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Emma Orchard on the tricky issue of sex in historical romance

Emma Orchard on the tricky issue of sex in historical romance

“There was something else at her entrance, something hard and hot and very, very demanding.” This is from Romancing Mr Bridgerton, the book that’s the basis of the next series of Netflix’s most popular programme. It’s certainly something to look forward to for those long winter nights.

It seems to be traditional in the Bridgerton universe for heroines to be extremely ignorant about sex; Daphne, in season one, famously so. The heroes, of course, are men with experience, though personally I’d feel generous giving Colin, in this scene, six out of ten. But then the book was published in 2002, a lifetime ago, and it’s fair to say that Regencies have moved on since then. TV Colin will have to raise his game, and no doubt he will.

The whole issue of sex in Regencies – I’m saying this as someone who’s written a lot of sex scenes and read an awful lot more – remains a tricky one. The majority of contemporary Regency heroines are still young women from high society. I think it’s reasonable to assume that most of them would be virgins before marriage, given the ferocious double standards that operated for men and women. Casual sex, for an unmarried lady in 1815, wasn’t really a thing – the potential life consequences were too disastrous. Obviously there’d always be exceptions, human nature being what it is, and Hyacinth by Minerva Spencer is a novel that deals with one such exception. Or your heroine can be a widow and a woman of some experience, as in the wonderful The Marriage Season by Jane Dunn. But mostly, virgins.

And it can be quite difficult, trust me, to write a first-time scene without being icky (this is a technical term) or appearing to fetishise virginity as though it has value in itself. Or indeed both. One way round this is to refuse the notion that women who were technically innocent must necessarily be ignorant. We’re writing about Georgians, after all, and while strict Victorian morality was on the rise even among the Haut Ton, it hadn’t reached its peak yet. Many people were still relatively outspoken. The birth rate was much, much higher than it is now – many women were pregnant most of the time, and surely would have talked to their close friends and relations. Reading Jane Austen’s letters, you don’t get the impression that she thinks babies are delivered by the stork. And surely, if it was so vital to preserve your reputation, some prudent mothers and aunts might have thought it useful to educate girls about what exactly they were preserving it from.

In The Runaway Heiress, my heroine Cassandra is young but not entirely ignorant – she’s engaged in some tentative exploration with a friend in her teens, which has given her a little useful knowledge. I feel comfortable creating characters like this, and writing scenes where the balance between men and women is a bit more equal. Sex in romantic novels is literally the opposite of porn, in my opinion, or should be, because it’s not disposable, generic, anonymous – it’s a hugely important way characters we care about express and explore their deep, lifelong connection with each other. I particularly enjoy writing, and reading, scenes in which two people haven’t dared to share their feelings in words, and yet are trying to communicate in deeper, older ways. Sigh.

The Runaway Heiress by Emma Orchard is published in paperback on 2 November by Allison & Busby.

Emma Orchard was born in Salford. She studied English Literature at the Universities of Edinburgh and York, before working behind the scenes in publishing and television for many years. Her first job was at Mills & Boon, where she met her husband in a classic enemies-to-lovers romance. She now lives in North London.

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