Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Fallen Woman


In historical romances, we often encounter women who become prostitutes or courtesans in order to survive. An innocent girl is seduced by a blackguard and cast out by her family. A widow finds herself penniless. A governess is impregnated by the dissolute master of the house. Forced to fend for themselves, the women resort to the oldest profession.

It didn't always happen that way, though.

Harriette_wilsons_memoirs “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of Lord Craven. Whether it was love, or the severity of my father, or the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his protection, does not now much signify: or if it does, I am not in the humour to gratify curiosity in this matter.”

Thus begin the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson (1786-1846), the most famous of the Regency era’s courtesans. (Note re my previous blog, The Fallen Woman: Harriette was 15; the Earl of Craven was 31). She wasn’t the only one in her family to flee respectability. Her sisters left home, too (one at thirteen), to become Fashionable Impures. Harriette_wilson01wkHarriette was and is the memorable one, however. Her memoirs, first published in 1825, are amazingly readable, and that is not something one can say about most early 19th C prose. As I’ve noted before, there’s a reason some authors live on and others don’t.

The memoirs offer many clues to Harriette’s popularity. Apparently, she was not deemed a great beauty. But she was great fun, as the insouciant beginning of her tale promises. Though what passed for wit then might make us scratch our heads, she could hold her own with the men. She was a saucy wench.

Being entertaining was a crucial skill in a courtesan’s repertoire--but to understand this, we need to understand what a courtesan was, and how she differed from prostitutes.

My shorthand definition of a courtesan is usually “high priced call girl.” That’s grossly oversimplifying and perhaps misleading. It’s hard to convey to a 21st century world what courtesans were.

Harris_list_covent_garden_ladies_17Something like high-priced call girls did exist in Georgian times. One finds in Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies a “Miss ___, at Mrs. Ross’s, No. 7, Wardour-street.” She charged five guineas, where the majority charged half a guinea to a guinea. A guinea was one pound, one shilling. In today's money, that seems to be nearly £100 (about $200).

Veronicafrancowk Women like Harriette were more closely related to the courtesans of, say, 17th century Venice (this painting is of the famous Veronica Franco) or ancient Greece, though not quite the same, either. The courtesans of earlier times were very well educated and cultured. They might dance, sing, play an instrument, write poetry (as Franco did). Harriette and her ilk were not educated in this way, yet they filled a similar function. Men associated with courtesans not simply for sex but for conversation and entertainment, in societies where marriages were made for political and dynastic reasons and wives and husbands tended to live in separate worlds.

Cyprians_ball Courtesans lived in the man’s world, a freer world. They paid a high price for their freedom, but one can understand why some chose this life. The aria “Sempre libera,” from La Traviata, might well be their theme song.

1819eveningdressackermannswiki The respectable woman woman was bound by rules. No sex or even knowledge of sex before marriage. Stand so, sit so, speak so. She doesn’t want to appear too intellectual or too opinionated. Until she’s launched into Society, she’s had little to do with gentlemen outside her family. Being closely chaperoned, she’s not likely to learn much more about them until she marries one of them. Our young lady may be beautiful and have a delightful personality --but she’s an innocent, and men are expected to be on good behavior with her.

Tom_kate_waltz With the Harriette Wilsons of the world, men behaved more or less as they did among themselves. With such women, the men could behave as they did with other men.

Scholars and others have pointed out that the only time a woman had power over men was during courtship. A gently bred girl gets a taste of this power (if she’s popular) during her Season, and one can certainly understand her wishing to prolong the experience.

Harrietwilsonla_coterie_deboucheBut courtesans wielded such power over the course of their careers. They suffered the same--if not worse--vicissitudes their more respectable sisters endured but they had the power to say yes or no to men. If her protector was unsatisfactory, a courtesan could replace him. She might travel where she liked, see whom she liked, without asking anybody’s permission. She did not have to mind her Ps and Qs. She could tell dirty jokes, though she would avoid appearing too coarse. In short, she might behave more like a man.

For women like Harriette,Harriette_wilson01wk_2 the path to sin was the road to freedom.

This isn’t to say it couldn’t be the road to misery, or that choosing this path wasn't an enormous gamble, with the odds against her. A courtesan’s career was bound to be brief, and though Harriette lived a long life, many died young, often in the gutter. OTOH, being respectably married wasn’t security for everyone. A spouse might gamble away the family fortune. (Harriette did marry, and it was her husband who spent the money she’d made with her memoirs.) For the courtesan, venereal disease was practically a certainty. Yet it was a possiblity for the respectable wife of any man who’d had premarital or extramarital sex--and a large segment of the male aristocracy was promiscuous. The courtesan risked death in childbirth and miscarriage, and the death of children, as other women did. Titled ladies had no guarantees their marriages would be safe or stable. They might be abused or abandoned or divorced. Meanwhile, a courtesan might marry a nobleman. (Harriette’s sister Sophia married Lord Berwick--when he was forty-two and she was still a teenager.) Life wasn't easy on women, respectable or not. It's not hard to understand why some women went for pleasure and freedom: Play now, pay later.

Harriettewilsonchawton_2 Why did Harriette run away with Lord Craven? Was it for any of the reasons she suggested? Or was she a woman who chafed at the restrictions of her time--a woman better suited to the world of the early 21st century, say, than the early 19th? We’ll never know for sure. But when I recall that she was a teenager when she bolted, I find myself thinking that maybe Harriette was one of those girls who just wanted to have fun. At 15, how many think of consequences?

photo credit (image of Harriette from Frontispiece of the 1825 edition)

Yswfrontsm200dpi So let’s have some fun and pretend. Imagine you’re a young woman of Harriette’s time. What path do you think you'd follow? Would you believe in the rules and do your best to follow them? Would you follow the rules but chafe under them? Or would you to take the gamble of being a Bad Girl?

