Presented in a series of three dialogues, “A Dialogue Between A Married Lady And A Maid” is an amatory classic from 1740. Innocent Octavia is about to marry her beloved. It is up to Tullia, an older, married woman, to explain the mysteries of marriage. Although this book discusses marital relations, the way in which the matters are discussed makes it more likely than not that this book most likely served as a marriage guide for nervous newlyweds who otherwise would not have understood how to interact on their wedding night.
Warnings: sexist attitudes, dubcon, underage
A Dialogue Between a Married Lady and a Maid, also known as The School of Women, is an erotic novella, which was written in Latin in 1660 and later translated and circulated in English and French almost a century later in 1740. It is a beautifully poetic example of 17th century erotica, and while it is rather short, it spares no details and packs in a lot of action in its pages. Part coming of age story, part porn with some lesbian undertones, and part instructional manual of sorts for marital relations, this is a work that is fascinating, if not exactly titilating by today’s standards, to read.
This is some really really old prose, and depending on the translation you read, it may be quite difficult to read. The version that I read seems to have been scans from a fairly early translation which interchanges the letter S with F a lot of the time so I had a lot of trouble reading many of its sentences. Once you get past that however, it is a fairly sweet little story of a nervous young bride’s very first sexual experiences. There isn’t a whole lot to the story; it is told over the course of a dialoge between the two women, Tullia and Octavia, as they talk to each other about their sexual experiences with their husbands. Tullia is older and experienced and she first tells Octavia about her wedding night to ease her worries, and later Octavia fills her in about her own.
A short piece such as this is, the characters aren’t exactly well rounded or personified. No, we never get to know Octavia or Tullia with any kind of depth, and yes they could easily be swapped with any other characters. However, the emotionality of it can more prominently be found in the relatability of the memory of being young and nervous about one’s first sexual encounters. While it certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, women talking to each other about sex and sexual experiences and thereby having vicarious experiences together is an aspect of female sexuality that doesn’t actually get showcased very often. There is a connectiveness between them that the author brings out which I found really quite charming as they were both eager to hear about each other’s exploits.
There’s no worldbuilding present, so instead I’ll talk a little bit about it’s supposed sexual ethics. The author could seem to be attempting to be some form of “feminist” for his time period. Others have pointed out that the author’s focus on the pleasure of the wives and the portrayal of them experiencing joy in their sexual encounters was quite progressive, as was the related conversation between Octavia and her husband wherine he tells her that the ideal wife is not only beautiful but also well read and sharp witted. This, I suppose, would contrast with the general wisdom of the time that all a woman is good for is her looks, but from a modern perspective the notion that women exist to be “ideal wives” in the first place is still a pretty sexist idea. Also, there are claims that this novella was intended to be an educational manual for newlyweds, but I have my doubts as to that claim, personally. I think if anything is a universal and timeless feature of human creative expression, it’s pornography, and it’s foolish to try to explain it away like it was a feminist manifesto or a sex ed tool to repress our embarassment at it’s subject matter. Ultimately I think it’s simple a snapshot of a time period, and it’s unclear exactly what we can derive from it for certain, but the pondering is interesting.
The biggest disappointment that I had with this is that it is rather overwhelmingly straight. This is not how a lot of the descriptions of the book make it sound, instead emphasizing Tullia and Octavia’s conversation and the flirtatious way that Tullia says she will “instruct” Octavia in the ways of sexual pleasure. There is a brief bit where they show each other their genitals but otherwise, it is completely about them talking about sex with their respective husbands. There is an undercurrent of the sensual between them, perhaps some longing on the part of the author to have a peek into forbidden girl on girl interactions, like the fantasy about women having sexy pillow-fights during sleepovers. But ultimately, they are both straight as boards, and the sex described is incredibly vanilla to boot. There is a brief mention of light whipping, very very brief, and the author (like many old timey porn authors) also apparently had little idea how female pleasure works, and frankly it was mostly boring.
A fascinating read on a historical level, it is a rather unexciting read on an erotic level. I enjoyed the parsing of it, and in the rather humorous little experience of sexuality from the 17th century and their sexual expressions, but I ultimately found it to be a bit of a letdown after the descriptions that I had read of it, which had led me to believe it would be much more lesbian leaning and feature much more flagellation. It was worthwhile however just for the sake of knowing that much more about historical erotica, and for that I rather enjoyed it.
Have you read A Dialogue Between a Married Lady and a Maid? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!