Actions

Work Header

The Best of Intentions

Chapter Text

I know that this has been a long wait already, but there's one more thing I have to say before we go on, which is that a reviewer raised a very good point about Chapter 27 that I feel like I should address. Before I say anything about it though, this is not a criticism of the reviewer. It's just that I realised that there is probably going to be some confusion in later chapters if I don't discuss this now. To anyone who doesn't fancy a history lecture: fair enough, skip to the next bolded section.

The review in question said that “The Viscount was cruel to suggest Darcy was molding Bingley; to follow that metaphor to its conclusion would have implied both men were gay—a capital crime in those days. Did he mean to carry it that far?”

Firstly, yes, it was a dickish comment, absolutely, but it’s not as serious or dangerous as it might seem at first glance. If he had made the same implication one hundred years later, it would have been, yes—but not during the Regency.

I’ll explain. We tend to think of The Past as this vast, homogenous period of time, wherein everyone was Strict and Proper and Conservative, while The Present is new and exciting and different. Here’s the thing: so did everyone else while they were living in Their Present. With regards to this specific question, we tend to assume that conservatives have looked the same throughout history—but the simple fact is that they haven’t. If you put a modern conservative in the same room as a regency conservative, they would probably both be completely horrified by the other’s values, because different generations have different ideas about what is conservative and what is radical.

Culture changes constantly. Values cycle in and out of fashion. One generation rejects the ideals of their parents, and then their children bring back a distorted facsimile of the grandparents’ set of ideals and call it vintage. Sometimes these changes are for the better and sometimes they aren’t. We touched on this a while ago when I discussed the difference between a Regency scandal and a Victorian scandal, but we’ll go into a bit more depth here because I think we need to have a look at ideas about masculinity and homosexuality during Jane Austen’s lifetime before we go on. Note: in the following discussion, I will be using words that are now considered slurs; I use these specifically within their historical context, with full understanding of the inappropriateness of using them today, and would ask that my readers are similarly respectful of the difference.

To the reviewer, you are both completely right and slightly off the mark. Yes, there were laws about men having sex (they didn’t apparently see the need to write laws for women – looks like no one told them about lesbians…), but they’re more complicated than that. Firstly, the laws specifically related to the act of sodomy itself, not the state of being gay. Why? Because they did not yet have a notion of homosexuality as a state or identity. Two men having sex was frowned upon (sort of – we’ll get back to this later) but it was not considered indicative of any state of being; it was an isolated sin, one that you could commit and then do penance for and be forgiven, etc., in the same way that you could for taking the Lord’s name in vain or back-chatting your parents. Okay you might need a few more Hail Marys for it but same principle. Men who had sex with other men (again, they really didn’t seem to have a single clue about lesbians so I am only going to refer to men here) were known as ‘sodomites’, so they did sort of  have a word for gay people, but notice that the terminology is still entirely framed around the act, not an identity. You could be gay without being a sodomite.

Now, the punishment for sodomy was indeed death, or sometimes hard labour. However – and I am not by any means minimizing the awfulness of that fact – it is important to note that it was not often prosecuted during the Regency, despite it presumably going on about as much as it ever has. There were rarely more than two prosecutions within a year, and of those prosecuted, a surprising number were found to be not guilty; indeed, often several years went by without a single case.

In fact, between the October of 1810 and the August of 1814, there was not one single case of sodomy prosecuted. This while Lord fricking Byron was living in London. Lord Byron. A man who slept with men and women both openly and indiscriminately, and published poems about it. (And also probably with his half-sister but I’m not going there today.) He also had enough friends who were similarly interested to necessitate the use of a sort of coded language in their letters to refer to their homosexual experiences; clearly this was not something practiced with complete transparency, but also neither was it entirely hidden. So what does all this tell us about how strictly the laws about sodomy were enforced during this time? Yeah, with about as much effort as digital piracy today; frowned upon from a distance, every so often prosecuted extremely harshly, before being forgotten about again. To compare with the figures mentioned above for sodomy prosecutions, there were 22 cases of bigamy, 30 cases of murder, and 119 cases of highway robbery prosecuted during the same period. End conclusion? The courts really just did not care enough to push this law, which is usually a fair reflection of the attitudes of the time; so yes, it is definitely condemned in writing, but it doesn’t seem to have figured into most people’s day-to-day concerns. (On that note, there were also no cases prosecuted for brothel keeping during the aforementioned period, despite the well-publicised existence of bawdyhouses around Covent Gardens and Drury Lane.  Ahhh Regency England, you really do not deserve your reputation for prudishness.)

