Seduced by the Coachman and Other Stories of Love in the Time of Victoria

by | August 18, 2021 | General | 2 comments

Welcome to part 2—the juicy part–of my discussion of Francoise Barret-Ducrocq’s Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality and Desire Among Working-Class Men and Women in 19th Century London. As I mentioned last month, Barret-Ducrocq revealed the sexual culture of city folk of modest means by studying the application files of the Thomas Coram Foundling Hospital in London from the 1850s through the 1880s.

“Application files” sounds pretty dull, but in fact the mission of the foundling hospital—to raise the illegitimate children of women of “good character” and not prostitutes—meant that they required a detailed history of the love affair that led to the conception of the child. One of the many surprises of the book is that the interviewers at the hospital, as well as employers and families of the women, were not as harsh in their moral judgments as Victorian literature and drama seem to indicate was the norm. For as we know, in Victorian novels and plays, where a character always reaps what she sows, a woman who has sex out of wedlock must die a miserable death in a filthy alley, spurned by all.

Instead, in many ways these stories of girl-meets-boy follow a familiar path, give or take a cell phone. Often the women met their lovers in the course of their duties as maidservants or shop girls.

Here’s how Emma J., a hosiery worker, met the father of her child on a Sunday afternoon while taking a walk with her stepmother, a laundress. “The young man, a butcher’s assistant—and evidently a persuasive talker—accompanied them to their door, entertaining them with jokes, and managed to arrange a further meeting with Emma while her stepmother was present: We walked together on this occasion and these walks were repeated. About Xmas he visited me in the presence of my parents and proposed marriage, saying he should like to settle and go to America.” (Love in the Time of Victoria, 88)

Emma’s charming lover ended up going to America without her, but the majority of the relationships followed the usual ritual: first people were “speaking,” then they were “walking out together,” then later, when mutual attraction was confirmed, they would “keep company.” (Love, 86). The next step was sexual intimacy with marriage expected if the woman got pregnant. The promise of marriage was enough because a man’s word was binding—at least in principle. Barret-Ducrocq reports that more than three quarters of the relationships lasted longer than six months.

However, a portion of the applicants became pregnant as a result of a short-term amorous adventure. Susan W. was seduced by the coachman in the household where she worked as a maid. The other servants reportedly put him up to it because Susan “was too much of a lady” and they wanted to bring her down a peg. (Love, 96).

Nancy S. gave in to temptation wile standing against a wall in alley after a few drinks at a music hall and Sarah M., a kitchen maid, was engaged to the butcher’s boy who brought meat to her employer’s every day. They were intimate in the kitchen where she worked. (Love, 99) Other venues included the home of the woman’s parents when the house was empty, a shop storeroom, the stables, a garden in January, or the passengers’ box of a hired Hansom cab. (Love, 103-105)

Particularly evocative were the love letters that the applicants were asked to submit for the file, now preserved in the archives. These letters functioned as a text does today, to set up a time and place for a rendezvous.

“I begin to think you are right in saying absence makes the heart grow fonder and not as I thought stronger. Indeed I find my heart gets every day fonder and more feeble on your account.”

“All my love to you my own dearest Judy, I remain your true and devoted lover and soon husband…”

“I accept the kisses you sent in your note with pleasure and will return with interests on friday [sic] night althou I would rather had them from your lips than your hands.” (Love, 118-120)

While many working-class couples did marry when the woman became pregnant, the foundling hospital is the repository of love stories with mostly sad endings—the lover ran off to America or Australia or in some cases died. After the Poor Law Reform of 1834, men in Britain were no longer liable for support of their illegitimate children, so the seducer might even be found closer to home, with an existing wife and family. (Love, 177)

Fortunately, some endings were not so bleak. One woman retrieved her child from the foundling hospital after a month because her aunt and uncle discovered the situation and agreed to raise the child. Another persuaded the mother of her lover to raise her grandson. Rather than banish a disgraced housemaid, some employers kept her on through her pregnancy and rehired her after her confinement. And many employers gave the woman high character references in spite of their “misstep,” thus paving the way for the child to be cared for at the foundling hospital. Thus we see that real-life Victorians were much more forgiving than the official morality. This empathy rather than harsh judgment is certainly something to keep in mind for a writer of historical fiction—we needn’t fall into the trap of the Victorian moralists of insisting others do as we say and not as we do!

I’ll let Barret-Ducrocq herself have the final words on love in the time of Victoria:

For the time being, though, we should be content to let the archives speak, and thus contribute to a never-ending task which is a precondition for human progress: the effort to keep the past alive so that later generations can learn from it, and measure themselves against it. It is an ordinary paradox of history that, through a new reversal of values in sexual morality, the young Europeans of the late twentieth century have much more in common with these dropouts from Victorian society—these artisans, these domestics who disappeared abruptly in the aftermath of the First World War—than with the contemporary moralists who slandered them with such total conviction. (Love, 181)

Write on!

(“Two Lovers” by Thomas Bridgeford courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).


Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at:  


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Fascinating, Donna!

    One does have to wonder what logic was used in 1834 to free men from the responsibility of supporting their offspring.

  2. Donna George Storey

    Thanks, Lisabet! It is a mystery why the 1834 law was drafted that way, but another factor was indeed the mobility afforded by the opportunity to move overseas that didn’t exist earlier.

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