The fate of a fallen woman

oyster-rooms_0001Life in the real Regency wasn’t all Almack’s, balls, and house parties. Even in the households of the rich and titled, a woman’s comfort and happiness depended very much on the character of whatever man headed her household—father, brother, husband. And a highly structured society where women were expected to be chaste and modest, and men to have broad experience, meant an ever-present potential for disaster.

In the lesser ranks of society, a woman might be valued for her skills, her personality, her knowledge, or whatever underpinned the economic contribution she could make to her family. A slip from chastity could be forgiven. Even a child out of wedlock was not necessarily an irretrievable disaster. An extra pair of hands was, after all, an extra pair of hands.

A proper lady

For ladies of the gentry, any smudge on the character threatened the wellbeing of the family. Ladies were decorative rather than useful; educated for little beyond amusing themselves and running a household. Their economic value lay in the family connections created through their marriage, in the children, or more particularly the sons, they would bring into the world.

English landowners practiced primogeniture, a form of inheritance designed to keep an estate unified. Primogeniture meant that lands, titles, and rights were passed intact to the deceased lord’s eldest son. If the right to rule will be passed from father to son, then a family has a great deal invested in making sure that a wife sleeps with no one but, and certainly no one before, her husband. Virginity became a necessary precondition for a good marriage.

Assuring a potential husband of the virginity of a particular maiden meant—as we who read historical romances set in those times know—setting all kinds of restrictions around young ladies. It wasn’t enough to be a virgin; a marriageable girl of gentry class must never be in circumstances that allowed gossips to speculate about what she might, or might not, have done. Reputation was everything. The loss of reputation was the end of a girl’s (and her family’s) hope of a ‘good’ marriage.

Fallen from grace

Our romances offer many paths to those who fall from grace. Her family might rally round to prove our heroine’s innocence. An angry father or brother might force a marriage which becomes a love affair, or the other party to the offence might volunteer.  Exile to the country might lead to her true virtue being discovered by a neighbour, or she might be pursued by her seducer who has finally realised that he truly loves her.

In some books, the heroine becomes one of the tens of thousands of women earning her living from the sex trade in Georgian London. Generally a mistress of a man or a succession of men. More rarely, a prostitute in a brothel or in the streets.

That’s the premise for my character, Becky. In the novel, we meet her nine or ten years after her father threw her out. Just think of it. A gently-born girl, raised with few skills beyond flower arranging and embroidery, always treated with courtesy and respect, taught nothing about her own sexuality, suddenly cast into the streets to make her own way. What must that have been like?

In historical romance, our heroines survive the horror and the abuse (or, in some books, manage to bypass it all together) to eventually find the mandatory happy-ever-after. In real life, few were so fortunate. An early death was more likely: from sexually transmitted diseases, complications of pregnancy or abortion, drink and drugs taken to dull the senses, or all of these together.

A Baron for Becky has a happy ending, though not (I hope) an entirely predictable one.  In the end, I found myself writing about marriage rather than prostitution. Becky has had a hard life, and it has left scars. Her happy ending does not come easily. But then, that’s life.

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11 thoughts on “The fate of a fallen woman

  1. Well said, Jude. It all comes down to economics in the end, doesn’t it? Her reputation and virginity are important because of inheritance. Her options are limited by her lack of economic options. I wonder if we’ve changes as much as we like to think? How many times have we heard, “She stays with him because she can’t afford to leave.”

    • Yes, very much so! Even in the West where we pride ourselves on how far we have come, we have not come nearly as far as we’d like to think. Women denied an education that would give them choices have always bartered their bodies (rental, lease, or purchase) for the wherewithal to survive, if not thrive. That hasn’t changed, as my family lawyer daughter and my midwife daughter can attest.

  2. I especially love reading period stories that have passed their reality checks like Becky sounds and the two I read.. I often try to explain to non-readers, often guys, that romances don’t have or have to have rainbows and unicorn endings where everyone adores everyone and everything works out perfect for forever. Some edgy writers (in even gaming stories lately) say there are no happy endings, just hot sex for a few months. As inexpensive reading became more common, the gothics and penny dreadfuls kept reinforcing the ideals, even if few achieved the glorious idealized perfect unions.

    • Marie, I like to say that there are no endings in real life. Every story is artificial, since it has to start somewhere and end somewhere, and we who write romance choose to stop where the reader can be optimistic about what happens next.

      • Yep, I know that. But I’m getting a little tired of stories where the writers are proud of everything goes to pieces and no relationships have a future. I know it’s a problem of some neighborhoods of fiction, but there seems to be more of it in genres I follow. There are romantic threads in fantasy, sf, and mystery but I find a creeping nihilism and hopel3essness in younger writers implies things that bother me. Like a massive trilogy where the lead makes allies, saves worlds, makes a different future, but they die and the struggle was a rigged game. I avoid those stories as nothing is all gloom and doo, anymore than everything is rainbows.

        My first serious writing was in writing sequels as fanfic as a combo of what happens next and tempering the bad fairy’s curse…

      • Nice! My point about ‘we choose the ending’ was originally an answer to the point ‘happy endings are not realistic’. Endings are not realistic and nor are beginnings. The job of a story teller is to create a realistic beginning and a realistic ending. Happiness is common in the world. To ignore it in favour of doom and gloom is just as silly, in my opinion, as ignoring anything and everything negative.

      • But good people die in my books, and people struggle against real odds and suffer loss. Because too much sugar sets my teeth on edge, and I want the happy ending to be not just believable, but deeply satisfying. If nothing much is at stake, who cares who wins?

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