The first massive shift towards a more widespread fear of prosecution for sodomy came with the Oscar Wilde trial in 1895. He was, as far as I can tell, the first hugely famous person to be prosecuted, and the trial was the subject of enormous public scrutiny; the press and public galleries of the court were full and apparently hysterical throughout the opening of the trial. (Note: as one reviewer has very correctly pointed out, there were a number of changes in the relevant laws between the Regency and the Oscar Wilde trial, but I'm not going to cover them here as this essay is already pretty lengthy, and Victorian law is not really my field of expertise. Feel free to investigate further if it is of interest to you.)

Now, this leads me to Regency ideas about masculinity. The first thing to understand is that the Regency saw the resurgence of Classical ideas: a full head of Grecian curls became popular on gentlemen as well ladies (and, yes, gentlemen curled their hair; this was perfectly normal, though possibly considered a bit vain); ladies’ fashions began to emphasise the more natural, flowing lines present in Greek and Roman artwork, with the abandonment of the pannier and full skirts, the introduction of less rigid stays, and thin, nearly transparent muslin gowns; but more important to this discussion is the resurgence of Classical ideas about men, masculinity, and the nature of male friendship.

If you’ve ever read within the Classics, you’ll have noticed that the male friendships described seem… well… just a bit incredibly gay. That is to say, by modern standards, there seems to be some quite obvious queer coding going on. A good example of this is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad, which is generally considered by scholars (as well as some Classical Athenians apparently so shipping has evidently been around forever) to be pederastic, meaning: relating to a homosexual, and usually erotic, relationship between an adult male and an adolescent. Of course, there are scholars who insist that they just had a strong “warrior bond” (translation: “no homo” in academic jargon) but this makes no sense in context since Ancient Greek male friendships could include pretty much any combination of affection, sex, and what we would now perceive as romance, and it was all within the bounds of friendship. (To anyone whose field is Ancient Greece, I deeply apologise for this shameful simplification of a complicated and fascinating element of Ancient Greek social structures.) But this seems like an awesome, progressive way of doing things, until you realise that the value placed on male/male homosocial relationships comes from the idea that it is impossible to form similarly deep relationships with women. Why? Because, according to Aristotle and his contemporaries, women were deformed, undeveloped men; and being both mentally and physically inferior to men, they were therefore considered incapable of the same intellectual and emotional depths as fully developed men.

So, in summary, f*ck Aristotle.

But getting back on topic: why is this relevant to Regency masculinities? Well, because in addition to the cool hairstyles and the comfy fashions, there was also a revival of this garbage fire of an idea. This is not to say that female friendship was ever especially valued in the interim (because sexism) but I think it’s fair to say that male homosocial relationships were very strongly emphasised during this period. Think about it: anyone gentleman enough to be properly educated was obliged, over the course of that education, to read the Classics in their original Greek and Latin. No, seriously, this was a major part of their education. Greek and Latin were considered the basics. Hell, you needed them in order to access the study texts for the rest of your schooling. Like, to a modern Western reader, Miss Bingley’s insistence that an accomplished young woman ought to be fricking trilingual (English, French, and Italian, if you were wondering; you weren’t, but in case you were) seems completely outlandish, until you realise that gentlemen were also supposed to learn at least two ancient languages, in addition to any living languages they needed. What I’m saying is: by Regency standards, we are all illiterate. I am feeling guiltier and guiltier about neglecting my Duolingo app the longer I write this…

Anyway, as I was saying, the texts that boys and men were systematically exposed to and taught to venerate all provided these depictions of male friendship as the height of all possible intimacy with another person, and many of these friendships featured the kind of intimacy that we would now read as ‘romantic’. No, this does not mean that Regency gentlemen were ‘taught to be gay’ (I can already imagine some conservative mouths opening as I write this) but it did have an impact on the way that they interacted with one another. Men in the Regency were physically affectionate towards one another without shame. It would not have been uncommon for men (when separated from ladies) to sit with their arms around each other’s shoulders, for example. They might hold hands, or lean on one another, or put their legs across another man’s knees. The homosexual implication of such behaviour is a relatively new one – there are early photographs from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods showing men doing all of these things, and as photos were often taken in public shops, it’s evident that this behaviour wasn’t seen as anything unusual. Open affection is also evident in men’s letters to one another. It was very common for a man to refer to another male friend as “my dear [X]”, or to sign his letter “Yours very affectionately, [X]” or “Yours faithfully” or “Thine, [X]”.

