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Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the…

Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House

by Susan C. Law

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Through the Keyhole is a tightly focused look at the one of the particular stresses changing English Society between the years 1760 and 1830. There was the Industrial Revolution, the war in North America*, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars, but the problem discussed here is the “epidemic of adultery” among the upper class.

(*I tried to find out what Brits call the War of American Independence, and all I could find was “we don’t learn about it and don’t think about it.” Any Brits who want to shed more light on this please speak up.)

The aristocracy were considered the rightful and natural leaders, and were held up as the moral example for the lower classes to emulate. Further, their right to rule depended on legitimate bloodlines. But many in the aristocracy were jeopardizing this role with their libertine behaviour.

In 18th century Western Europe, marrying for love rather than money was becoming more popular. For the upper classes, marrying well was a social and family duty that still took precedence over personal preferences. The dynastic alliances they formed were deemed necessary for the stability of the country. Thus, it was still common for wealthy families to marry off their 17 and 18 year old daughters to powerful or wealthy older men. This resulted in many unhappy marriages, and with the change in cultural habits that allowed women to socialize without their husbands, the temptation to have an affair and give in to the “fashionable vice” often won over integrity, and duty.

At the same time, the commercial press was flourishing, and sex scandals sold newspapers. This was the birth of the British tabloid—there was even a sex scandal in 1757 involving Lady Di, a distant ancestor of 1990s tabloid darling, Diana, Princess of Wales. While fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the growing middle class were also disgusted and the purpose of the aristocracy and their elite privilege came under serious scrutiny. To quell the situation, there were several attempts to curb adultery through legislation. To some degree, this must have worked, as there developed “a new sense of propriety ... in public attitudes, as the easy-going libertinism of the Georgian and Regency periods began to fade away into what would eventually become Victorian prudery.”

Through the Keyhole is a very readable and interesting look at 18th century English society written by a historian and journalist. She has a nice balance of anecdotes and factual information.
Interesting note:

I learned about this book when it came out last year from an article in The Telegraph titled “Jane Austen’s real Mr Darcy Unmasked by Historian“ and one in The Daily Mail titled “Is this the real Mr Darcy? Letters 'prove' that tall, dark and brooding aristocrat whose wife's adultery scandalised polite society was the inspiration for Jane Austen's hero.” Except the book doesn’t talk about this at all! It does cover the man in question, John Parker, 1st Earl of Morley, but the only mention of Jane Austen is about Mansfield Park. Very weird indeed!

Here are the two articles in question:



Recommended for: Highly recommended for people interesting in the time period (I’m looking at you, Jane Austen fans.) ( )
1 vote Nickelini | May 1, 2016 |
The Georgians weren't all like the noble characters in Jane Austen novels, or even Poldark. In fact, it was the Victorians who felt compelled to come along and establish a general sense of decorum, with manners and standards, essentially as a backlash to the proclivities of Georgian life. Historian Dr Susan Law became fascinated by the story of Ellenborough House when she started researching scandals for her book: Through The Keyhole.

added by Nickelini | editGloucestershire Echo (May 16, 2015)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0750956690, Hardcover)

A deft analysis of sex, power, and the media in the Regency era describes how the scandalous private lives of the Georgian aristocracy were used to undermine hereditary power

The potent allure of sex, money, and power has always created a public appetite for juicy tales of scandal in the hidden private lives of the English aristocracy. Millions of viewers are captivated by the television series Downton Abbey and screen versions of Jane Austen novels, while visitor numbers to National Trust stately homes have never been higher. The real and fictional dramas being enacted inside country houses were just as compelling for audiences in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the cultural media of the day exploited stories of aristocratic adultery for commercial and political motives in newspapers, novels, and satirical prints. But such attacks on the aristocracy’s moral fitness to rule ultimately undermined traditional hereditary power and marked the first steps towards its decline. This book draws on a rich collection of original sources, bringing vividly to life a cast of engaging characters and their stories of infidelity—passionate, scandalous, poignant, and tragic.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:06 -0400)

Scandal existed long before celebrity gossip columns, often hidden behind the closed doors of the Georgian aristocracy. But secrets were impossible to keep in a household of servants who listened at walls and spied through keyholes.

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