Originally posted at Word Wenches.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Two Young to Marry?

Some years ago I wrote a novella, “The Mad Earl’s Bride,” for an anthology titled THREE WEDDINGS AND A KISS. The Big Name on the cover was Katheleen E. Woodiwiss, and the book rocketed to the top of all the bestseller lists. I’m not sure it ever went out of print, but whether it did or didn’t it’s decidedly in print now. Wench Susan/Miranda called me from a Borders bookstore to tell me it was being pushed to the front of the store. This month it’s part of their Buy 4 get 1 Free deal.

All of which fits in nicely with today’s bridal theme.

ThreeweddingssmSharon Baumgartner is going to win an autographed Loretta Chase book for asking the following question:
It seems like most of the heroines in historical romances are 18, 19, 20. There are some older, but usually those are referred to as being VERY old to be still looking for a husband and pretty much firmly "on the shelf". When my daughter was 18 or 19, I would have been very concerned about her getting married, thinking that she was not at all mature enough for taking that step. I know that a lot of marriages back in the Regency era (or whatever era the historical might be set in) were arranged by the families for reasons having nothing to do with personal selection (except in our favorite books, of course). But my question is were the young women back then that much more mature than girls today? Even if they had been trained to do all of the things to run a household, etc., that they were expected to do, would they have been emotionally ready for marriage? Or do authors give them the correct age for marrying at the time but write them with more maturity?

Bride_groom Let me start by saying that my paternal grandmother was married by parental arrangement when she was fourteen years old. My maternal grandmother married for love (it was a shocking thing to do in Albania at that time) when she was sixteen. In those days, the bride went to live in the groom’s household where his mother ruled and her daughters-in-law did what they were told. This happened in the 20th century. Were my grandmothers more mature than today’s 16-year-old girl? Possibly. Or maybe not. Maybe they simply had less freedom and fewer choices. And maybe maturity depends on the girl.

In my grandmothers’ time and place, girls didn’t have a lot of choices. They got married and had children. They would have been trained for marriage: how to run a household, cook & clean& sew & so forth--or (depending on socioeconomic class) supervise those who did. So they were better prepared for marriage than today’s average American sixteen-year-old.

Brock_pride_and_prejudicewk When creating women for my stories, I assume that, while manner and mores change, young women of two hundred years ago must have something in common with those of today. Some girls are mature and responsible at a young age. Then there are the ones like Lydia Bennett of PRIDE & PREJUDICE. It’s hard to imagine Lydia ever maturing, isn’t it? Look at her sisters Jane and Elizabeth. They’re in their early twenties, and far more mature than their mother.

Mature or not, most women needed to marry, and the simple fact was and is, young women--generally speaking--are more attractive to men--generally speaking. Look at all those Gidget & Geezer movies. Look at all those Gidget & Geezer marriages in the land of millionaires and movie stars. Do the Geezers care if their Gidgets are mature?

Soldiers_lady Women had then, as many do today, a real fear that past a certain magical age (past their “first bloom”), they would become unappealing or invisible to men. This is a truly worrisome prospect for some families, absolutely, in the Regency era. Think about Mrs. Bennett, frantic to get her daughters married ASAP. She had a genuine economic concern: When her husband died, she & her girls could be thrown out of their house, as was the case with the Dashwood women in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. Think of the sorry plight of genteel but impoverished single women of this time. How do they support themselves? Mostly, they can’t. Mostly, they depend on others. Being “on the shelf” wasn’t simply rejection; it could be a financial catastrophe.

Anabella_milbankewk In Judith Schneid Lewis’s IN THE FAMILY WAY: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy 1750-1860, I find ladies marrying from the age of 15 (Elizabeth, Lady Holland, b 1771) to 37 (Susan, Marchioness of Stafford, b 1731). Princess Charlotte, King George IV’s heir, married at age 20. Queen Victoria was 21. The majority were married between the ages of 18 and 20, but there are quite a few marrying in their early to mid-twenties. Anne Isabella Milbanke was 23 when she married Lord Byron.

Mainly, though, as in the books Sharon refers to, upper class women were marrying at 18, 19, 20. And from what I’ve read, they were at about the same maturity level as young women of 18, 19, and 20 today. The difference is that they were expected to get married at that age and were trained to be wives and mothers as well as in the duties of the lady of the house.

Bride I’ve made my heroines various ages but tend toward older heroines--mid to late twenties, and one heroine (Mirabel of MISS WONDERFUL), thirty-one. This is mainly because I simply find them more interesting when they have some life experience. And that’s why, too, a number of my heroines are widows. Whatever their age, I’ve made them mature, though I try to show why they might be more so or more responsible than other girls of their social class and age. Being left motherless at a young age, being educated in an unusual way, having to fend for oneself, having to cope with a distant or psychologically troubled parent, etc.--these are all ways of giving a character maturity beyond her years. Gwendolyn Adams, the heroine of “The Mad Earl’s Bride,” is one such character. She needs to be levelheaded and mature, because the arranged marriage she agrees to is a very challenging one.

Do you think young women were/are emotionally ready for marriage at 18, 19, 20? How do you feel about young heroines? Do you think young women 100-200 years ago were or weren’t like young women of today?

Originally posted at Word Wenches.