Enclaves of Lust
When considering the reasons that led some of the Jarnefelts to social decline, one explanation began to sound plausible: this stems from the idea that, in order to understand the dynamics of any social phenomenon, it is necessary to move beyond individuals to their social world, in our case to the networks connecting local people with a similar way of life. As we have seen, the Jarnefelts stuck to the same locality in successive generations; both men and women had a considerable number of out-of-wedlock children; and couples lived together and had children without being formally married. The Jarnefelts also married local commoners and bore out-of-wedlock children by local commoners. All this points at a licentious way of life clustered around one family and their congenial companions. Numerous studies and statistics demonstrate that illegitimacy, common-law marriages and premarital births seemed to fall upon women of humble origin (Oosterveen and Smith 1980, 112-13).
Shorter (1977, 121-2) goes so far as to conclude that the explosion of illegitimacy and the premarital sexual revolution began among the lower classes between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century and only seized the middle classes much later, and then in reduced measure. Yet interpretations of this kind need further elaboration, because there is much that speaks against them. Indeed, as we saw in Chap. 2, there is ample evidence of love affairs, illegitimate children and clandestine marriages in the nobility throughout Europe (see also Stone 1979, 309-39). Kings used to keep mistresses and produce bastards, some kings in large numbers, and many of their mistresses were noblewomen.
But let us start with studies on bastardy carried out in England. These studies unanimously show that from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, illegitimacy ratios in the English countryside hardly exceeded 10 per cent, the peak that was reached in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Oosterveen and Smith 1980, 112-13; Levine and Wrightson 1980, 163-5; Stewart 1980, 123). By and large, long-term illegitimacy rates were consistent with the tendency described by Shorter. Comparing these proportions with those of kings who lived between the sixteenth and eighteenth century—this can be done by using special volumes on royal bastards (Farquhar 2014; Beauclerk-Dewar and Powell 2014), but further information is available from histories of royal dynasties and biographies of individual monarchs—we cannot but conclude that kings were much more licentious in their sexual habits than the populace as a whole. Female members of royal families were different in this respect, as presented in Chap. 2. They had to be continent and restrict their sexual life to marriage only.
It is difficult to establish where the nobility actually stood in relation to illegitimacy since there is a scarcity of systematic information about their sexual conduct outside marriage (Stone 1979, 310). Rather than trying to provide an extensive mapping of the occurrence of illegitimacy and clandestine marriage among the nobility, I shall concentrate on those noble families whose members were markedly prone to such occurrences. This is actually what happened in the lower strata described in the compilation of comparative studies on bastardy edited by Laslett et al. (1980). These studies make it clear that illegitimacy was not a widespread tendency in the lower classes, but clustered around a smaller number of families living in the same locality. The researchers call these clusters bastardy- prone sub-societies (Oosterveen and Smith 1980, 117-20; Stewart 1980, 133-9; Newman 1980, 144-57; Levine and Wrightson 1980, 166-70; Laslett 1980). Such was the small world that the Jarnefelts took as their habitat.
There were singletons, of course, those who had bastards without any wider connection to their fate mates; nor were the illegitimacy-prone sub-societies coherent communities clearly discernible from the rest of the villages. Rather, they were constituted by linkages between people who had a variety of experiences of a non-conformist life. There were adulterous liaisons; there was sexual exploitation of a servant by her master; a forbidden relationship between a man and his former wife’s sister; stable, though irregular liaisons; delays in marriage; sexually delinquent persons and so on (Levine and Wrightson 1980, 166). Moreover, this non-conformist life was often associated with sexual misdemeanours, prosecution for theft, failure to attend church, drunkenness, alehouse haunting, drinking in times of divine service, unlicensed ale-selling and keeping disorderly alehouses. Bastardy tended to cluster around families who were linked to one another by blood and marriage. They laid the foundation for inter-familial webs of bastardy, which I would call not sub-societies, but social enclaves. In these families several sisters might produce illegitimate children, and if they married, they usually married men who came from families with experience of bastardy. Moreover, their way of life often passed on to their children, though very rarely to all of them. Newman (1980, 147-55) was able to trace three-generation interfamilial webs of bastardy; longer chains could not be traced for the lack of further genealogical information.
