Preventing pregnancy in Park Lane
Warning: There will be rude words. And pictures of 'things'.
If you’re likely to have the vapours, best to sit down before you start. Or don’t start at all.
I began to think about Victorian contraception while I was writing my historical novel Marguerite: A Murderess, which is set in the last quarter of the 19th century. Julie, a 25-year-old French actress, is the mistress of 72-year-old Lord Lucan (some readers have met this charming gentleman in an earlier post).
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Julie definitely did not want to become pregnant. What could she do to prevent it?
The choices were not great.
Condoms Of course! As old as… sex, actually. I refer you to Kate Lister’s erudite and entertaining A Curious History of Sex for the history of covering the penis with something — sheepgut, canvas, rubber — to prevent disease or babies (mostly disease TBH).
Aside: I am old enough to remember my mother referring to condoms as French letters (she believed sex education should start young — go Mum!). The French called them English raincoats. There you go.
Condoms were expensive and unreliable (none of the methods were very reliable). To get a rubber condom (they were available from the mid 19th century) the relevant penis had to be measured by a doctor, who ordered the correct size. They could washed out for re-use [insert gritted teeth emoticon]. The switch to latex did not take place until the 1920s.
Aside: The first major condom manufacturing company in England, E. Lambert & Son of Queen’s Road, Dalston, east London, was founded in the 1877.
Would Julie have been even less thrilled by Lucan if he produced a condom in her bedroom at Park Lane? No, I don’t think so.
That would have been tantamount (love that word) to suggesting she was a sex worker. The relationship between Julie and Lucan was definitely commercial but she would have regarded this as an insult.
Also condoms left control in the hands of the man. So…
What could a woman do?
There were a number of age-old barrier methods.
Sponge-on-a-string Inserted into the vagina. Two good things about the sponge — you could make your own and you could pretend you weren’t using it for contraception (same for the methods following).
Pessary The word comes from the Greek pessόs, which means oval stone. Historically doughnut-shaped stone pessaries were inserted to prevent prolapse of the womb but they could also be used for contraception. Essentially they were early intrauterine devices. Uncomfortable.
Douche + spermkillers Fill the bulb with water (or hot disinfectants, as the ad below recommends — eeek!), insert, squish and hey presto — ‘Cleanliness!’
Here’s Therese O’Neill, author of Unmentionable, the Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners, on the need for speed (paprika!):
Vaginal walls go smooth when a woman is aroused, then they crinkle back up (scientifically speaking). So trying to rinse out sperm, even with homemade spermicidal recipes (vinegar, ammonia, paprika, etc.) had to be done immediately, because once the crinkles came back, you’d never be able to flush all the nooks and crannies out.
Abstinence Not happening. That is, that’s not happening in the book. Lucan would be annoyed.
Coitus interruptus Ditto.
Rhythm method Ditto.
Abortion Very illegal, although newspapers were full of ads for pills and potions to deal with ‘irregular’ periods and if you asked around discreetly someone always knew someone who could help (or kill you trying). Marguerite, my main character, ends up in Woking Female Convict Prison alongside Madame Rachel of New Bond Street (Sarah Rachel Russell) who promised she could make women ‘beautiful for ever’. Rachel’s other services included clearing ‘obstructions’. She also had a nice line in blackmail. I recommend Helen Rappaport’s 2012 book on this.
So — Julie’s preferred method is… the douche. She keeps her equipment in a small mahogany chest on her dressing-table where Marguerite, being nosy, finds it one morning…