So, there are two principal takeaways from this discussion. 1) Sex between men wasn’t exactly uncommon, and making references to it or jokes about it wasn’t especially shocking or dangerous. And 2) Male friendships in the Regency could be very affectionate, both verbally and physically. Thought I should mention that, because I don’t particularly want to deal with an influx of confused reviewers when Edward’s very fashionable friends make an appearance (which is pretty soon). Now, that's enough from me. We return now to Darcy, who has been trapped in the inescapable hell that is a house full of extended family members for really far too long.

I remain faithlessly yours,

~Eleanor

 


 

 

It was not long before Darcy began to think that his uncle knew why he had come, or, at the very least, suspected it. Before this visit, his Fitzwilliam relations could—and often did—go weeks without mentioning his cousin Anne. Edward had once spent ten minutes insisting that he did not have a cousin called ‘Anne’, until his mother mentioned that she was Lady Catherine’s daughter, to which he replied: ‘Oh! you mean Anne—well why should I think of her? She is for Darcy. —But did you see that Lady Conway is in Town again, and without her husband? I wonder if she will be at Almack’s this week.’[1]

Now, however, the Fitzwilliams seemed completely unable to speak of anything else. This situation was made nearly unbearable by the fact that Anne had about as much character as a damp handkerchief, so there was, in fact, very little to say about her—or, indeed, to her. The subject of her perennially bad health might have supported one slightly dull conversation, but it could little endure such constant revisitation as it received over the week of Darcy’s visit.

‘I hear you shall be at Rosings again this Easter, Darcy,’ said his Uncle when the ladies had retired to the sitting-room after dinner on the day of his arrival.

Edward sniggered into his glass of wine. ‘Yes, we have all heard; Lady Catherine is delighted.’ The Earl cast an irritable glance in his son’s direction.

‘I hope not,’ said Darcy evenly, ‘for she may be disappointed. I have not yet decided where I shall be at Easter.’

‘Well you had better tell her that,’ said Edward, ‘and sooner rather than later, for she seems pretty well fixed upon it.’

‘That is hardly my concern.’

‘Fie! Darcy!’ cried Edward. ‘Where is that damned sense of duty you are so fond of?’

‘I am not responsible for her expectations, Edward; I have made no promises to her.’

‘Oh! it is not her that she wants your promise to, Darcy—though if that has been your understanding, I begin to see your reluctance to come to the point—I should not want Lady Catherine for a wife—’

‘Edward, for God’s sake, enough,’ said Richard. ‘You are drunk.’

‘Yes, and plan to be more so,’ replied Edward, raising his glass to his brother, and then draining it. ‘I do not see what I have said wrong. It would be easier for all of us if Darcy would get on with it. I am sick to death of hearing about Darcy and Anne and Darcy and Anne and Darcy. You know, Darcy, she has started writing to me now! as if I would ever know what you are about…’

‘Uncle!’ said Richard brightly. ‘I believe you mentioned you had got a new horse—’

‘Ah yes!’ cried Edward, leaning forward to pour himself another glass of wine. ‘Horses. Much better to think of than women. I always prefer a horse to a woman. Not nearly so much noise about riding them, and they never want to talk to you afterwards.’

Darcy sat rigid in his chair. Richard covered his eyes with one hand, then closed his fist, brought it down to his mouth, and pressed the backs of his fingers against his lips with a grimace. Edward was insouciant.

‘And a horse, you know, will not bar you from her rooms for taking other mounts. Very reasonable creatures, I have always thought—they know their place in the world.’ Darcy stood abruptly and went over to stand by the mantelpiece.

Richard glanced over, worriedly, then turned back to his brother. ‘Edward, really—’

‘On their backs,’ said Edward, snorting.

‘Yes, that makes perfect sense in a metaphor about horses,’ said Darcy irritably.

‘Oh you would care about the metaphor, Darcy,’ said Edward with some disgust. ‘But you can return a horse, you know,’ he continued, ‘if it does not suit. Give it on to someone else. What a pity you cannot put a wife up for auction!’

‘Edward, enough,’ said the Earl, finally losing patience with his son. ‘You shall put your cousin off marrying.’

‘Hardly,’ said Edward. ‘Cousin Anne is not such a wretched harpy as Mary. Damned wither-go-ye of a woman, Father. I shall never believe that Mother met her at Almack’s; I am sure it must have been Tattersall’s.’[2]

‘Father!’ said Richard, before Edward could say another word. ‘Did you not say you had an inclination to see where Colonel Blakeney’s regiment has been stationed? I believe there is a map in the library. Shall we look?’