Now, going back to the two branches of the Finnish Jarnefelt family, we can see several similarities between their way of life and those described above, even though they are from different countries and originally different social ranks. The Jarnefelts continued to live in the neighbourhood of the Savolax Regiment from generation to generation, which laid an excellent foundation for their presence in any local enclave. They were eventually destined for a social enclave that was consistent with their occupational status and way of life, that is, their lower-ranking employment in the provincial regiment, their marriages to daughters of commoners of the same occupational status and their inclination to produce illegitimate children by local commoners. This cumulative process destined the Jarnefelts to a local bastardy-prone social enclave. This is, of course, a reconstruction based on information available for the Jarnefelts and the results presented by several researchers on bastardy in the English countryside in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Another similarity lies in the fact that some of the Jarnefelts also committed crime. In this bastardy-prone enclave, the Jarnefelts, together with two von Beckers, were the only known nobles. It is tempting to assume that the social fall of the Jarnefelts was connected to their being part of this enclave—if it is accepted that social fall is a process of deepening and accelerating assimilation with those who are already involved in such an enclave. However, to avoid the one-track interpretation that illegitimacy and clandestine marriages and therefore bastardy-prone social enclaves were distinctive for lower-ranking people and socially fallen nobles only, it is better to extend our focus to those noble families whose members held occupations up to the nobility’s standards.
Sackville-West (2010, 31) states in his book on his own English aristocratic dynasty that there was a culture of heavy drinking and numerous scandals involving infidelity, incest, pederasty and poisoning in the small group of friends and families that constituted the peerage of England. It is also said that adultery was routine for the Georgian aristocracy in eighteenth-century England (Hattersley 2013, 239) as well as earlier (Stone 1979, 309-39). Stone (1979, 232-3) claims that there is some evidence to suggest that throughout the Early Modern period, English attitudes to sensuality were freer than they were in most areas of Europe. As evidence he offers prosecutions in Church courts for sexual offences. My own impression, though, is that licentious ways of life can be found in all European noble courts. Any differences between states are secondary in this respect, and cannot be measured.
Let us start with the Swedish von Fersen dynasty whom we met earlier when discussing noble migrators (Norrby 2014). Their case also sheds further light on the diversity of social decline in the nobility. The Fersen noble dynasty originated from Estland, where they were an outstanding knightly dynasty, holding the highest offices and achieving the highest ranks in the army. They succeeded, moreover, in Sweden under their new lord’s regime, as is demonstrated by their elevation to barons and counts in the seventeenth century. The history of the Fersen dynasty, in describing the dynasty’s distinguished rise to prominence in Sweden, makes no mention of love affairs, nor illegitimate children. It is difficult to estimate whether this is due to their factual absence or to the author’s eagerness to concentrate on the dynasty’s glorious heyday, but their turn comes later. According to Norrby (2014, 16), the dynasty’s heyday lasted from 1561 to 1810, but my impression is that it actually began to wane by the second half of the eighteenth century, when Carl von Fersen (1716-86) was recruited to the royal court. He was the first Fersen who did not win his spurs in battle or state governance, but made his career exclusively at court. A similar tendency was also apparent in Spain, where the old aristocracy was pushed out of government to become purely a court aristocracy (Thompson 1995, 221). More generally, these withdrawals seem to coincide with the perception of the eighteenth century as a period of dramatic upsurge of extramarital liaisons among members of both sexes of the court aristocracy (Stone 1979, 328). In the Fersens’ case, the court also curiously developed into a trap, curiously because courtiers formed one of the three bastions of the nobility, and hence an unexpected source of social decline.
In the eighteenth century the Swedish royal court was a shadow of the French royal court. For example, King Louis XIV had 7000-8000 courtiers in Versailles, the Swedish court no more than 450 (Norrby 2014, 216-18). At the time the number of courtiers was an incontestable performance of monarchs’ prestigious status. This did not escape the notice of Swedish monarchs, who soon began to model their court life on the better-off European monarchies, among other things by multiplying the ranks of courtiers, particularly at the top. By doing so the monarchs wanted to make employment at court more attractive. But court life only began to prosper during the reign of King Gustav III (r. 1771-92), who also added to the number of ladies-in-waiting and their ranks. The highest of them were equal to generals but, in all fairness, many of the highest court titles were just that, mere titles with no specific responsibilities except to be present in the court. This newly refined court incited a climate of entertainment, which soon became the main purpose of court life. Carl von Fersen, who belonged to the king’s inner circle, embarked wholeheartedly on these entertainments, including love affairs, even though he was married to a ‘great beauty’ (Norrby 2014, 220). So excessive and wasteful was his luxurious lifestyle that he eventually lost a great part of his landed property.
