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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