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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Infidelity and Bastardy during the Regency by Jenna Jaxon

Although our modern sensibilities toward infidelity in marriage have been colored, here in America especially, by our Puritan roots, during the Regency period in England infidelity and bastardy were much more accepted than people today would like to believe.

Even though by the early 1800s love matches were becoming more popular with the aristocracy’s sons and daughters, there were many more couples from the late Georgian period who had been parties to arranged marriages. These matches, usually arranged by the couple’s parents, had been considered the ordinary course of matrimonial events from time immemorial. Marriages at that time were made to gain or retain property, increase wealth or position, or develop family dynasties. Couples may not have met more than two or three times (some not at all) before the wedding, and although it was hoped they might develop some affection for one another and come to “rub along” well together, that eventuality would have been considered a bonus to the marriage, not a necessity of it.

As a result, husbands and wives often found the love and affection missing from their marriages in the arms of other men and women. Husbands quite often took mistresses or participated in affairs that equally often produced illegitimate children who were barred from inheriting the father’s title or estates unless a specific bequest was made to them in his will. It was also up to the father’s sense of honor as to whether he would provide for mother and children.

Wives of the nobility, after producing the required “heir and a spare,” also strayed from their marriage vows and took lovers for whom they felt
a passion. With contraception being unreliable or hard to obtain during the Regency, wives could and did become pregnant with their lovers’ children. These children were presumed to be legitimate issue and could inherit titles and estates automatically upon the death of the husband. “The presumption in favor of legitimacy meant that the status of a child born to a married woman could not be impeached without unequivocal proof that the husband was not the father. It had to be shown with irresistible evidence that the husband was impotent, that the husband was divorced from the wife (separation was insufficient), or that the husband was absent from England, or at least did not have access to his wife, when the child was conceived.”

Of course, the ton did not turn a completely blind eye to these illicit affairs, although it did not sit in as harsh judgement on these couples as would the Victorians in the coming decades. Once love matches became the leading method of arranging marriages, the need for physical intimacy outside of marriage was assumed to be greatly reduced, so that infidelity became a much greater social abhorrence than in the Regency.

In my recently released romance, What a Widow Wants, the act of infidelity and the consequences of it imbrue the hero and heroine with the possibility of scandal and ruin. What a Widow Wants is available at Amazon.

*Images (other than my cover) are from Hogarth's series Marriage a la Mode.

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