A keen understanding of the evolution of women’s rights allows us to understand our female characters as they lived in their era. A misstep we sometimes take is viewing the past through today’s prism. We are much more enlightened than our ancestors, borne of accumulated experiences and the hard work done by the strong women who fought so we might, for instance, vote and enjoy the rights we have today.

Prior to the 19th century, laws strictly dictated a woman’s behavior, as well as their right to property. Ever gallant, men of the era protected the “delicate sensibilities” of the ladies in polite society by preventing them from the “vulgarities” of traveling in the funeral procession or attending funerals, even those for close family members. Reflecting on such a dictate makes one wonder if the women of the day balked at such a notion, especially as their closest relations passed on.  

In 1848, New York passed the Married Women’s Property Act which bolstered the rights of married women to own property. At last, women had the agency to conduct business on their own behalf, assume ownership of gifts they received, and file lawsuits. The 1860 Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife acknowledged “mothers as joint guardians of their children.” This allowed married women the legal authority over their own sons and daughters. Can you imagine that such a law needed to be enacted?

Over time, other states emulated and improved upon New York’s laws, which proved a boon for women. By 1900, married women gained significant control over their property. The suffragette’s work culminated on August 18, 1920, when the right to vote gave women a voice in their own destinies. Women still needed their husband’s signature in all financial matters, until the 1970s, when they attained the right to have a credit card in their own name.

The patriarchal society of the past began to crumble as women sought their rightful place in all matters. What a shame it would be if we, as authors, forgot about the struggles of our long passed sisters, and portrayed them with 21st century attitudes and actions. As a writer of historical fiction, I feel compelled to depict my characters, male and female, as they existed in history.

Were there feisty, kick-ass women before the twentieth century? Of course. But overall, most women lived within the laws and expectations of their time. They also dealt with ideas of propriety, held dear by those elders still living. One need search no further than Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey to understand how dearly they held Victorian values. Remember, Lady Grantham is completely entrenched in the prior century. This exchange sums up this point:

Lady Mary: “I was only going to say that Sybil is entitled to her opinions.”
Lady Grantham: “No, she isn’t, until she is married. And then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”

This encapsulates the attitudes so deeply ingrained in our ancestral sisters. Though laws slowly changed, the elders reinforced the subservient stance of women. As they passed on, a more youthful view took hold, but with a painfully slow transformation. I remember a great deal of male dominance in my childhood home in the 1960s. Father ruled the roost, Mother did as my father told her. Believe me, she had no choice, defiance wasn’t an option. Like other men of his time, he denied her authority over her children. I asked permission once to attend play practice at the high school, and she gave permission, as my father wasn’t home. When I got home, he grounded me, because I hadn’t called him, at work, to ask permission. “Asking your mother is equal to asking your brother.”

I remember the days when women lived this way, though certainly not as restricted as in the 19th century, but restricted nonetheless. I use those memories to construct female characters who, like my mother, are subjected to authoritarian rules, with one big difference. My father’s attitudes toward a woman’s place wasn’t based in law, but in his own upbringing. He emulated what he lived, as did most men throughout history.

As the elders aged and died, so did their antiquated ways. The prevailing attitudes caught up with the laws, and we are better for that.

I’ve heard the unflattering phrase, “too stupid to live” assigned to female characters in historical fiction and romance, who are portrayed as subjects of their father’s, brother’s, or husband’s dictates. They don’t, in any meaningful way, fight back, but accept their place as fact. As a writer, I find this phrase disheartening. These characters behave according to the customs, laws, and mores of their times. Yes, they eventually find comfortable circumstances, but they all are aware that they are the anomaly of their time.

Should we read historical fiction or historical romance, and expect that every female character has 21st century sensibilities? I say no. We either write true to the era, or we’ve simply created a costume drama, with little to associate it with reality.

As a reader, I want reality in character portrayal. That means a female character learns to live within expectations, and if she’s clever enough, she might learn to circumvent some of them. That reality didn’t make the women of the past stupid, and it certainly doesn’t make well-crafted characters stupid either. Realistic? Yes. Full of promise, yes. After all, women have molded men to their will for centuries. I want to believe that women inspired the changes in laws, after they convinced the men the idea was theirs.

Understanding the centuries-long struggle is essential to understanding true characterizations in historical fiction and romance. I remain firmly in the ‘portray women within the restrictions of their times’ camp. Otherwise, we’re simply creating 21st century women in costume.

About Brita Addams

Prompted by her love of history, writer of historical fiction and historical romance, Brita Addams has tromped around old cemeteries and dusty town hall basements for over twenty years as a non-professional genealogist. She’s uncovered some juicy stories about her ancestors that may or may not have already found their way into her writing. For several years, she lectured on genealogy aboard cruise ships, as part of their Enrichment Programs.

