Philip Larkin, in his poem "Annus Mirabilis," wrote, "Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three."
For us today, watching old movies or reading old books by people like Dickens and Austen, where a couple falls in love by sitting across from each other at dinner, and dancing for a few minutes - we see some heaving bosoms (well-covered, of course), a couple of chaste kisses of the forehead or hand, an impassioned note or two passed over the next few days, and then - wedding bells. (And in the next shot - surprise! - a smiling baby in a frilly bonnet.)
All the women are covered neck to wrists to ankles in dresses and layers of undergarments; the men wear high-collared three-piece suits. Courtship, marriage, childbirth goes by, without the removal of so much as a shoe. All erotic thoughts or behaviour are sublimated into minute gestures, hairstyles, the fold of a dress, or the inflection of a word.
The babies seem to come about almost as CBC Radio host Jonathan Goldstein imagines that God intended for them to happen in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve screwed everything up: someone is lying down on a comfortable patch of grass after a satisfying meal, and then - oh! There's a baby resting on her stomach! Or, a couple is walking through a nice shady patch of forest, and they notice the sun coming through the leaves in a particularly lovely pattern and, hello! What's this? A little cooing baby lying on this branch.
And so it wasn't until after halfway through the last century that sex of any kind actually happened, through some black magic combination of James Brown's grunts, Elvis's hips, and whatever that dirty French whore Brigitte Bardot brought over.
I actually think Larkin was a little bit off in his chronology. (This is probably because he's English; the English have always been a little bit off about sex.) Sex was invented in Paris in 1955 (when a bout of kissing went a little bit too far); was brought to the States by greasy, Europhile beatniks in 1957 where it mixed with capitalism and became common in the back seats of automobiles; and only then, as Larkin indicates, spread back across the Atlantic to Britain - the Beatles had picked it up from all the screaming girls on their 1963 tour of the US.
At least this was my theory until I read two novels by the aristocratic English novelist Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (available in an omnibus edition by Vintage Books). These two books, and a little bit of reading I did afterwards, showed that the English upper classes were not quite so tightly wound as they seem at first glance.
Although not explicit in its details, the Mitford novels show that the British aristocracy was only superficially restricted in its sexuality, frightened into obedience by Mother Superior Queen Victoria, like children who don't swear in front of their parents, but curse like sailors in the schoolyard. Behind the scenes, they were often charmingly, childishly single-minded.
The two novels focus on the activities of the aristocratic Radlett family, which is based heavily on Nancy Mitford's own family. Matthew Radlett is the fierce patriarch, whose chief pleasure in life is killing things. A spade with which he brained eighteen German soldiers in WWI hangs with pride above the mantel, hair and blood still visible on it. When there are no Germans or other foreigners about (he equally loathes the Huns, the Frogs, the Wops and the Dagoes) to assault and abuse, he likes to hunt and kill small animals. And when there are not enough foxes on the grounds to pursue, he sets out two of his daughters to act as the prey; he gives them a head start before galloping after them with his four bloodhounds. All of them, father, children, and dogs, find this to be great fun.
There are seven Radlett children, and, when they are not being ordered about by their father or their woolly-headed mother, they are playing pranks on the servants and each other, or else hiding in the overheated linen closet, talking about sex and childbirth. First they discuss Oscar Wilde, and then abortion.
"How ever did she get rid of it?"
"I hear she jumped off the kitchen table."
Later, when the older sisters start to get married, the younger ones gather to breathlessly collect and dispense information. "Louisa says it hurts dreadfully at first, but once you get used to it, it is utter utter utter blissikins."
Love in a Cold Climate has even more innuendo, first in the form of Boy Dougdale, a middle-aged acquaintance the Radletts refer to as "The Lecherous Lecherer," due to his extracurricular activities with young girls. Jassy, one of the most sarcastic of the daughters, describes his technique:
"[A]fter the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex. Think what a thrill! He took Linda up onto the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing when he was on his way down to dine."
Dougdale causes the main plot crisis in the story when he elopes with his niece - despite having had a long-running affair with her mother, his sister-in-law.
Love in a Cold Climate also features the flamboyant Cedric Hampton, a Nova Scotia-born amateur of all things sensual and luxuriant, who first makes his appearance as "a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl, dressed in rather a bright blue suit; his hair was the fold of a brass bed knob, and his insect appearance came from the fact that the upper part of his face was concealed by blue goggles set in gold rims quite an inch thick."
While there are no actual sex scenes in these novels, they certainly depict sexual desire and behaviour as real, concrete things - unlike the art of most previous centuries. On a spectrum of licentiousness, it is certainly closer to Charlotte Roche's Wetlands than to Pride and Prejudice.
Doing a bit of research on the real personalities behind the fictional characters of the Mitford novels reveals, in fact, more scandal than the books contain.
Another of the characters in Cold Climate, Lady Hampton, is apparently based on a certain Violet Trefusis. Looking up Trefusis on Wikipedia, one finds that she was famous for a long and tempestuous affair with the poet Vita Sackville-West, starting when they were both teenagers and continuing until after they were both married. (Trefusis's mother was, in the early 1900s, a favourite mistress of the Prince of Wales, who would go on to become King Edward VII.) Violet Trefusis's mother objected to the affair, particularly on the grounds that it jeopardized the engagement of Violet's sister Sonia to a certain Roland Cubitt. Sonia and Roland are the grandparents of -- who else? -- that other famous third wheel, Camilla Parker-Bowles.
And the Mitfords themselves, not content to merely stir the pot sexually and artistically, were also politically shameless -- to the point of associating themselves with the demonaic figures and ideas of Nazism and Communism.
Nancy's sister Diana became notorious in the 1930s for marrying Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, the British counterpart to the German Nazi party. The couple was married in the house of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels with Adolph Hitler himself the guest of honour. Diana and Oswald were arrested in Britain during the war, and spent three years in prison. Mosley died soon after, but Diana survived until 2003, writing insightful literature reviews for the London Daily Telegraph, as well as several memoirs and other books of non-fiction. She never fully renounced her fascism (she said at one time that she admired Winston Churchill and Hitler equally.)
Another Mitford sister, Unity, had an even more bizarre story. Like Diana, obsessed with Nazism, she learned German, moved to Munich, and joined Hitler's social circle. In conversation with the dictator, she urged him to sign a treaty with Great Britain. When war broke out in September 1939 and Neville Chamberlain's government declared war on Germany, Unity was so distraught that she tried to kill herself by shooting herself in the head. Weirdly, she survived and was returned to England, where she died nine years later of meningitis with the bullet still lodged in her brain.
A third of Nancy's sisters, Jessica, became (what else?) a Communist. She married a nephew of Winston Churchill's, and moved to the United States. Her husband joined the Royal Canadian Air Force so he could fight in the war while the US was still officially unengaged, and died in combat. Jessica then married a Civil Rights lawyer, testified in front of the McCarthy tribunal (she did not give away any names), and eventually wrote several highly acclaimed non-fiction books, including a couple of memoirs (J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels, has named Jessica Mitford as her favourite writer, and named her daughter after her).
One begins to wonder, reading about these goings-on -- to paraphrase Fawlty Towers -- how ever did these people run an Empire? The affairs, the unhappy, sham marriages, the sexual repression and victimization -- that Mitford's novels only started to reveal -- while they make for good drama and, occasionally, comedy, cannot have been easy on the nation's psyche. While some may lament the loss of that Empire, an outside observer cannot help but be relieved for them that Brigitte Bardot and the Beatles came along.