats. In other words, while there was a great deal of judgment aimed at the fallen woman, no one much cared about fallen men.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press.  Her second regency, Lord of Secrets, will be out March 25 and is available now for pre-order, while her third, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released in September. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

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