Having grown up in blustery Upstate New York, Brita has lived in the sultry South for many years. She has a loving, supportive family, including her native New Orleanian husband, who makes killer gumbo and potato salad. After years in the Big Easy, she and her husband moved to the Frog Capital of the World (yes, that’s a thing,) to be closer to two of their three grown children.

She is Grammie to grandpuppy, Fiona, a maltipoo who has stolen her Grammie’s heart, as well as a treasured grandson and granddaughter. She never misses a chance to relate stories of the past to her grandchildren, as she celebrates life everyday, well aware of how fragile life is.  

On her website and blog, readers will find a complete listing of her works. http://britaaddams.net

A fascinating article worth the keep in our Historical Tidbit section of letter locking.

Mary Queen of Scots was far from the only person who was skilled in the art of “letterlocking” – the technique became common throughout Europe during the Late Middle Ages (1250-1500) and Early Modern periods (1500-1815). By folding and cutting letters in various clever patterns, people attempted to hide their correspondence from unwanted readers, and the “locks” came in myriad types.”This isn’t something special that people do on special occasions. This is how you send a letter before the envelope is invented,” explains Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in Early Modern English literature at King’s College London. “So, if it’s a business letter, if it’s a love letter, if it’s a spy letter, if it’s a diplomatic letter, they’re all using letterlocking. So it’s not something confined to experts, royalty or spy masters. Anyone who is capable of sending a letter is using letterlocking.”

Source: The clever folds that kept letters secret – BBC Future

Extensive article on the subject and great read.

During the Regency and into the Victorian era, the London social season was particularly busy from April to the end of June, but events were held throughout the winter, starting when Parliament returned in late January and included military reviews, dinner parties, and charity events, and went on to the end of July. Débutante (French for female beginner) balls were a highlight, hosted at the grand houses of the aristocracy. Lord Byron referred to these galas as marriage marts, because it was the best venue for young ladies to encounter possible suitors.

Source: “Coming Out” During the Early Victorian Era; about debutantes | Kate Tattersall Adventures

Rolla by Henri de Gervex (1852-1929) in the Musee Beaux-Arts, BordeauxUninhibited sexual pleasure in the city of love during the 19th century could cause a 21st-century woman’s cheeks to blush.  Prostitution and brothels were at their heyday, and they served a purpose to meet the needs of men both rich and poor. After all, marriage was an institution for producing children; prostitutes and mistresses were for pleasure. The brothel was a place of relaxation for men and accepted as normal practice in society.

How many prostitutes were there during this time period? Brothels or mansions of tolerance, as they were called, housed 15,000 prostitutes in 1883. Between 1871 through 1903, approximately 155,000 women were registered card-carrying ladies of pleasure. Women were required to register at the Bureau of Morals if they wished to work in the profession.  Afterward, they received a huge laundry list of regulated behavior for their conduct indoors and outdoors. During that time period, 725,000 were arrested by the police for suspected prostitution because they failed to register with the Bureau.

Jobs were scarce for women and the survival of the poor difficult. Even married women participated in prostitution. There were roughly 125 Paris brothels in business during the 1870s.  Brothels were considered a cleaner and more regulated system of pleasure, keeping individuals from sexual perversion by giving them an alternative to the women on the streets. Women willing to give satisfaction to the male population were rampant on every corner, and like any other morally questionable practice, it carried consequences.

We tend to romanticize all this into lovemaking in historical romance novels without penalty, except perhaps a baby or two out of wedlock. Unfortunately, all those pleasures carried risks, especially contracting syphilis.  How many had the disease? You might wish to sit down. Fourteen to fifteen percent of deaths were attributed to sexually transmitted diseases. Some reports carry it as high as 17%. One-tenth of the population contracted syphilis. You may think that’s not many, but one-tenth of the population equated to four million people. Syphilis was attributed to 40,000 stillbirths yearly, when gone untreated, progressed into a dastardly end. Half of the cases were contracted between the age of 14 and 21. As one report put it, young people could not wait to dispel their chastity.

Treatment for syphilis was inadequate and understanding by the medical community of the disease somewhat lacking. There were hospitals and clinics set up to specifically treat the disease, but many found it embarrassing to seek treatment. Effective treatment really didn’t arrive until approximately 1910 with the onset of better antibiotics. Earlier, Mercury and Potassium iodide were used.

