The Origins of a Monster: The Regency Sexual Revolution

History has seen bloody uprisings and peaceful upsets. You could call abolishing slavery a “revolution,” also the feminist movement. But one revolution waged war on morality and traditional values, and its seeds began in Regency England.

In 1772, the writer Mary Wollstonecraft promoted early feminism in her book, The Vindication of the Rights of Women. For her time, she led a scandalous life, by living with anarchist William Godwin outside of marriage. They only married to legitimize their daughter, Mary Godwin, the future Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft died after her birth, but Mary embraced her parents’ progressive views. She fell in with Percy Shelley, a poet and author who believed in “free love” and no social constraints.

The Regency era saw a struggle between propriety and sexual rebellion; for the first time, it constrained the female form less. They wore no hoops; their gowns were thin and showed off their slender figures. They even blew against their bodies in the wind! This new style of fashion—exposing cleavage in the evening, bare arms, and the outline of hips—scandalized the public. Concern for modesty may be why the fashion soon disappeared, merging into the larger skirts, hoops and bustles of Queen Victoria’s reign.

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Poets like Lord Byron promised women a life of decadence, luring many young women into “sin,” and shaming their families. Parental disapproval made him even more alluring to eager young romantics. He, Shelley, and others through their lifestyles, writings, and rejection of social morality, brought a small but failed sexual revolution to the Regency period.

Modern readers are well aware of Regency values. Jane Austen’s heroines live in this world. Lydia Bennett becomes a “fallen woman” when she runs away with Mr. Wickham. Marianne Dashwood might have succumbed to the same fate with a little less virtue. Her willful, passionate romanticism is reminiscent of the desires that led women into Byron’s grasp; Willoughby’s poetic inclinations and immoral lifestyle also resemble Byron. His genuine desire to marry her saves Marianne, but he throws her over for a fortune.

The less fortunate Lydia succumbs, and the Bennett family faces an intense public fall out; with Lydia’s “elopement but no marriage,” all the sisters fall into disrepute. By association, the public might see them as tainted. Since premarital sex was disgraceful, it could cost her sisters good marriages. Any moral man would write them off as coming from “bad stock.”

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Jane Austen understood the moral parameters of the time, however hypocritical they were—fallen men could cavort as they pleased, but fallen women became social pariahs. Even after she marries, Lydia must bustle off to the country so they can all forget about her. Thus it was, with Mary Godwin and her sister, Claire. Mary ran away with the married Percy Shelley. Claire came along for the adventure—and, inspired by her sister’s romance, fell into Byron’s bed. She bore him an illegitimate child. Mary also bore, and lost, an illegitimate daughter.

Out of her pain and anguish, she wrote Frankenstein. The recent film, Mary Shelley, paints her novel as symbolic of her life, losses, and experiences living with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. It’s a sad tale of abandonment and abuse. It also suggests she feels abandoned by her father, her “creator.”

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Despite preaching a life of sexual freedoms, he does not approve of her affair with Shelley. Mary accuses him of being a hypocrite, an intellectual revolutionist without the courage to stand on his beliefs. He banishes her from the house.

Could it be the wrathful anguish of the Creature in Frankenstein echoes Mary’s sense of abandonment by her parents? She is a product of their beliefs, choosing to live by them where they faltered. Her father abandons her in a callous and unkind world where she can find no reassurance or comfort. Through their relationship, Shelley pulls her into a world where she cannot socialize with anyone except a circle of sexual revolutionaries. Polite society ignores and shuns her. Her sister’s impregnation and abandonment by Byron parallels her Creature’s despair.

Mary eventually married Shelley and took his name, which enabled her some amount of social freedom. But, she paid the price for her mini revolution. She endured isolation, social reproach, public scorn and disapproval. And, the result is Frankenstein, a complex novel far ahead of its time. Its messages are still relevant today. It’s her lasting legacy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

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