My FB friend author Mari Christie and I have been discussing the HEA ending. In romance novels, the convention suggests the happy ever after involves a couple (or, in some interpretations of the genre, a rather larger group) riding happily off into the sunset.
I’ve posted elsewhere about happy endings being new beginnings, and happy ever after involving an upward trajectory that the reader can believe in. In the romance genre, and particularly in the historical romance genre, happy ever after means a marriage that the reader thinks will work.
But for a huge number of people in my chosen time period, the early 19th century, marriage was not on the cards.
For a start, out of a population of 16 million, more than 300,000 British men died in the Napoleonic wars between 1804 and 1815. That’s a huge number of men of marriageable age – probably close to 1 in 12. Men were also more likely to indulge in risk-taking behaviour in their leisure, and to belong to risky occupations, further increasing the gender imbalance.
And men were not subject to social stigma if they did not marry, and had easy access to many of the benefits of marriage (with one in five women in London, according to some researchers, earning their living from the sale of sex).
So even if our late Georgian miss wanted to marry, she may not have had the opportunity. Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra:
‘There is a great scarcity of Men in general, & a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much.’
Beyond that, though, our Miss may not have wished to marry. Married women had few rights.
Yet what is remarkable, unmarried women were more legally independent than the married ones. Single women could own property, pay taxes to the state, and vote in the local parish, none of which married women were allowed to do. [Women in the middle class in the 19th Century]
And the health risks of pregnancy concerned many women. With a maternal death rate of one in 1000 live births, and an average of five children per mother, women had a two or three percent chance of dying in or shortly after childbirth.
It’s hard to tell how many women were single. Marital status was not systematically collected in statistics until the middle of the century. But at that time, one in three women were not married. Florence Nightingale commented on the general belief that women had no more important role than to marry and have children.
Women are never supposed to have any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted, except “suckling their fools”; and women themselves have accepted this, have written books to support it, and have trained themselves so as to consider whatever they do as not of such value to the world as others, but that they can throw it up at the first “claim of social life”. They have accustomed themselves to consider intellectual occupation as a merely selfish amusement, which it is their “duty” to give up for every trifler more selfish than themselves.
Women never have an half-hour in all their lives (except before and after anybody is up in the house) that they can call their own, without fear of offending or of hurting someone. Why do people sit up late, or, more rarely, get up so early? Not because the day is not long enough, but because they have “no time in the day to themselves”.
The family? It is too narrow a field for the development of an immortal spirit, be that spirit male or female. The family uses people, not for what they are, not for what they are intended to be, but for what it wants for – its own uses. It thinks of them not as what God has made them, but as the something which it has arranged that they shall be. This system dooms some minds to incurable infancy, others to silent misery.
So, to be true to life, historical novels, even historical romances, need to consider the presence in Society and society of a great army of women who never married, many of whom may not have wished to do so. Rather than the common trope of a war between women for the hands of the few suitable men, perhaps we need more books about groups of female friends who support one another in their decision not to be pressured into a choice that is wrong for them.