Nowadays, we’re probably a bit more sophisticated when it comes to sex and STDs. After all, we’ve evolved, right? We can insist on blood tests before we hop in bed with a man or use methods of birth control and protection. I guess social progression does have its trade-offs, but I have a sneaking suspicion with the number of historical romances sold each year women would rather fantasize in another century with handsome aristocrats and take their chances. After all, it’s just fiction and not reality.

A history lesson on the gossip columns. Great read.

“Newspapers were plentiful during the Regency Era, with most of the stories published centering on politics, crime, fashion, infidelity, or royal doings,” says Geri Walton, author of Marie Antoinette’s Confidante and regular writer on 18th and 19th-century Europe.

Source: True Story of Lady Whistledown’s Scandal Sheets in ‘Bridgerton’

Recently while researching for my next novel, I did a little searching about the use of handkerchiefs.  Apparently, they had a language of their own just like fans.  This is definitely another interesting tidbit to add to your reality shelves while reading historical romance.  Have you found any books referencing the handkerchief flirt?  Enjoy.

Flirting or coquetry remained an art form throughout the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian Eras, and handkerchiefs and flirting language became all the rage.

Source: Handkerchiefs and Flirting Language – Geri Walton

“Centuries before legal divorce was accessible, selling your partner to someone else allowed working-class couples to be publicly separate.”

Source: A brief history of when men sold their wives at market, and why some women enthusiastically consented to it – inews.co.uk

Here’s an interesting trope for a Historical Romance novel. I wondered if anyone has tried weaving this historical tidbit into a tantalizing book, and apparently, they have (see below).  Read all about it. Men who sold their wives.

‘The options available were to grin and bear it, try and get an annulment (tricky), desertion, bigamy, or to tie a rope around their neck and sell them at market to the highest bidder’  Read more at iNews/UK.

To read more about divorce laws, here’s a refresh on a previous post I wrote some time ago:  AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER

