Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Apart from being a courtesan — and writing, for those who had talent enough — there was no satisfactory mode of existence open to the woman who wished to support herself at the level of the professions. Marriage was still the only respectable solution. The “old maid ” begins to appear in history, and always as an object of derision, as in Defoe or Smollett. Tabitha Bramble, though she eventually married the cadaverous soldier Lismahago, represents a type which has been familiar in English fact and fiction down to the present day— but which, perhaps, is now vanishing. Proposals were made for the starting of a sort of lay nunnery, in which women could support themselves by sewing and other respectable activities, but the response was mockery. (234). Furthermore, despite the freedom accorded to men and to married women, the old taboos on premarital sexual experience had lost little of their force in bourgeois circles and among the more conservative of the aristocracy, and here the result of a mis-step was still likely to be condemnation to a life of prostitution. Yet there were circles where this was not necessarily the case. For instance, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote:

“No one is shocked to hear that Miss So-and-so, Maid of Honour, has got nicely over her confinement.” (207).

The simplified marriage laws were often misused in order to exploit women. Civil marriage, without ecclesiastical blessing, had been made compulsory by the Puritans in 1653, though Charles II afterwards re-legalized church marriage for those who preferred it. All that was needed, in order to marry, was a simple declaration and the clasping of hands. No ring was needed, and the Act, with Caledonian caution, specified that the, handfasting could be omitted where the persons had no hands. Marriage was permissible at any hour, in any building, without banns or licence, at a moment’s notice. This led to abuses, such as bigamy and the contracting of fictitious marriages for purposes of seduction or in order to obtain the fortune of heiresses. Fleet Street became the centre of the marriage trade. According to Pennant,

“I have often been tempted by the question, ‘Sir, will you please to walk in and be married’ while walking down Fleet Street”. (102).