Reviews

Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain

In 1655, the Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, attempted to abduct the beautiful heiress, Elizabeth Malet. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his crime, but the couple married in secret just two years later.

This tale is one of a multitude of fascinating tidbits to be found in Andrea Zuvich’s Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain. Promising to “peek beneath the bedsheets” of the era, Zuvich whisks the reader through the sexual lives of the Stuarts, examining everything from contraception to prostitution. Amusing in some parts, and sobering in others, one thing is for certain: this book is never dull.

As someone who has long been interested in the seventeenth century, Sex and Sexuality was an absolute delight. Whilst the subject can, of course, raise more than a few blushes, Zuvich approaches it with a tangible respect. She is a wonderfully frank author, never shying away from the crude or the ghastly. Not once does she let the book trip over its own content.

Although Sex and Sexuality covers a lot, it’s incredibly accessible. Every chapter is split into smaller subsections, which eases the reading experience. For example, the chapter on Marriage features headings such as marital advice and differences in class. I’m fond of this approach to structuring a book, as it makes it easy to put down and pick up again without feeling lost.

A few of the subsections could, in my opinion, have been a little longer. There are moments where an enticing detail would be introduced and then dropped. However, as said before, the sheer breadth of information in this book is applaudable. It’s understandable why Zuvich doesn’t linger on a topic for long, because there is so much more to say. She touches on everything from food to witchcraft in order to present a comprehensive view of the era. Should you find yourself wanting to read more, there is a bibliography at the end.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who appears frequently in Sex and Sexuality.

Zuvich is a brilliant researcher, a quality that shines throughout Sex and Sexuality. She utilises sources ranging from risque poetry to court cases to great effect. There is a real variety here, which helps highlight how sexuality filtered through all aspects of society. Nearly every topic features a relevant anecdote from the period. I was particularly touched at the story of Elizabeth Lilburne. In 1642,  she “…galloped on horseback from London to Oxford” whilst pregnant in order to save her husband’s life.

Another thing I enjoyed about Sex and Sexuality was Zuvich’s decision to discuss the sexual lives of the Stuart monarchs in a separate part. It’s easy to focus on the crown, but I’ve always felt like this could lead to a narrow view of history. By moving the monarchs to the end, Zuvich prevents them from dominating the narrative. This also allows her to take a closer look at the complex perceptions of royalty. Nearly all the Stuart monarchs were subject to speculation about their sexuality. Whilst there is evidence in the case of James I and George Villiers, there is none to support the rumours about Anne I and Sarah Churchill.

With meticulous research and a refreshing style of writing, Zuvich has crafted a book that is both informative and enjoyable. Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain is a fantastic read, and one I highly recommend.

(Pen&Sword kindly gifted me Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain in exchange for an honest review. You can check them out here.)

(2) Comments

  1. Gabriela says:

    Great read

  2. I really enjoyed this book, and as you say, leaving the monarchs to the end was a good decision. Sex and sexuality isn’t often written about in the history books and so it was good to get a more rounded perspective of the everyday Stuarts, what they thought was attractive and what they got up to! Great review, thank you 🙂

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