The Earl agreed, and Darcy watched in ill-disguised horror as his cousin—his traitorous, villainous cousin!—led the older man from the room, leaving Darcy quite alone with Viscount Milton, and not at all happy to be so. There was a long, awkward pause. Edward seemed to know he was not wanted, but he was the sort of man who thrived on animosity. It delighted him to be disliked, and he made no effort to release Darcy; he watched him, instead, one brow cocked and a shameless smirk playing about his lips.

Darcy racked his brains for some easy civility—something that would neither cause offence nor invite further conversation—but he had never been particularly good at being either easy or civil with people he disliked, and could think of nothing better to say than, ‘How is Lady Mary?’

It was the worst possible choice, and Darcy regretted it immediately; he spent the next few minutes berating himself for forgetting, in his frantic search for conversation, that Lady Mary was precisely the subject which had led to his present discomfort. Edward gave a short bark of laughter.

‘Ah, yes, my wife,’ he said, turning his eyes heavenward. ‘My own Katherina, though I cannot seem to tame her; I suppose it is ungentlemanly to starve a woman these days. —Oh! do not look at me like that, Darcy—she is not your wife,’ he said, with a resentful petulance about him that would have ill-suited a child of four, much less a man of four and thirty. The Viscount looked down into his glass as thought it had personally offended him, then raised it in the parody of a toast.[3]

‘The Devil take her,’ he said with disgust; ‘she is well enough,’ and drained the glass.

Darcy grimaced, and wished he had followed the Colonel to the library. The Viscount rose.

‘Did she remain at Wentworth then?’ Darcy said, as his cousin approached him. ‘I have not seen her.’

‘Oh! no,’ said Edward, taking a spill from the vase on the mantelpiece, and then resuming his seat. ‘No, she is in London, but God knows where she is hour by hour—attending a Black Mass, probably.’[4]

Darcy looked up sharply. Edward laughed at him, selected a cigar from the box on the table, and then lounged back in his chair.

‘You must learn, Darcy,’ he said as he lit the spill from the candlestick on his right, ‘not to let me shock you so easily, or I shall never get tired of doing it.’ He shrugged. ‘Most likely she is dining with the Lady Harriet or the Misses Ingham. And my son is here too, before you ask. I would have left him at Wentworth but Mary insisted on having him with us, wretched woman. —But now, I must know: what is your sudden interest in my wife?’

He set the cigar between his teeth on the left side of his mouth and brought the spill over to light it. It caught; smoke plumed from the end, and he pressed the spill out on the dish of the candlestick, waving his hand to clear the air. Darcy looked over, frowning.

‘Out with it then, Cousin,’ said the Viscount, smirking. ‘Developed a fancy for her, have you? I should not be surprised; she’s a handsome enough woman, when she does not speak.’

Darcy drew himself up.

‘I do not expect good manners from you, Edward,’ he said coldly, ‘but I would think you might still recognise them in others.’

Edward snorted.

‘That is your concern, not mine. —But have her, if you like.’

Darcy shut his eyes and resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose; he gripped the edge of the mantelpiece instead. Edward watched him with some amusement as he removed his cigar and exhaled heavily. Smoke billowed from his open mouth and Darcy pursed his lips.

‘I am quite in earnest, Darcy,’ said the Viscount; ‘indeed, I wish you would.’ His manner turned contemplative. ‘I do not think I should mind being called a cuckold if I could get evidence enough to divorce her for it.’ Then he laughed again and tipped his head back against the chair, smoke furling around his right hand. ‘God, what I would not give to be rid of her.’

 


 

 

The following days were equally unbearable. Georgiana had remained quiet since his arrival, and Darcy could make no sense of it. His one effort to question his Aunt on the subject—undertaken as they sat together in the parlour on Sunday to listen to Georgiana practicing a dirge on the pianoforte in the next room—met with disaster.

‘Well of course she is unhappy!’ was her answer. ‘Every other girl her age has been allowed into Society, and she has had to stay at home—indeed, I am not at all pleased with you on that score myself.’

Darcy was quite sure this was not the cause of Georgiana’s reserve, but said nothing.

‘To be perfectly frank with you, Darcy,’ continued Lady Charlotte, ‘I do not know why you did not have her presented this year.’

Darcy rose from his seat and crossed to the window.

‘Really, she is quite the little woman,’ Lady Charlotte insisted as she took up her work. ‘There is no sense in putting it off.’

‘She will be presented next year.’

‘She will have to be,’ said his aunt, ‘for you have left it too late to bring her out this Season.’

‘Not at all; I never had any intention of allowing her to enter Society this year. She is, as yet, unready.’

‘She is sixteen,’ said Lady Charlotte; ‘that is old enough, I should think.’

