Sneaky Sex, Victorian Edition
April 12, 2018 1:30 PM   Subscribe

For a piece of fiction, and I'm stumped! My characters are having an illicit sexual liaison that began when they ran into each other out of town. The era is Victorian. The woman is a gentlewoman of modest but independent means, and has no living family. The man is wealthy, and extremely well-known in the city where they live. They are both unmarried. They can't go to his house (lots of servants, gossip-mongers) or her house (super-strict landlady for unmarried women). They know each other socially and attend some of the same parties, but they are not (as far as anyone knows) close. Where might they sneak off to while they're in their home city?

They're both invested in maintaining secrecy and the appearance of propriety. He is an extremely eligible bachelor and likely to be recognized if he checks in to a hotel under a fake name.

It's not a romance story; the illicit and secret nature of their encounters drives an important plot point later on, and there's a big gaping plot hole of "but HOW were they sneaking around?" So it doesn't have to be particularly romantic (not a romance!), but they're not going to end up married, so it can't be thing some romance novels do of incredibly bad ideas driven by passion that run a high risk of getting caught but it's okay because they get married. These are smart, calculating people having a mutually pleasant liaison, trying to avoid the risk of getting caught through well-laid plans.

(It doesn't have to be super-strictly historically-accurately Victorian, I am happy to massage the circumstances a bit, so don't constrain yourself in your brainstorming!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
He might keep discreet quarters in a remote and unfashionable part of the city to facilitate such liaisons.
posted by praemunire at 1:34 PM on April 12, 2018 [25 favorites]

He could employ her (as a private secretary say) as a pretext for her to have reason to come to his house
posted by crocomancer at 1:40 PM on April 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

In the series The Knick, sneaky sex happens in the workplace after hours, and in an opium den.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:43 PM on April 12, 2018

Some sympathetic (or paid) third party providing accommodations, like a retired governess or nurse, a bookseller, his tailor/her modiste. Perhaps they're meeting in rooms above a shop.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:44 PM on April 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

I read a novel a while back where a detail was that women could easily go a local cemetery unaccompanied to mourn the dead (in this case, WWI dead), and that young women would often have secret liaisons with men at the cemetery. (The detail has stuck with me, because this was at a cemetery that is local to me, and is very large and somewhat wild, probably more so 100 years ago. I like to think of these women when I go walking there and assume some of them are now buried there as well.)
posted by vunder at 1:48 PM on April 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

He's totally keeping rooms elsewhere in the city for just this purpose. She's arriving in a hired hack, heavily veiled. Whatever minimal servants he keeps there -- some combination of housekeeper, cook, maid-of-all-work -- are either dismissed when he's planning on entertaining, or don't live there.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:49 PM on April 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

Wealthy men have a long history of going to gentlemen's clubs/brothels as a sort of open secret—perhaps he meets her in private there and pays off the management?
posted by Maecenas at 1:50 PM on April 12, 2018

According to Dr. Lucy Worsley in her Very British Romance, séances were BIG for intermingling of different class structures and for ignoring ordinary social norms.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:50 PM on April 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

Does he have a closed carriage with curtains, a habit of long drives to check on his estates (or whatever), and a very loyal, well paid, and tight-lipped driver?

Is he a patron of the arts and keeps a private box at the opera? Or does he have an equally wealthy, elderly and boring relative who never uses their box at the opera? (so curious opera glasses aren't aimed at that box, and all they need to do is arrive separately, after it's already begun...)

Do these parties where they are mutual guests occur on large estates that might have a boathouse, greenhouse, or other outdoor shelter that is rarely used?

Does he invest in properties? Maybe he has purchased a vacant building but hasn't quite decided what he's going to do with it yet? (but of course he likes to visit it occasionally and it's easy enough for someone else to slip in through a side door off a busy street...)

Going off the cemetery idea, maybe a large family mausoleum? Either his or hers.
posted by castlebravo at 2:06 PM on April 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

The book Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift (which I highly recommend), has some ideas - although mostly they're in the countryside, with access to a large and secluding garden (behind stables; in bushes) - as well as various quiet, more remote spots.

