Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Just as in Italy, the ever present possibility of insult an injury made it essential to resent the smallest slight for fear that it might be followed by some worse imposition, and, also as in Italy, this produced an institutionalised pattern in the form of duel. Once created, the duel could itself be used as a means expressing aggression. It would be interesting, for instance, to know more of the private resentments of John Reresby, who, while dining at a neighbour’s house, quarrelled with the fiance of his host’s daughter, and threw his wine in his face. Besought by his fiancee not to throw away his life in a duel, the young man swallowed the insult; and Reresby records the incident with satisfaction, evidently feeling that he emerges well from it. (28).

The second, and perhaps the most significant, strain in the sexuality of the period seems to have been a fear of impotence We might suspect this from the emergence of Don Juanism for the obsessive repetition of seduction generally derives from need to prove one’s potency. Not infrequently, it became quite explicit: for instance, in 1732, the Hon. Mrs. Weld sought dissolution of her marriage (marriages could be dissolved by Act of Parliament) on the grounds of her husband’s impotence which he admitted. (19). He said,

“as often as he attempted to have Carnal Knowledge of his wife, a Pain struck him across the Belly which so contracted his Privy Parts, as to put him in much Torment, and obliged him to desist from further Caresses”.

Thus it was clearly impotence of psychological origin. Moreover, when one reads the closing chapters of “Clarissa Harlowe” it is difficult to escape the impression that the duel was a symbolic method of proving potency. The hair-trigger sensitivity of the gallant, and his especial concern with his sister’s honour, point to fears of impotence and incest such as we should expect to find where mother fixations were heavily repressed.