Years ago, I stumbled across the book Victorian Women by Joan Perkin and realized that it was a treasure chest of information about the Victorian era and the challenges Victorian women faced.
Studying the contents has been an eye-opening experience. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in moving beyond the romance of the era and into reality. What is unique about the book, is that it contains text from women who lived during that time period, expressing what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world. Joan Perkins includes the lives of all women, in the upper class, middle class, and working-class, to give the reader a complete picture. To be a woman in the Victorian era was frankly unromantic. Here are a few of the many items that I found informative:
  • The importance of class and gender in the Victorian era played a large role in a woman’s life. A quotation from Alexander Walker, a physiologist, in the mid-1800s had this to say about women. “It is evident that the man, possessing reasoning faculties, muscular power, and courage to employ it, is qualified for being a protector: the woman, being little capable of reasoning, feeble, and timid, requires protection. Under such circumstances, the man naturally governs; the woman as naturally obeys.” The general male opinion regarding the female sex was void of respect. Women, however, as general, didn’t buy into the fact that they were inferior to the male species. Wives who only gave birth to girls were considered failures in their marriages. A male child was considered far better not only to produce an heir for the upper class but to produce workers for the family of the working-class.
  • No formal schooling existed for children until the eighteen-eighties. Upper-class women were taught at home by governesses and tutors. The middle-upper class taught their children at home or paid for private schooling or boarding school. The lower-class women were self-taught or remained illiterate. I am astonished from my own ancestry research on my family in the Manchester, UK area in the nineteenth century how many of my ancestors put an “X” as their mark on documents such as marriage certificates.
  • On one spectrum, the Victorian era was one of prudish ideals. Sex, menstruation, and masturbation were never discussed in the upper and middle classes. Most women entered marriage completely ignorant regarding sexual relations or the female reproduction system. Sex was considered a marital duty in order to produce children and should never be a pleasurable experience for a woman. Ignorance was a means used to keep daughters pure until marriage.
  • Up until the age of 21, men and women needed parental consent to marry. Marriage for the upper classes, of course, was arranged for wealth and power. Charlotte Bronte thought that romantic awakening was romantic folly. Women shouldn’t fall in love till the offer of marriage had been given, the wedding ceremony over, and the first half-year of marriage had passed. Middle-class women married men that received their parents’ approval. Finding a husband could be difficult. In eighteen fifty-one, there were 500,000 more women than men in England, and by nineteen-eleven, the number rose to 1.5 million.
  • The lower-class women lived entirely different lives. In the 19th century over a third of women were pregnant when they got married. The farming community “indulged freely in fornication and adultery.”
  • A double standard existed in all three classes. Men were not criticized for fornication or illicit sex before or during a marriage, but women were held to different rules.
  • The mortality rates were astounding in childbirth. One in two hundred women died giving birth. Most women had an average of nine children. There were crude and ineffective means of birth control, and abortion was a crime. Many poor women, however, attempted to abort babies and died in the process.
  • Once married, a woman’s property belonged to a man. Any wages a woman earned during the marriage belonged to her husband. It wasn’t until eighteen-eighty-two that an Act of Parliament finally gave a married woman the right to her property at the time of marriage or earned during the marriage.
  • Underpants were not worn before the eighteen-forties. Now you know.
  • There are interesting chapters regarding what women did during the Victorian era regarding entertainment and domestic life for all classes.
  • We romanticize the Victorian era far too much. A wife was the property of the husband. Once again, the double standard held where he could be unfaithful, but the wife could not. Divorce came by Private Acts of Parliament before eighteen-fifty-seven and was very costly and difficult to obtain. Men could divorce their wives for adultery; women could not divorce only on the grounds of adultery, but it had to be accompanied by either physical cruelty, bigamy, or incest. Custody of children went to the fathers, and the rights to see the children after a divorce could be curtailed or forbidden for the mother.
  • The husband had the right “to give moderate correction” if she did not obey. Wife abuse occurred in all classes of society. Women had very little recourse against husbands who beat them and leaving was often not an option. Not until eighteen-seventy-eight were women able to separate from abusive husbands and receive some type of maintenance from their spouses. Because divorce was difficult to obtain, married partners would often separate and go their way. Alternatives would be living with another lover out of wedlock or committing bigamy.
  • Most women outlived their husbands by many years, and widowhood for women in all classes could be a devastating and difficult time. One in four individuals over sixty-five were considered paupers and ended up their lives in workhouses or asylums. Unless they had family members who could afford to care for them, widows needed to turn to other means in order to support themselves. If they were savvy enough, they may take in boarders, clean houses, or find other menial jobs in order to survive.
  • There were a growing number of women who preferred spinsterhood rather than marriage because they were free to handle their money, make their decisions, and keep their illegitimate children. Middle-class women had more opportunities to pursue skilled jobs, but they were paid a pittance in comparison to their male counterparts. Lower-class women often worked long hours in factories and other jobs, and sometimes resorted to prostitution.
The book is filled with many details from women of the past that will shock you regarding the hardships and inequality they faced. However, there are truly inspirational stories, too, about those women who worked to bring about equality and change for women.
As an author, I realize that I am guilty of writing about an era and purposely ignoring the hardships that Victorian women endured. Perhaps as modern ladies, we are merely enamored by men in ascots who look dashing, rich, and handsome. We love our dukes and titled men, the fancy houses, and the lavish lifestyles and fashions. These are the fantasy men we have chosen to fall in love with between the pages, and the lovers we have given our heroines.
However, the aristocracy of England during the Victorian era only accounted for two percent of the population. Another small percentage included the upper-middle-class, which consisted of fifteen percent of the population. These were families such as businessmen and tradesmen, who could adequately support their families.
To write about the other eighty-three percent of the population would be depressing to most readers. Frankly, I do not think that women care to read about suffering women in romance books. I know when I wrote about the hardships of one poor French woman in eighteen-seventy in my first book, The Price of Innocence, I was severely criticized in reviews for writing a “miserable story.” However, let’s be honest with ourselves. Lives for women during that time period were for the most part miserable, which thankfully gave rise to changes in law and attitudes.

 

 

“Suppose then that this first and vital standing order for the toilet be stringent, and that refreshed, and therefore energetic, buoyant, and conscious of one duty being at least performed, the lady leaves her bed and prepares to dress.”  The Habits of Good Society

What duty? A good night’s sleep, of course. I suppose you could call it the need for beauty sleep in a rested young lady.

I am continuing to read through “The Habits of Good Society,” yawning here in there but also dropping my mouth open at some of the recommendations. Hang onto your Victorian hat, because here comes the next installment of life in 1872 England.

The second order of business, after getting out of bed, is the bath, which once again is reiterated regarding the healthy type to take to balance circulation and maintain the skin. After the bath, a lady moved onto the necessity of personal grooming of the skin, face, and hair.

Her great-grandmother, however, wore powder and only dressed her hair three times a week. She rarely washed her face because it was bad for her complexion, but merely dabbed it with a cloth. Apparently, they were afraid of cold water. Filtered rainwater is suggested in 1872 to be the best moisture for the complexion.