This devotion to courtly entertainments continued into the next generation, when Carl and his wife, Charlotta, brought their three daughters to the court. Two of them, Ulla and Augusta, who were said to be ravishing beauties, embarked on many love affairs, even while married. One of Augusta’s lovers was Duke Karl, later crowned King of Sweden (Norrby 2014, 219-29), whose child Augusta bore in 1772, but Duke Karl soon left her to marry accordingly, the daughter of Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Augusta’s case goes to show that, even though kings properly married off their ex-mistresses to noblemen, mistresses would also continue to keep lovers. Another von Fersen with a similar lifestyle was Jacquette, who caused a scandal in 1817 when she tried to conceal the fact that her daughter Oscara was born from her relationship with Crown Prince Oscar (I). Augusta and Jacquette were thus two noblewomen in two future kings’ strings of mistresses, but they did not content themselves with having an affair with their royal lovers, but circulated from bed to bed. From these noblewomen’s perspective, their royal lovers were single cases in a whole string of lovers. It is unclear just how common this kind of circulation was, but even the known cases bear witness to the existence of bastardy- prone social enclaves in the nobility. In the Fersens’ case it extended more widely when Augusta and Ulla’s cousins, Sophie and Hedda, both ladies-in-waiting at court, embarked on a number of love affairs, most of them with noblemen. Count Axel von Fersen (1755-1810), the most famous family member, also had many mistresses, one of them Queen Marie-Antoinette of France (Beckman 2010), but because he was almost constantly abroad—he was an envoy—he did not take active part in his relatives’ promiscuous enclave. However, one of his mistresses that he found in Naples belonged to another noble bastardy-prone social enclave; more on this below.
The next step in the saga of the Fersen dynasty witnesses their social decline in the early nineteenth century. Count Axel von Fersen never married—the first person not to marry in the Swedish branch of the Fersen dynasty. This branch died out in 1839, but Axel’s brother’s daughter, who was born in 1816, continued the dynasty on the female line. This daughter, Louise by name, married Count August Gyldenstolpe, who was also a courtier. They had two sons and one daughter, Jacquette, who, as mentioned, bore a son by Crown Prince Oscar (I). Later on she married a baron with whom she already had two children. The sons also embarked on a court career. Meanwhile, Count August Gyldenstolpe and his wife Louise, who in their early adulthood had been one of the richest families in Sweden, began to waste their property on extravagant luxuries and gambling, a popular amusement among the nobility in the eighteenth century (Swann 1995, 159). They eventually lost everything they owned. August died in 1879, while Louise moved to a small apartment where she lived out her days in poverty.
Another noble dynasty, the English Devonshire, represents dynasties where a sexually libertine life was successfully combined with outstanding careers in state governance and the army. Their success story (Hattersley 2013) also starts with highly advantageous marriages and occupational successes, such as appointments to the Privy Council and even higher posts. However, from around the turn of the eighteenth century we begin to learn about heavy drinking and infidelities. By gathering bits and pieces of information here and there in the family’s history book, we can again reconstruct a bastardy-prone social enclave. The protagonists of this enclave were the Fourth and Fifth Dukes of Devonshire, who lived in the eighteenth century.
Charlotte Boyle’s mother—Charlotte married the Fourth Duke of Devonshire—had an open affair with another duke, the Duke of Grafton (Hattersley 2013, 205), who happened to be a descendant of King Charles Il’s (r. 1660-85) illegitimate son by Barbara Villiers; she bore five illegitimate children by Charles II (Beauclerk-Dewar and Powell 2014, 50-72). They also had a bastardy-prone social enclave of their own. Barbara Villiers is said to have been notorious for her promiscuity, and her mother too had a dozen or more known lovers to her credit, among them Charles II. In other words, mother and daughter shared the same royal lover. To mention one further love affair in this enclave, one of Charles II and Barbara Villiers’ illegitimate daughters followed in her grandmother and mother’s footsteps by taking several lovers, including her grandmother’s husband. A child was born of this relationship. In this case then, the custom of keeping lovers was passed on for three successive generations at least.
But let us return to the Devonshires and their bastardy-prone enclave in the eighteenth century. One of the Fourth Duke’s mistresses was the courtesan Nancy Parsons, a mistress of many members of the peerage, including the Third Duke of Dorset (Hattersley 2013, 130), another English aristocratic dynasty with a culture of heavy drinking and infidelities (Sackville-West 2010). Moreover, Charlotte Boyle’s sister married Lord Auston, who had been one of her mother’s many lovers. Later on the Fifth Duke of Devonshire fathered a daughter by a young milliner whom he acknowledged as his (Hattersley 2013, 239; Stone 1979, 331). This girl would live at the Devonshire’s Chatsworth House after her mother’s death, thereby joining the Devonshire family. The Fifth Duke’s wife, Georgina, was a notorious gambler and a heavy drinker. She fell in love with Lady Elizabeth Foster, who had been deserted by her husband, to henceforth survive as an adventuress (Hattersley 2013, 249). Elizabeth soon became the Duke’s mistress too, and so they formed a triangular relationship. But they also had other lovers, one of them the said Swedish aristocrat, Count Axel von Fersen. He was Elizabeth Forster’s lover in Naples, where he was a diplomat at the time (Hattersley 2013, 251). After Georgina’s death the Duke married in 1809 his and his wife’s common lover, the said Elizabeth Foster (Hattersley 2013, 284). In the next generation, the Fifth Duke and Georgina’s daughter, another Georgina, married George Howard, the Sixth Earl of Carlisle, while her sister Harriet married Lord Granville, who had been her aunt’s lover and father of two of her aunt’s children (Hattersley 2013, 283). Although these cases represent an incomplete collection of love affairs and illegitimate children born into this family, they suffice to show that intimate relationships sometimes massed together to form a complex, elusive network. In their cases this kind of way of life did not lead to social decline, because noblemen could hold on to their high-ranking occupations and because marriages were continuously arranged between noblemen and noblewomen.
