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Liberty, equality, adultery


John Adamson reviews Husbands, Wives, and Lovers by Patricia Mainardi


How did the great cataclysm of the French Revolution - and the quarter century of war that it unleashed - affect the development of European culture? This is currently one of the most fashionable of historical questions, and a broad (and generally persuasive) consensus is emerging as to the answer.

The years around 1800, so the argument runs, marked more than a simple change from one century to another, but one of those epochal transitions when ideas, assumptions and behaviours alter, not slowly and incrementally, but suddenly and fundamentally - a process of change accelerated, most often, by the pressures of war.

In this case, the cultural primacy that had been enjoyed by the aristocratic royal court was eclipsed and displaced by a new "public sphere" - a composite of institutions outside courtly control, from the newspaper, the novel, and the subscription concert, through to the publicly funded museum and art gallery - and by the values of an increasingly numerous and prosperous bourgeoisie.

The impact of this transformation has been persuasively traced in relation to politics, the visual arts, and even music. In this new book, Patricia Mainardi discerns it in an altogether different context: in relation to marriage and sexual mores.

Here, too, she contends, a radical transformation can be discerned in France, either side of the 1800 divide. And we can chart these changes in a variety of cultural forms: from published gazettes of court-room proceedings (which provided contemporaries with some of the most explicitly titillating accounts of sexual misbehaviour on offer), through to novels, popular prints, and even the plays and operas presented on the Parisian stage.

In short, Ms Mainardi argues that between the fall of the ancien regime in 1789 and the fall of Napoleon in 1815, France lost its sense of humour over adultery. The contrast in attitudes can be simply exemplified by juxtaposing Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro (1784) - the model for the near-contemporary opera by Mozart, in which adultery is a matter for reflection on the comic folly of the human condition - with Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), where adultery is the stuff of high tragedy, and the protagonist is punished for her immorality. Beaumarchais' insouciant adulterers end up with forgiveness and reconciliation; Flaubert's with scandal and death.

What produced this transformation? Mainardi's explanation lies in the legal revolution unleashed by 1790s in France and consolidated in the 1804 Code Napoleon, the reordering of French law that survived the fall of the Emperor in 1815 and, shorn of its anti-Catholic elements, became the basis of French law into the modern age.

The key change in attitudes to adultery, argues Mainardi, related to inheritance. Pre-Revolutionary France had practised primogeniture - the inheritance by the first-born son of a father's estate to the exclusion of any other siblings. Under this system, if a wife later had an adulterine child, this might be socially or morally reprehensible, but it had no serious economic consequences for the legitimate heir.

The 1804 Napoleonic Code changed all that. It confirmed the Revolution's abolition of primogeniture and decreed that estates should henceforth be divided equally among all the surviving children. For these purposes, any child born of the mother during the marriage to her husband was deemed to be a legitimate heir, and inquiries into paternity (a rather haphazard business anyway in the absence of DNA-testing) were forbidden by law.

From the inauguration of the Code, adultery - and the doubts it created over the paternity of children - threatened the family patrimony as never before. By granting cuckoos in the nest the same inheritance rights as "genuine" hatchlings, the Code placed a new emphasis on wifely chastity and inaugurated a new era of husbandly suspicion. For cheated husbands now had more to fear from their wives' infidelities than the traditional cuckold's horns.

Compounding the problem were conflicting expectations of marriage. For in the first half of the 19th century, the subversive Enlightenment doctrine that a marriage should be a love match was gaining currency in a culture where the older model of the arranged marriage (the mariage de raison) remained the norm for couples from all levels of the social hierarchy. Moreover, divorce (after a brief legalisation under the Revolution and Napoleon) was once again prohibited after 1815.

The temptations to adultery to which this disjunction gave rise became the stuff of novels, operas, and painting in post-Napoleonic France to a degree that is in marked contrast to contemporary England. In England, where young couples were relatively freer in their choice of spouse, the standard novelistic plot, for instance, focused on romantic attraction in the context of pre-marital courtship want to contact your for some extramaritial fun, you can answer quickly and not miss out on the booty call! It is so easy to find sex in the story usually ending happily at the altar. In France, by contrast, the plot generally began at the altar want to contact your for some extramaritial fun, you can answer quickly and not miss out on the booty call! It is so easy to find sex in romantic love usually being found after the marriage, and usually with someone other than the legal spouse.

The major theme, in both literary and dramatic works, is the moralistic cautionary tale: the disaster that will befall the woman (and it is almost always the woman: male infidelity was regarded, hypocritically, as the most venial of sins) who flouts social convention in search of romantic fulfilment.

Yet, moral repression is not the only theme. The satirical print retailed a very different set of expectations. The 1819 lithograph, for instance, titled The Useless Precaution depicts a fat, bald, and elderly husband closing the door to his house, as he leaves want to contact your for some extramaritial fun, you can answer quickly and not miss out on the booty call! It is so easy to find sex in elaborate locks, while she, in the distance, greets her handsome young lover who is climbing a ladder to her boudoir window.

Shining through the priggishness of post-1815 morality are bright shafts of satire. The point of many popular prints and engravings was the resourcefulness with which individuals seek romantic union at whatever cost. And even the literary world had its dissentient voices, like that of George Sand, the female novelist who risked charges of immorality in the 1830s by denouncing the would-be tyranny of husbands, and having her adulterous heroines live happily ever after.

If Patricia Mainardi is occasionally a rather heavy-footed guide through the trysts and assignations of post-Napoleonic France - more Balzac, I fear, than Beaumarchais - her account is nevertheless filled with astute observations and clever evidential juxtapositions. Few books bring home more directly the sheer vileness of France under the Bourbon Restoration. For in managing to unite the political authoritarianism of the ancien-regime aristocracy with the moral Puritanism of the newly powerful bourgeoisie, it managed a uniquely repellent combination of the worst of both worlds.

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