There are several scenes in my recent novel “A Most Unusual Situation” that involve men clustering around the heroine, Allegra, and flirting with her, although she is a married woman. One or two of them even can be found in her boudoir as she dresses for a party, and acting as her escort, in the absence of her husband, the Duke of Gravesmere. 18th century marriages were rarely made for reasons of affection, particularly in the upper classes where considerations of property, wealth and influence transmission trumped personal feelings. As a result, it was quite common for society matrons to have such gallants, and there is an entertaining Italian word that was much in vogue at the time to describe one, a “cicisbeo,” pronounced “chee-cheess-BEH-oh.”
There are a number of 18th century paintings featuring cicisbei – yes that is the plural. Here are few that can be found in an online search. Interestingly, all of these gentlemen are wearing red coats; I know little about the symbology 18thc. art, but it seems likely that this is saying something about the nature of the relationships, although the women in two of these works are being chaperoned by other ladies. There was also an unwritten rule that women were not to engage in a physical relationship with another gentleman until they had delivered the obligatory heir (and possibly a spare) to their husband.
When reading about cicisbei, it’s difficult not to think of today’s society “walkers,” well dressed, well groomed gentlemen who accompany well heeled socialites to the endless round of charity lunches, balls, galas, etc. when their husbands are busy, or just disinclined to socialize. This entertaining article from the Palm Beach paper, quotes one well known walker, "It made me look like an opportunist, and I'm anything but," sniffs Kooluris, sipping iced tea at Testa's in Palm Beach."What I do is a lot of work, really. My job is to make everybody feel important and not steal the show." In Palm Beach, where the only things bigger than bank accounts are egos, this isn't easy.”
The blog, Word of the Gay, also defines walkers, noting that today many walkers are gay men. This was also often the case in the 18th century, and one Parisian noblewoman wrote to a male friend that “Nothing equals the friendly companionship afforded to a woman by men of those persuasions. To the rest of you, so full of yourselves, one can't say a word that you don't take as provocation. Whereas with those gentlemen one knows quite well that they want no more of us than we of them—one feels in no danger and deliciously free." W Magazine published an article recently emphasizing this aspect of “walker culture.”
Allegra, of course, has not yet provided Gravesmere with an heir, and the man who emerges as her most significant cicisbeo is clearly not a man who is “no danger.” In the early 19th century the poet Lord Byron was a famously dangerous cicisbeo of, according to Wikipedia, “Contessa Teresa Gamba Guiccioli. After his death, her second husband, Marquis de Boissy, was known to brag about the fact.”
And since this blog is “A Heyer Love,” it seems appropriate to mention Heyer’s novel, "The Convenient Marriage" in which Horatia, Lady Rule, has another rather dangerous cicisbeo in Lord Lethbridge. I highly recommend this very entertaining tale.