History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 April 2007

How Dirty Girls Get By

One of the reader/writer complaints I see over and over is historical characters not giving a second thought to pregnancy or disease. Personally, I think this just goes part-and-parcel with being human. When I look around our modern world, with all its neat and efficient means of contraception and protection I still see plenty of venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies (just today there was a story about a woman giving birth on a street corner and leaving the baby there while she walked away!). People want what they want and they want it when they want it. As a species were just not that good at the whole restraint and consequences thing.

That said, ALL of my heroines (and most of my heroes) think about pregnancy and birth control. I think it’s only realistic since I’m writing about women who aren’t married and can’t just pass off the odd bastard as part of the family brood. And I have made a conscious decision not to address the issue of venereal disease (at least not in the context of my heroes and heroines!). While sexually transmitted diseases were rampant, clearly plenty of people managed never to catch one (or the entire population would have died off due to congenital syphilis).

There are several options, some of which are far more conductive to spontaneity than others:

Sponges with some kind of astringent. Vinegar, lemon juice or alcohol changes the PH of the vagina and kills the sperm. That's why it was at least partially effective. This is the option that my heroines most frequently use (it keeps the control in their court and it lets me snigger about the hero being “sponge worthy”).

Condoms. I doubt I’ll ever have these in a book. It cracks me up when I see the hero in an historical pull one out of his pocket and put it on. These were made of sheep's gut and had to be soaked in water to become pliable before use. Not very spontaneous, and kind of gross.

Abortifacient. Throughout most of history some kind of herbal D&C was known. They often were prescribed as some kind of tonic to “bring on the menses” or to abort a “mole”. There are several recipes for them in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, one of the most widely distributed books in England from the time of its first printing in the 17th century on through the 19th century. It is also worth noting that it was not considered an “abortion” until the fetus quickened (could be felt moving), usually around 4 months. This is the option the heroine of my first book chooses, but she’s a very “in charge” kind of gal (and I knew when I put it in there that it might offend some readers).

Cervical Caps. Casanova recommend a half-lemon or half-lime. I’ve also heard of beeswax plugs (no idea how effective that would be). I’ve yet to go there, but you never know . . .

What do you all think? Do you care if characters just leave this sort of thing to chance in historicals? Or does it bother you just as much as it would if a modern hero left off the condom?


Blogger Keira Soleore said...

In a contemp, it would bother me a great deal if the hero left off the condom.

In a historical, it all depends upon the context of the story, the characters themselves, and the situation they find themselves in. And I hope to goodness, they never reach for a packet in a box on their bedside table. That has me in giggles and spoils the mood.

That being said, I haven't read a single book so far where the woman is in charge of contraception. So, I'm definitely interested in learning how she did it, how she managed the um encounter, what she told the hero, and the hero's reaction.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I haven't read a single book so far where the woman is in charge of contraception.

You will if you read mine. LOL! It makes sense for the hero to be the one to take charge of this if the book is historical and the heroine is a virgin (how would she know what to do?), but I don't write about "those" kind of girls. *wink*

10:30 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Great post, Kalen! In my first book, they employ withdrawal and have a discussion about it. In the second, A Rake's Guide to Ruin, she uses an herbal abortifacient afterward. Look at our take-charge girls, Kalen!!!

3:35 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I should say. . . they have a discussion about what they will do if withdrawal doesn't work! Because that is important. *g*

3:37 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I usually fudge this issue; that is, I don't go into any kind of detail. All my heroes and heroines think about or discuss the possibility of pregnancy, though.

Usually there is a question by the hero: Do you know what to do to take care of yourself?
The heroine says: Yes

That's it.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

It depends. I've rolled my eyes many times when reading Regencies because the contraceptives often used are described much like the modern condom. Oddly enough, I've rarely come across the use of condoms in Victorian historicals--when vulcanized rubber existed! I know that I reference contraceptives in my own writing because of what Kalen said--my heroines tend to be women unable to pass off bastards. Plus, by my time period, large families were of the past--so it's obvious men and women were consciously using something.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I haven't read a single book so far where the woman is in charge of contraception

Then, Keira, I'm delighted to invite you to read The Slightest Provocation, by yours truly. My heroine Mary has used a sponge since her married older sister taught her how (after catching teenage Mary sneaking out with a stolen sheet under her arm).

But close readers will have caught that their mother knew about the method as well, and probably taught it to the staider older sister in preparation for marriage. Imagining this as shared knowledge among a loving family of well-educated women was very important to me -- and not impossible, if a bit idealized.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

The half a lemon thing makes me want to go sit in a tub of very cold water. *shudder* I prefer my pH at slightly less acidic levels. Gah.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

In my first book, the heroine and hero have a frank discussion of the consequences of her getting pregnant, since there would have been as much politcal fallout as mortal shame....she and he know the risk and they take it (near the end of the story)...;-)

In my second book, the heroine is a theriogenologist! LOL! A medeival horse-midwife who knows how to use herbal abortifactants as treatments for farm animals with birthing difficulties.

Naturally, she has to dilute the dose a little after things get out of hand with the hero one night....

Oh, the fun I had writing that one. ;-)

8:30 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

and yes, I expect I might take a little razzing from readers who object to abortifactants as birth control...but the regular consumption of herbal infusions was a means of birth control, and I've read accounts of medieval woman going to confession and given relatively light penances. Apparently, it was a common practice and women in some English parishes were not severely reprimanded by the church.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mom and I co-wrote a Regency where the reform-mnded serious novelist hero takes the heroine (who writes "silver fork novels") to a meeting at which sponges are discussed. The unmarried heroine realizes that this must be the secreet her mother confided to each of her sisters before they got married. Mélanie in my current series talks about using sponges. I've written other books where no birth control was used, but the possiblity of pregnancy was always discussed (in several of them, the couple were already married and wanted children).

10:48 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Pam: I've added your book to my list for my next bookstore run.

Kalen: Your book's on the way. I'm still waiting for news of the perfume... :)

11:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Apparently we should rename out blog Uppity Women Who Know How To Take Care Of Themselves, LOL!

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

but I don't write about "those" kind of girls. *wink*

Thank goodness! It will be a refreshing change not to read about "those" kind of girls(wink) and that's why I cannot wait to read LORD SIN. I have read many books where the heroine uses a sponge but she has never suggested the use of a French letter. That has always been the guy's job! So...I am definitely inerested in learning how they discuss contraception in your book.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In the book I'm currently writing, I'm going to have it that my heroine, during an earlier period in her life, employed enough douches, abortificants, and "other measures," that she really can't get pregnant.

And I will mean it. There will be no miracle babies in this book. Though parenthood -- both legitimate and illegimate -- and guardianship will be serious themes.

In Courtesans, Katie Hickman speculates that all the expedients Elizabeth Armistad employed during her career probably prevented her and Fox from having children when they wanted them. Which I find very touching, esp since they had such wonderful relationship in spite of it.

8:12 AM  

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