It's set in the 1920s, but Mothering Sunday existed in the Victorian era; it was an annual day off for staff and servants to visit their families, hence freedom to do things even in the house.
posted by Quagkapi at 2:11 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I recall reading a story in which similar illicit encounters took place in the home of a third party, who was a middle aged (or elderly) widowed noblewoman. Someone respectable enough and with the right kind of social status, so that the female protagonist could be seen paying her a visit without raising eyebrows, but who due to financial hardships needed the extra income she discreetly received in return from the gentleman (who would sneak in through the servants' entry, IIRC).
posted by sively at 2:16 PM on April 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

in my vast historical research of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, which consists mainly of watching PBS and reading P.G. Wodehouse, the idea of traveling incognito comes up now and again. I'd say if the gentleman is high profile, it would be more believable/likely for the female of the sketch to be able to put on some suitable raiment, take a somewhat circuitous route, and arrive as Someone Else Above Suspicion.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:32 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I read a mystery set in the Edwardian era with this plot point. The guy gives the woman money to buy/rent a cottage in the country. She has a woman who comes in half-days but thats it for servants. His name isnt associated with the property, nobody is going to investigate where she got the money. He takes the train to visit her so nobody will see and recognize his car parked outside.
posted by mrmurbles at 2:45 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

is he rich enough to have a hunting lodge in the countryside?
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:47 PM on April 12, 2018

The cemetery thing has been in some books I recall.... a large lavish family mausoleum can have a surprisingly comfortable interior. The walls are thick and it's very private.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:51 PM on April 12, 2018

I think that you've probably got two obvious options. A private box at a theatre of low repute or the sort of "boarding house" that rents out rooms to sex workers. Neither are perfectly secret, but although city sizes were smaller (though some, like London, were still objectively huge) because people generally stayed closer to their homes and workplaces, particularly before bicycles became accessible, it's probably a bit easier to sell to readers that people with access to wheeled transport would be easily able to get to a district where their faces were largely unknown.

Also I don't think they need to be in love to make stupid choices. I'm pretty sure more dumb choices have been made because someone was horny than because someone was in love.
posted by howfar at 2:51 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

He may fund a charity of some sort, and visit it often; of course, such a place would have a private office for him, wherein he might discuss business with both potential donors and beneficiaries. He might even maintain a suite at a local boarding house for entertaining donors and city officials.

She might arrive separately, incognito, or might have a job that brings her into occasional contact with him.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:52 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

What about this: his gentleman's club has a very discreet door to a back room. This room is accessible by two doors: one to the hallway stair behind the kitchen at the club... and the other to a hallway behind a shop on the other side of the block, a perfectly respectable shop run by a nice lady.

When gentlemen need a private room they mention a quiet word to the club manager. The manager liaises with the shopkeeper, who lets the mistress in from the shop side. Nobody ever meets in person except the gentleman and his mistress in the room.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:53 PM on April 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

Perhaps the gentleman has a client or friend who is abroad, and who has taken his staff abroad with him, leaving the (generally unobserved) house unattended, and has previously asked the gentleman to look in and check on the condition of the house?
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 2:59 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

So I recently read a book about Lady Jane Digby who was quite young during the height of victorian hypocrisy and everyone in society was banging everyone else and everyone knew it.

Several things she and her rich to varying degrees friends did.

- meet at a hotel but have separate rooms, go to one room later, but def return before maid in the AM

- as referenced above, arriving in rented carriage rather than one's own, heavily veiled

- the whole country house thing... Many guests, wandering around for long walks, maybe a small group and a few people stay an extra few days and find themselves very interested in being out of house for much of the day leaving the couple all alone oh no alas
posted by sio42 at 3:07 PM on April 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

The public library used to have separate reading rooms for women. If you visit those old libraries you can see they had so many nooks and crannies, and were an acceptable place for gentle people to spend several hours.
posted by saucysault at 3:10 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Definitely, the man keeps a house in St. Johns Wood for this purpose. It's staffed by a housekeeper who leaves a pre-determined hour. One reason it's discreet is that he owns a number of rental properties so it's not unusual that one of them is between paying tenants.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:10 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

James Lear's novels are really good about the intersection of sex and real estate in your era. Porn, but v well written porn.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:11 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

but gay so the homosociality might complicate matters
posted by PinkMoose at 4:21 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I, too, thought the library's separate reading rooms could work, only "These special spaces were designed to keep prying loafers out, but they were often visible from other parts of the library and even resembled stages or shadowboxes." The rooms did have very comfortable furnishings; some sort of after-hours library access (big-money donor/dedicated volunteer key privilege?) might provide an opening.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:25 PM on April 12, 2018

He doesn't check into a hotel, he arranges a room for someone who is visiting on business. While doing that he arranges to use a second room in the hotel to accommodate meetings (for believability he can even request that the second room have the bed removed and a desk brought in), and then he has reason to be seen in the halls. She can take tea in the hotel's dining room and then find her way up a back staircase.
posted by fedward at 4:33 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

As others have said, the hotel room switcheroos, or taking rooms in an out-of-the-way location.