After the bath, the woman sits at her “toilet table,” which contains everything neatly arranged for her use. (Once again, in the Victorian mind, everything has a place and is the order of the day!) The author notes that having a pale complexion was at one time the mark of beauty and somewhat continues to be the preference of some women. “Pearly whiteness” of skin in this time period was enhanced by “pearl powder.” The use thereof is stated to be unhealthy because it clogged the pores, and if not applied correctly, was noticeable. Let’s face it, we still see a bit of clumpy powder on our faces now and then. Of course, the more one aged, the deeper the lines upon the face became, necessitating the additional application of powder. Eventually, it would turn into a clumpy and undesirable state of affairs.

The thought of the day is that the extravagant use of cosmetics was evil, according to the author, who doesn’t think it’s a moral question but a physical one. Good skin should be attained by rest, exercise, and a healthy diet. If you were prone to occasional “eruptions” (which are pimples), it could be very stressful. The author states, however, to avoid such frequent occurrences that you should not rub or touch your skin unnecessarily, get fresh air, stay out of the intense heat, use pure water, and sparingly use cosmetics. Not bad advice for 1872, considering it closely adheres to twenty-first-century practices for the control of eruptions (a much kinder word, I think, than pimple).

Brace yourself for hair care. The practice of some with thick hair was only brushed and not wash, which led to smelly heads. It was not the author’s preference, who focuses on the puritanical view of Victorian cleanliness. Brushing alone was not recommended. To cleanse hair, the best possible solutions are noted below. In addition, a lady’s hair should be dressed twice a day (meaning styled), but taken down during the middle of the day for a thorough brushing.

“Wash the roots of the hair from time to time with weak vinegar and water, or with a solution of ammonia, cleanses it effectually, whilst a yolk of an egg beaten up and mixed with warm water is excellent for the skin and hair; bit it is troublesome to wash out, and must be done by a careful maid.”

Whether this concoction was used by all, I have no idea. However, the thought of ammonia and its smell had to leave a residue behind. I suppose the yolk of a beaten egg might eliminate the odor. The author seems to think that any scents applied to the hair itself are injurious.

I am finally gathering that the anonymous author must be male, which I think lends to a few of his slanted views. Where he gets his information regarding best practices for the feminine toilet routine is unknown. Frankly, I don’t think I’ll be searching my kitchen stash of cleaners, along with vinegar, to wash my hair any time soon. Thank goodness for Pantene.

Contributed by Vicki Hopkins, Author

“In the beginning of the present century (19th), it was thought proper for a gentleman to change his undergarment three times a day, and the washing bill of a beau comprised seventy shirts, thirty cravats, and pocket-handkerchiefs at discretion.” (Quote from The Habits of Good Society 1872)

The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies and Gentlemen,” continues on the subject Pears'Soap02of particular interest mostly because of the stories I’ve read about poor hygiene in centuries past. However, when it came to the Regency and Victorian era, the upper class deemed it important as a sign of good character. Not only cleanliness was a duty for the sake of health and being agreeable to one’s neighbor, but it also went hand-in-hand with obeying the scriptures as a means of exemplifying purity. Poor personal habits by an individual who neglected his body were a sure sign of weak character.

The Victorians in 1872, however, thought Beau Brummell’s idea of taking two hours to dress was a bit ludicrous. However, if you dressed in ten minutes’ time, surely you’ve neglected the important matters of the toilet through your speedy actions.

The bath, recommended after waking in the morning, focused on the type one took. There were a variety of baths at varying temperatures. The most cleansing bath came from warm water of 96° to 100°. If you were filthy, 108° was better, as it expanded the pores, increased circulation, and did a better job.  Then there was the cold bath of 60° to 70° that should be avoided by persons who cannot tolerate it and is extremely dangerous after eating. A tepid bath of 85° to 95° is the safest. Shower baths were frowned upon because they did not focus on the health of the individual. Then there is the sponge bath as the last means of cleansing that could adequately do the job if a regular bath was unavailable.

The next duty of the Victorian is to clean the teeth, as there is nothing so terrible as being near an individual with poor breath and black teeth – especially a woman. The usual recommendation of avoiding sweets and smoking were taught by dentists. The writer recommends hard bristle toothbrushes with tooth powder. A little water, with a good lather, will do the job. (I guess by this time, we’ve progressed beyond the twigs and chalk of the Regency era.) The mouth should be rinsed seven times with cold water, and one should brush several times a day. After all, a woman can tell when a man has been drinking and smoking, which was deemed offensive in the opposite sex. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how attractive the man appears — if he has foul breath it is unforgiving. At least now when you read a historical romance in the Victorian era, you can be assured that the hero’s kiss upon the lips of the heroine didn’t include a mouthful of bad breath.

The advice continues with grooming for the nails, hair, beards, makeup, and other matters regarding the lady’s toilet.  Since I don’t have a beard, I’ll probably skim those paragraphs.