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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 January 2009

Autre Temps, Autre Moeurs

One of the lovely things about knowing lots of historians (an inevitable result of being a lapsed grad student) is getting to hear all about other peoples' research. Over drinks the other day, a friend of mine filled me in on the lurid details of an adultery trial that had taken place in the prim and proper world of mid-nineteenth century Boston. The topic of the incredible importance of reputation arose, not just that of the accused adulterer, but of the unmarried woman who had been dragged to the stand as his, er, partner in crime.

"Think of it," my friend pointed out. "Her reputation was ruined. Who would marry her? Without marriage, what was she to do?"

What, indeed?

Attending an all girls school in the 80’s, I was taught that the definition of ambition was to do whatever the guys did—- only do it better. Sure, there were such things as husbands and children, but snagging Mr. Darcy was viewed as decidedly retrograde. This attitude tends to creep backwards into our opinion of the ladies of the past. Recently, I've noticed heroines in novels undertaking increasingly bizarre occupations. Certainly, there have been women in all time periods who undertook a wide spectrum of activities, from writing scholarly tracts to running successful businesses (another friend wrote a dissertation on late medieval lady merchants), but, for the most part, the measure and means of ambition in the pre-modern world was marriage.

I use the term ambition advisedly. Nowadays, we tend to view marriage as the antithesis of ambition, or, at least, as unrelated to it. But what was an ambitious woman to do in 1803? What were the fastest routes to power and influence? Put quite simply, marriage. Lady Catherine de Burgh wouldn’t wield such influence were she a spinster of the parish; as the widow of a magnate, commanding vast resources she can make the Mr. Collinses of the world cower. Less fictionally, Lady Hertford, Lady Holland, and, in a slightly earlier era, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire were all able to play powerful roles in the politics of their day because of the possibilities placed at their disposal by the marriages they had made.

I dealt with this issue extensively in my last book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. In Crimson Rose, my heroine finds herself in an impossible position. Had she been born in the twentieth century, she would have attended Wharton and been CEO of a company. As it is, her ambition has no other outlet but to marry and to marry as well as she can. As Mary herself muses, in an early chapter, What else, after all, was there to do? She didn’t have it in her to be a bluestocking and write dour tracts. She had no interest in educating other peoples’ brats. The days when a woman could make a career as a royal mistress had long since passed.... Mary had always thought she would make an excellent monarch—the skills required for international diplomacy were much the same as those that Mary used to keep the various members of her entourage in check—but no one had had the consideration to provide her with a kingdom. There was only game to be played so Mary played it and, she had always thought, played it well.

When Mary finds herself balked of the match she had intended to make, it is not her heart that is in danger but her livelihood. With no source of independent income, she will be forced to subsist on the charity of her relatives. The bargain Mary strikes with the hero, offering her services as a spy in exchange for the money to fund another Season, is viewed by both in the nature of a business investment. Mary describes it so herself in discussion with Lord Vaughn, when she likens herself to a “young man who begs the cost of a commission or a sea captain in want of a ship”. In other words, venture capital.

Nor was it only women for whom marriage was the measure of ambition. Despite our modern preconceptions, marrying for money was not a gendered pursuit. The key to the question pertains not to gender, but to class. The aristocratic class was a leisured class, and proud of it. The stigma against work applied to men as well as women, cutting off their alternatives as it did their sisters'. True, the gentlemen did have some extra options open to them. There was the army or the priesthood-- if one could muster the money for a military commission or find someone to provide an ecclesiastical living. But other forms of sustained and gainful employment were as closed to them as to my heroine, unless one were willing to endure the resulting decline in status.

In the end, marrying for money was the preferred choice for many impecunious gentlemen, whether the lady was willing or not. Kidnapping heiresses and forcing them into wedlock became such an industry in the 18th century that in 1753 Parliament passed Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, instituting stringent measures for the legality of marriages, including mandatory parental consent for parties under the age of twenty-one, banns to be called in church, and the acquisition of a marriage license. Since the Act exempted Scotland, a new industry was born across the border: gentlemen would take their heiresses and flee to the Scottish town of Gretna Green, where the marriage laws were less stringent.

In that context, the husband-hunting of nineteenth century set novels takes on a very different complexion. It is not a frivolous pursuit, but a matter of personal advancement, in some cases, even of survival.

