Female Power, Assumptions and the Novelist

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

Salon Pauline, British Ambassador's residence, Paris, formerly Hotel de Charost

By © Croquant / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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.

1816 print of riding habit © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1816 print of riding habit © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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.)

Georgette HeyerIt 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.

MilkmaidAnd 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!

Sophie Weston Author


17 thoughts on “Female Power, Assumptions and the Novelist

  1. Liz Fielding

    I weep not to have been able to read your “my not Jenny”, Sophie. I actually woke up this morning thinking about another book that should have been very different (not one of mine) that was tamed by editorial cold feet.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I think there are probably a lot of them.

      Now I come to think of it, I have one precise title in my memory which was a sort of take on a classical story/myth. As soon as I read it and got to a certain point in the plot, I thought, oh no, that’s wrong. It was a notable best seller and I suppose might not have been if the full myth had been incorporated. They’re strong meat, some of those myths.

      1. Liz Fielding

        True. Rewriting Dahl is nothing new. Fairytales have been seriously softened for recent generations. And modern versions of the myths tend to leave out the more shocking bits. I always hoped that Jenny’s husband would look up one day and realise that she was a treasure. No doubt wishful thinking.

        1. Sophie Post author

          I’m in the same boat, Liz. Unlike Jan, I just don’t feel he does.
          Maybe he will in the future.
          But at the moment, his feelings for Jenny are indistinguishable from the calm after the storm – particularly from the resolution of the family’s finances but also, I suppose, getting rid of Julia and realising he feels relieved about it.

  2. lesley2cats

    I wish I could have read Not Jenny, too. I dipped my own toe into this particular water when I wrote my Alexandrian trilogy, with a female protagonist running an Edwardian seaside concert party. I, too, had an “older” mother who worked full time all her life, and luckily a father who did not subscribe to any preconceptions about the role of women in or out of the home. And, probably as a result of my upbringing, A Civil Contract has always been my least favourite Heyer. I love this post – it speaks to my heart.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Ah, thank you, Lesley. I so wanted Jenny to come out of her shell and be more than a patient Griselda. I used to dream that the proper love story happened after the book finished. But I think that was wishful thinking.

  3. Louise Allen

    When I was researching for my book Stagecoach Travel I discovered that two of the leading owners of stagecoach businesses were women – Mrs Nelson, operating from The Bull, Aldgate, had a virtual monopoly on the eastern routes. Mrs Mountain ran 30 coaches a day from The Saracen’s Head – and owned her own stagecoach building company

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh Louise, that’s wonderful.

      I was so tempted to go back further in time and mention Mrs Quickly who runs the Boar’s Head Tavern in Henry IVx2, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Not a hint of a man behind the scenes running that operation.

      But real people is a different matter entirely – so once again, research is the key! Thank you.

      Fabulous that Mrs Mountain supplied her own and presumably others’ vehicles, too. Diversification into allied trades that supply your business is the mark of a sharp entrepreneurial mind.

      1. Joanna

        Louise is right. There were lots of women who ran their own businesses. But were there also ladies who did that? I note that your agent was referring to ladies, not women, Sophie. However, some ladies did get involved in business. I seem to recall that Frances Vane, the Marchioness of Londonderry was deeply involved in the running of the coal-mining business she inherited.

        On the downside, when I wrote a book (His Cavalry Lady) about a heroine who served in the Russian cavalry in the Napoleonic Wars, a lot of my American readers didn’t believe in her, even though she was based on a real woman. So it’s not only that Regency women did do amazing things; it’s also that readers may not believe it, perhaps having been brainwashed into believing that women didn’t do such things. Sigh.

        I was reminded of all those female composers who were feted in their day but forgotten after their deaths and not included in the male canon of “great composers”. The women are now being found again. BBC R3’s composer of the week last week was Barbara Strozzi.

        1. Sophie Post author

          Sigh indeed. I suppose Jonathan Chawleigh was so determined his daughter should be a lady that he couldn’t allow her to get involved in vulgar commerce.

  4. Joanna

    Simone de Beauvoir was right that “man” is the synonym for “human being” in French (and in English). In German, the word for human being is “Mensch” and the word for man is “Mann”. I’m not sure that having separate words in German made much (or any?) difference to the position of women in German society.

  5. sarahmromance

    Excellent, thoughtful blog, Sophie, thank you. I agree about Jenny in A Civil Contract, I think she is more of a plot device and as you say, she is totally overshadowed by her father. There were “feisty” heroines, and plenty of women who ran businesses (possibly many not credited, though).

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you, Linda. What gets me is that Jenny had so much potential. I just didn’t get to hear her voice enough.

  6. Jan Jones

    Agree with all of this, and with my learned colleagues. I always try to make my heroines work within the framework they have. Do you not think, however, that as it turns out Jenny IS the very wife Adam needed? She is as wise as Freddie from Cotillion in her way. Adam says near the end that he loves her very much, he just needed to get past the stifling feeling of gratitude to Jonathan to realise it.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh yes, I can see that Jenny is an excellent wife for Adam in just about every way and he SAYS he loves her towards the end – the trouble is I don’t find confirmation of it in the space between the words. I really, really, wish I did.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I wish I felt that, Jan. It just doesn’t come to me. But I’m really glad that it does for you.

      It seems to me that Adam is always very courteous, painfully considerate and also kind. That alone would be enough for him to say those words.

      I don’t feel anything more there and, sadly, I don’t think Jenny does either. She is content because she set herself up to make his life better after all, and that’s exactly what she’s got, along with his respect and genuine appreciation.

      But… but… but…

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