‘For some, perhaps.’

In the other room, the dirge—which, contrary to the directive of the composer, had been being played pianissimo for the last minute or so—came to a sudden end, though neither Darcy nor Lady Charlotte noticed.

‘Whatever do you mean, Darcy?’

Darcy made no reply.

‘Very well,’ said his aunt. ‘I see that you mean to disappoint me.’

‘I assure you that had not been my intent, but you have my apologies nevertheless.’

‘I am sure,’ said Lady Charlotte, pursing her lips. She lifted her work to the light, frowning, and then lowered it again. For a moment, watching her unpick her last few stitches, Darcy really thought she might give it up, and change the subject. No sooner than he had begun to consider the possibility of escape did his aunt set in again.

‘Darcy, I really do not see why she could not be presented this year; Lady Mulgrave’s daughter was, and she is but fifteen.’

Darcy inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and just barely resisted the urge to hit his head against the glass pane.

‘Because I am Georgiana’s guardian,’ he said, as calmly as he could, ‘and I said she could not.’

‘You know Miss Mulgrave is now to be married,’ Lady Charlotte said, heedless, ‘to the Earl of Banbury, of all people. They will be wed before the year is out. It is a pity; he might have done for Georgiana.’

‘Perhaps, but as he is already engaged to Miss Mulgrave, I suspect he shall have to be content to do for that lady instead.’

‘Fie, Darcy! I cannot account for you; you will damage her prospects if you do not bring her out soon,’ said his Aunt. ‘She has already begun to lose her bloom. Indeed, she looks positively sickly this winter, and she never has before.’

‘I think she looks very well,’ Darcy lied—badly, if his aunt’s expression was anything by which to judge.

‘Very well,’ she said smartly. ‘Do as you like with her. You shall have no sympathy from me when you have her still under your care at thirty.’

Darcy could not see that the situation she described would be any great departure from the one he was presently enduring.

‘If Georgiana never marries,’ he said steadily, ‘it will be of no consequence to me.’

‘It will be of consequence to your wife, when you marry.’

‘You have a very low opinion of me, aunt, if you think I would marry where it would pain my sister.’

‘Oh yes, Darcy, because that is what men choose their wives for—to please their sisters.’ She pulled a stitch through with undue force, and Darcy heard the sound of the thread snapping. Lady Charlotte closed her eyes a moment, then took a new piece of thread, and tied the two together as she continued. ‘She will be an example to your children; they will see her dependence and pity her for it. Would you see your sister so disgraced?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Then you see she must marry.’

Darcy neglected to answer her, and Lady Charlotte allowed the subject, finally, to be dropped.

‘But you know, Darcy, all this has reminded me,’ she said, at length, ‘you were rather sickly as a child, were you not?’

Darcy frowned, unsure of how this fact was remotely connected to their previous conversation. ‘I was.’

‘And yet you came out of that, did you not?’

‘I did.’

‘You are well enough now.’ Darcy owned that he was. ‘I am glad of it,’ said Lady Charlotte, pushing her needle through the fabric with excessive care. ‘You see, it is not so uncommon; I am sure that Anne will come out of it too, in due course.’

Darcy wanted to throw something.

 


 

 

[1] Almack’s Assembly Rooms: an extremely exclusive club for men and women. Entry was by invitation only.

[2] Whither-go-ye: similar to ‘whither-dye-go’. Essentially an insolent wife, one who regularly asks her husband where he is going. (Shocking ‘insolence’, I know…) Tattersall’s: perhaps the most famous market for high-class horses of the time.

[3] My own Katherina: as in Katherina, ‘the shrew’, from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Unlike in the flawless nineties rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, Petruchio a) does not take Katherina paintballing in order to win her heart, b) does not hijack the school band so he can sing Can’t Take My Eyes Off You to her during soccer practice, and c) is not Heath Ledger. What does he do instead? Oh, you know, the usual: sleep deprivation, starvation, and humiliation… with some psychological manipulation thrown in for fun! Romantic.

[4] A spill: a small piece of wood or rolled paper used to light candles, cigars, etc., by transferring a flame from the main fire. Often kept in a decorative ‘spill vase’ on the mantelpiece. Black Mass: a ritual that witches were believed to perform in the Medieval Era; essentially a mockery or inversion of the Catholic mass. Given that these were, most likely, completely made up, there are no hard and fast rules about what they entail, but popular beliefs included everything from cannibalism, to the stabbing or burning of the sacramental wafers, to wild orgies either in honour of, or somehow including, Satan. Basically, it is a vile suggestion to make about any woman, much less one’s own wife.