21 Comments:

Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

A very interesting and realistic post, Lauren. While I love to read of heroines who break the mold and do something thought impossible for women in the time period, I also love to read of women who do the expected, put their own twist on it and succeed beyond their and everyone else's expectations.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great post, Lauren! I've been wrappping my brain around the same questions for the past several months as I research my nonfiction wip on notorious royal marriages. For most of the brides I cover, it was their raison d’être; 95% of the time their marriage was all about dynasty and destiny, rather than desire. And I've come to a few conclusions about what some of these royal wives/queens/consorts would do to keep their "job" once they attained it.

In fact I'm about to come down closer to the side of the historians who think Katherine of Aragon lied about not consummating her marriage to Arthur (stay tuned for the reasons ... they'll be in my book) than those who are certain she was too devout to tell such a whopper. After all, she was the daughter of Europe's ultimate power couple, who were not averse to risking the possibility of hellfire if it meant achieving their political and diplomatic aims, and the pomegranate didn't fall far...

7:52 AM  
Blogger Blind Fortune by Joanna Waugh said...

Which brings to mind the rescue by American heiresses of countless British noblemen following the economic depression in England during the late 19th century. We can thank the likes of Consuella Vanderbilt et al for the injection of fresh blood both monetarily and physically into the British aristocracy. Just imagine what the world would be like today if Jennie Jerome hadn't married Lord Randolph Churchill!

8:20 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post! I'm fascinated by Hardwicke’s Marriage Act and the changes it brought to elopements, runaway marriages, kidnapping of heiresses, etc. (mostly it cut off a major method for younger sons to improve their lot). At some point I’m going to have to shift back in time to write about the wilder days before the act . . . there are some great real life stories out there about kidnapped and runaway heiresses that just beg for a bit of fictionalization.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Excellent post, Lauren.

One of the ironies of social progress is a concomitant social amnesia. We really have forgotten how to assess the history of women's options. A romance writing friend tells me that editors (editors!) have wondered to her this or that beleaguered Regency doesn't simply "get a job." The situation, of course, is even worse for women who don't see marriage on the horizon -- I recommend the essay "Why Marry Mr. Collins?" in the feminist literary scholar Lillian S. Robinson's collection Sex, Class, and Culture. And consider Anne Elliot of Persuasion. She's 27; her horrid father and sister want to relocate to Bath, which she hates (as did JA) -- and as the novel opens she has no choice but to accompany them.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I can’t say I’m quite as enchanted with Robinson’s writing: “Unlike the true historical novelist (even one writing for women), the Regency romancière does little research.” Then she goes on to basically trash Georgette Heyer by comparing Heyer’s historical fiction unfavorably with Austen’s contemporary work (all the while never acknowledging that Austen was not a writer of historical fiction!). And to top it off she says (some 10 pages on) that she can “imagine no greater waste of energy than an elaborate demonstration that Jane Austen is a better writer than Georgette Heyer”.

Hey, how about you compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges and make an argument about how Austen (a writer who captured her era and captivated her contemporaries) compares with someone who is doing the same today (or who did this again, like Fitzgerald).

And then she really jumps the shark by summing up that female readers search out “trashy novels” to “receive confirmation, and, eventually, affirmation, that love really is what motivates and justifies and woman’s life.”

*jaw on floor*

Thanks for playing, but how thoroughly condensing and self-loathing can you get?

3:18 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Lauren! It's funny, I just got back from the symphony. I tend to listen to orchestral music and think about my books and for some reason tonight during Brahms' 1st, I was imaging scenes in and around Parliament and thinking about how being a political hostess is Mélanie's career and how her career is tied to being married to a politician. Women could play powerful roles in the Regency and other historical eras, but the sphere they moved in was largely dictated by the type of man to whom they were married. Difficult to find a parallel to lawyer Miranda falling in love with bartender Steve and each of them continuing in their separate careers.

One of the many things I loved about "Crimson Rose" was Mary's clear-sightedness about the need to marry for money and how clearly you delineated why that was so important for her. It made the moment when she's ready to throw it over for Vaughn so powerful and deeply romantic.

Austen is a master at showing the ties between economics, love, and marriage. One of the things I liked about the most recent P&P was that Elizabeth genuinely seemed concerned that even her father would think she should marry Mr. Collins. Which made me step back and think about what that marriage would have meant for her family economically.

12:07 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Re Lillian Robinson, Kalen, I didn't recommend the essay you quoted (read it a long time ago but don't remember the name, nor do I remember finding it useful or focused).