Our comparison of the Finnish Jarnefelts, the Swedish Fersens and the English Devonshires brings to light some interesting differences and similarities. The differences are evident: the Jarnefelts were first downgraded to non-commissioned officers and then to crofters and workers, whereas the Fersens and the Devonshires held higher posts in state governance, in the army or at court up to the time that the nobility’s status began to erode more generally in the late nineteenth century. As for marriages, the Jarnefelts almost exclusively married commoners, whereas in the two other families marriages were contracted between nobles, mostly within the peerage and their descendants. Despite these remarkable differences in status, these families shared much in common by virtue of their way of life. All these families had quite a large number of illegitimate children, both for noblemen and for noblewomen. They also lived with their partners like married couples and bore children before they married their partners. In addition, in all these families non-conformist sexual behaviour clustered around particular families, laying a foundation for bastardy-prone social enclaves. This was also common in the lower ranks, as described in the studies mentioned earlier. This means that a licentious way of life was not primarily led individually and randomly, appearing here and there, but in the haven of a social network. If village alehouses were the social centres of a species of lower-ranking people, including members of local bastardy-prone enclaves (Levine and Wrightson 1980, 168), we can suggest that royal and noble courts similarly offered a haven where congenial royalty and nobility could quite freely lead the way of life they desired. In many courts this gave rise to bastardy-prone social enclaves, whose preoccupation was politics but whose relaxations were gambling and adultery, as the Devonshire House Circle is characterized (Hattersley 2013, 242).
This kind of circle brought together not only congenial nobles and royals, but also courtesans, actors and actresses, opera singers and dancers, politicians, philosophers, writers, judges, playwrights, poets and even churchmen, mingling with one another to discuss the burning social and philosophical issues of the day (Mettam 1995, 117; Swann 1995, 158-9). Some of these circles developed into salons mainly hosted by noblewomen. Access to salons reflected the range of social acceptability, but its widening to new domains was of a special kind. On the one hand, these newcomers belonged to the highest layers of their own status hierarchies, as the name dropping of politicians, philosophers and writers shows, but, on the other hand, another merit, namely, seductiveness, granted admission to salons. This brought stars from different scenes to the company of noble people, namely, actors, actresses, opera singers and dancers, whom we will discuss later in Chap. 6. Gaining momentum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, salons brought together those who would be the elite, a mixed amalgam of highbrow people. Salons showed once again that offices, in their mere operative activity, did not suffice. It was also necessary to have gatherings of officeholders on other, more informal scenes that did not necessarily comply with the ceremonial formalities typical of royal courts, making it easier for people from different status hierarchies to intermingle. This informality was guaranteed by the atmosphere of entertainment, which also refashioned the range of status equivalence and reorganized the mutual order of status hierarchies. In part this change coincided with the illegitimacy-prone social enclaves of the nobility, but it also reframed the marriage market. Spouses were taken from these enclaves, making lovers suitable spouse candidates, even though noblemen and noblewomen very rarely married their non-noble salon guests. According to one estimation, only ten peers had married players during the previous 100 years before 1884, when a new trend was started in England (Cannadine 1999, 348).
Despite the similarities in the way of life across different ranks, we tend to think of the licentious way of life differently depending on whether it is led by people of low or high status. In low statuses, a life of sexual liberty turns in our mind into an irregular, loose life that should be set in due order (cf. Collins 2009, 255), whereas the same lifestyle in upper statuses denotes hedonism, a life of self-indulgence that can be cultivated and refined so as to become almost an art form. This bipolarity echoes the divide identified by Goody (1984, 99, 135, 140) in the cultural meanings of meals: the frugal meal of peasants and the gourmet meal of the ruling classes, the divide that materialized the hierarchical order of these two strata in the past. Luxury—the way people are dressed and the milieu where they come across—confers an odd splendour on eroticism and revelry, making us inclined to underestimate the prevalence of illegitimacy in the nobility. This bias is also due to the massive numbers of lower- ranking people, making the volume of their illegitimacy much larger than that of the nobility, who accounted for a mere 1 per cent of the population. Even at 100 per cent frequency, the nobility’s contribution to overall illegitimacy would not be very significant. But the plain truth is that proportionally, kings and the nobility had the highest frequencies of illegitimacy, as is confirmed by many studies on sexual offenders.