Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Research Wednesday: Performance

Not all or even most of my research posts are going to be about sex and how our ancestors thought and spoke about it. Yet it's an interesting topic because (almost) everybody does it, (almost) everybody cares about it, but it's hedged around with taboos in a way that other universal interests, like, say, eating and drinking, just aren't. Which leads to, among other things, euphemism--the subject of today's post.

While researching the Duke of Wellington, who's an important secondary character in my current manuscript, I ran across the following quote from a letter to his older brother William, lamenting the fact that their oldest brother Richard, Marquess Wellesley, was the subject of gossip and scandal for his sexual adventures: "I wish that Wellesley was castrated; or that he would like other people attend to his business & perform too. It is lamentable to see Talents & character & advantages such as he possesses thrown away upon Whoring." So have sex=perform. A handy euphemism, in that it's perfectly clear yet innocuous-sounding, and useful to the researcher insofar as vocabulary sheds another bit of light on how people of the 18th and 19th centuries thought about sex. Also, it's another example of the formality of the era--Wellington wasn't going to call his brother "Richard," even within the family, when he had a perfectly good title to use instead.

All this is the tiniest level of detail, of course, and maybe it doesn't mean much in the grand sweep of history. But it's those little details that make the past come alive for me as a writer and researcher.

No comments:

Post a Comment