The one I recommended was "Why Marry Mr. Collins?" for its painstaking discussions of the political economy of Jane Austen's era in general and Charlotte Lucas Collins' chickens in particular.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Yeah, I know, but I kept reading (big mistake).

7:07 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Interesting post Lauren. Most of my Scandalous Women, if they didn't marry for money, they certainly sought it out in their other careers. Cora Pearl was notorious for bankrupting her lovers. And then there is Queen Christina who famously decided like Queen Elizabeth that she would not marry at all. I was just reading a book about a woman named Emma Gunning who murdered her lover, because he had promised to marry her and reneged. He was a wealthy dentist and she had five children from her previous marriage that she needed to support.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Yeah, I know, but I kept reading (big mistake).

Never a mistake to keep reading, Kalen, :-) but a transgression, imo, not to indicate that you're quoting a different text.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Lauren Willig said...

Elizabeth, we dealt with some nineteenth century promise-of-marriage suits in my law school contract class. Everyone sitting there in that law school classroom in 2003 treated it as rather a joke, but you can certainly see how a couple of centuries before it was anything but!

10:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

In the Tudor era the promise to wed was considered a pre-contract and was as good as a marriage, as far as the law and the Church were concerned. Possible precontracts tripped up Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy, and Kathryn Howard and Francis Dereham.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, I love the way the whole pre-contract business comes into the Ricardian defense of Richard III-- the argument being that Edward IV entered into a precontract with another woman pre Elizabeth Woodville and that therefore Edward V and the little Duke of York were illegitimate anyway, so there was no reason for Richard to murder them in order for the throne to legitimately be his. Pretty neat, huh?

11:56 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Good point about Richard III. He tried everything in the book to de-legitimize his rivals. First he tried to convince people that Edward IV had been a bastard, but no one had bought that old story before and they still weren't biting. Then he tried the pre-Woodville precontract, but the woman in question, Lady Eleanor Butler, was dead anyway and no one had ever bothered to question the validity of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville during its duration, nor had anyone raised the question of the legitimacy of their children during that time. Nevertheless, Richard dredged up the cleric who was allegedly present at the precontract between Edward and Lady Eleanor Butler, who testified to it. I think the Ricardians are delusional.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Lauren Willig said...

My other favorite tactic, after precontracts, was consanguinity-- always a fun way to get a marriage declared invalid!

1:07 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

That's my favorite too Lauren. I just wrote a sidebar in my book proposal about how consanguinity was the all purpose way get out of your marriage free card if you were rich in the Middle Ages. Sort of oopsie, we're too related! Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII used that one, even though Eleanor and her second husband Henry II were even more closely related than her and Louis.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

That's one of my faves, too, because the rampant hypocrisy is so staggering. Clearly, a Pope would issue a bull for anything, if the price was right in financial or diplomatic compensation, an aspect of Church corruption that was conveniently overlooked when monarchs shrieking about reforming the Church needed a favor.

While Henry VIII was thumping his Bible and pointing to Chapter 20 of Leviticus which says that it's a sin for a man to lie with his deceased brother's wife because it was incestuous, he was also seriously considering arranging a marriage between Henry Fitzroy (his bastard son by Bessie Blount) and the Princess Mary (his daughter by Katherine of Aragon) -- who was the boy's half-sister!

EKM, the Eleanor of Aquitaine consanguinity issue has always amused me as well, for exactly the reason you point out.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

The more romances I read, the more convinced I am that the stories are more about money than love. Marriage has always been an economic institution. 200 years ago, when people in advanced societies had many fewer options than we do today, marriage's function as a means of survival was more pronounced. How many times have we cast as a villain the mother who urges her shy, bookish daughter to stop reading and find a husband? The mother was facing reality. So what if the daughter had the intelligence to invent the locomotive? Without a husband, she might not have survived. Of course, marriage to a bad husband could also be torture. All our romances are part fantasy, and so gloss over the survival aspect.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Lauren Willig said...

I couldn't agree more, Linda! And we mock/revile all those male characters looking for an heiress to mend the roof on the family estate, but they were behaving pragmatically, too.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

A few years ago there was a film made called The Abduction Club. It didn't get rave reviews but I enjoyed it *g*
http://movies.msn.com/movies/movie/the-abduction-club/
Great post BTW
Alison

4:59 PM  

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