Far enough in the century for good train service? They can take separate trips out to the countryside and just "happen" to meet (perhaps at a cottage rented for the purpose).

Does he have a sympathetic friend? Said friend can invite them out to his country house and put them up next to each other.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:54 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think Madame Bovary has a scene where two lovers hire a [horse-drawn] cab and tell the driver to go nowhere in particular so they can bone.
posted by Jon_Evil at 5:07 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

...wealthy, and extremely well-known in the city where they live... I feel like a lot depends on the timing of these liaisons -- daytime, and it's his identity that needs camouflaging, but trysts after dark are hell on a solitary gentlewoman getting out and about without drawing attention.

(Since it hasn't been mentioned yet: church or vicarage.)

posted by Iris Gambol at 5:10 PM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Church? Perhaps he dabbles in architecture, with (or in opposition to) the Cambridge Camden society. Perhaps he is funding a church restoration project for social capital. If they have a key to the vestry or a side room the two lovers can meet in relatively safe secrecy.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 5:57 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

What is his profession? As a doctor, he woulf have a consulting room. Love among the peculiar instruments and phials of liquids, knocking over jars of preserved specimens at pivotal moments, that sort of thing. He could meet her there after hours, all she has to do is slip in through the back door. As a lawyer, maybe he meets her in his offices after the clerks and scriveners have gone home for the day. Passion on his desk amidst the stolid tomes and brimming inkwells. Now, what about her? As a woman of independent means, what does she do? My first assumption is that she is widowed, since you do not sound like you want either character to be young and naive. As a widow, what property does she own and where? Could they have liasons there? All she would have to do is send her servants out on a half-day and leave her greenhouse door open and meet him there, or just usher him upstairs to her bedroom. (She has, say, a greenhouse, full of ferns and strange and exotic plants such as the Cavendish banana.)

Or, he could meet her in a back alley and they could disport themselves against a rough brick wall while carriages and horses stream past on the just-out-of-sight thoroughfare. That's probably more rough-and-ready than you want for your characters, though.
posted by Crystal Fox at 7:08 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Church! For scandalousness more than practicality. I vote for including a bit part for a lascivious vicar.
posted by momus_window at 7:34 PM on April 12, 2018

"Pleasure gardens" were a thing and not necessarily for sex. They were on the edge of respectable; the middle class could go and slum it.
posted by mollymillions at 8:06 PM on April 12, 2018

Her best friend from childhood, while beginning life in a respectable family, was orphaned at 11 and had to go work as a domestic servant in a wealthy household. Let's call her Bess. Everyone from the old neighborhood except the heroine abandoned Bess when her luck turned, and Bess feels a strong bond with the heroine as the last tie to her own childhood world. Bess despises the arrogant family she works for, with their spoiled children. She allows the heroine and her lover to come in through the servants' door at night when the mistress of the home is asleep conked out on morphine and the master is likewise snoring. She hurries them up through the kitchen, to use the well-appointed bedroom -- kept dusted and aired -- of a snobby daughter who is abroad for a year, in preparation for being introduced to society. The other servants turn a blind eye; they have only to watch out for a particularly stodgy housekeeper.
posted by velveeta underground at 8:45 PM on April 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Perhaps there are stables connected to her rooming house, but when the horse(s) are out, so are the grooms.
posted by b33j at 8:59 PM on April 12, 2018

I haven't read the previous posts so forgive me if it's a repeat. She dresses as a maid or other servant and goes to his house.
posted by Jubey at 2:56 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh! She dresses up in a delivery boy costume and walks right into his house/offices in broad daylight.
posted by mochapickle at 8:35 PM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was also going to say the horse drawn carriage thing. Note that in Madame Bovary she kind of had to be tricked into thinking this was something a respectable woman would do.
posted by xammerboy at 10:12 PM on April 13, 2018

Wow, these are great answers! I'm working with a few to see what'll fit my story and my characters, but these are all so interesting, you could build an entire short story around almost any one of them!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:56 AM on April 14, 2018

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