After Joanna’s mind-bending jaunt through French and Female Language last week, I’ve been pondering Female Power and the Would-be Regency novelist. Or pretty much any sort of historical novelist, I suppose.
Today’s assumptions are different from those of the past, any past, and never more so than on the issue of female agency. In general we assume that such women of the past as are now largely invisible to history were also invisible in their own time, at least outside the domestic sphere. Basically men had cornered the market in how the world was run and women had no alternative but to do what they were told.
But assumptions are dangerous.
Female Power as I Know It
I was brought up on the Suffragettes – women got the vote in two stages, first in 1918 but only for women over 30; then in 1928, for all women over 21, the same as men – and Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, published 1949. The latter points out that ‘man’ had become a synonym for ‘human being’. Think ‘mankind’! Woman was the Other. Simone the practical mostly blames reproduction for weighting the dice against female power.
My mother, my first educator in these matters, said that the vote was important and I had to use it. (I agreed then and now.) She also pointed out that The Pill had given women a choice about whether to have a baby or not, which was a major improvement on her day.
What’s more, I’d had a wonderful free State education. I could do anything I wanted. Nobody would say me nay for being a woman.
Indeed, it never occurred me to that anyone would even try. My role models proved it. Before she married in her mid-forties, my mother had a good career in the BBC, after which she did serious crisis management in our financial affairs. My paternal grandmother had been the (dressmaker) breadwinner of her family all her married life. Female power? Tick.
Enter The Female Eunuch
And then Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970. She said that that women were forced to assume submissive roles in society to fulfil male fantasies of what being a woman entailed.
Um – not in my world. The very combination of the words ‘submissive’ and ‘my grandmother’ raised hollow laughter across the whole family.
But then there was Valley of the Dolls (1966). And, even more scary, The Stepford Wives (1972). I avoided the movies and read both. They scared the hell out of me.
Now, not even the most traditional of my boyfriends tried to tie a pinny on me. I always had equal cooking relationships. And during a professional life in the financial industries no-one ever suggested the bankerly equivalent of a casting couch.
But there did come a moment in my working life when I was ejected from the dining room of a City Club because “ladies are not permitted in the public rooms.”
My (anguished) hosts, who clearly didn’t quite believe it either, were forced to engage a private room on the spot to feed not only me but my colleague Maria Cristina, a very modern Venezuelan Central Banker. After her initial surprise – once she had (mostly) stopped giggling – she urged them to don top hats for a photo-memory.
It did, indeed, feel a bit 1890s Paris, frankly. I smoked a cigar, partly to make a point to the Club, partly to ease the pain of our poor hosts.
But the point is that we were, all four of us, astonished. The male supremacists were out there, no question. But there wasn’t one in the room with us. So all novelists wanting to set your books in the late twentieth century: please note that female subordination varied widely. Occasional flashes of it even astonished the locals.
Female Power and the Would-be Regency Novelist
This is where the blog gets very personal. When I first started writing, I really wanted to emulate my favourite authors. FanFic wasn’t a thing then, but if it had been, I’d have been writing the story of Gideon Ware (be still my beating heart) from The Foundling.
That would have been a sequel, of course, and I wouldn’t have changed a note of his sarcastic wit. But, much as I loved Georgette Heyer, I really wanted to a different story for the personae of A Civil Contract. Why? Because, to my mind, Jenny barely existed. Compare her wonderful father, Jonathan Chawleigh, who leaps off the page, pushing and interfering with the decor and loving. Jenny just isn’t in the same league. She just suffers.
I SO wanted her to shake everyone up and do something. In fact, I wanted her to be part of Mr Chawleigh’s business, maybe already helping to run it. I started to write a heroine who did just that.
“No,” said my then agent, after looking at my first chapter. By then all the characters (and the plot, too) were wholly different. It was only in my own mind that my heroine was Jenny after a good talking to and a small make-over. “No. Regency ladies didn’t run businesses.”
She sent me away to Do Better.
I couldn’t. That was my big idea: a loving father and daughter working (and squabbling; love is only part of that relationship) in a business together. Without that, I had no story. I even found images of Regency ladies wearing mannishly-cut jackets and top hats. My agent was immovable.
Female Power in the Regency and Otherwhen
But should I have been so easily put off? People do exceptional things all the time that most of their contemporaries don’t. There is even a study which specifically looks at my particular difficulty : Women in Business 1700 – 1850 by Nicola Phillips. Sadly, it wasn’t published until 2006, long after my frustrated story.
But if it had been available then, I’d have mined it to see if My Not Jenny was feasible, as I desperately wanted her to be.
(For novelists interested in the later period a fascinating article on female entrepreneurs asserts that close to 30% of British businesses were run by women in Victorian times.)
It has since occurred to me that the key must be research. I have often got really annoyed when reading Regency stories where a “feisty” heroine is basically a spoiled baggage, trying to impose twenty-first century fancies on gratingly apologetic, wimpy heroes.
Heyer, of course, knew her historical onions AND was also a woman who had done exceptional things (wanna live in a grass hut in Africa, anyone?) and she gave her female characters room to do the same.
Deb Grantham, for instance, was definitely a business woman, trying to keep her flakey aunt’s polite not-quite-professional-gaming hell solvent. Phoebe even wrote a roman à clef and got it published, for Heaven’s sake!
Female Power and the Impetuous Ingénue
But my key example is the a feisty teenager who I actually believe in. Remember Amanda in Sprig Muslin. I returned to that book recently and found there was a lot more substance to the characters, and especially their love stories, than I recalled.
And young Amanda wasn’t a faux feisty show-off, making a fuss about nothing-very-much. She was in love with a serving officer so she applied herself to learning about his professional life. She had even learned to wring chickens’ necks, so that, when she married her Brigade Major, she could follow him to war and be a practical wife in the way a soldier on campaign might need.
OK, her beloved Neil thinks she’s taking it too far. But the research that fuelled An Infamous Army here shows up, seamlessly. Suddenly Amanda’s exploit is grounded in the history of the time. It is outrageously improper – as all the older characters are well aware. But it is believable. This girl does her planning. She has been following the course of war, reading reports and gathering information about the conditions under which the soldiers operate.
Amanda may lack experience but she thinks about what she does. Single-minded and impetuous she may be, but she’s also practical. (She may well have saved Hildebrand’s life with her bandaging skills.) And she’s brave. And all of that is squarely in the terms of her time.
If you know your history well enough, you can convince the most picky reader that an exceptional character will go beyond the historical norms in pursuit of their goal. As so often, Georgette Heyer points the way!