Thursday, 21 July 2011
Victorian Misses - Janet Woods
A friend stated that young women did not go out without a chaperone in Victorian Britain. These general sorts of statements don’t sit all that well with me, and this is why. Queen Victoria reigned for over 60 years, and over that time the world changed and progressed considerably.
I’ve written several books set in the “Victorian age.” “Hearts of Gold” started almost at the end of Victoria’s reign in the late 1890s. The heroine was a brat from the goldfields, sent to England by her mentor. My current release, “Lady Lightfingers" is also set in the “Victorian age” but fifty years earlier, and in the London slums. “A Dorset Girl” saga was set in the 1830s, earlier still. What did they have in common? Very little, except the heroines were not members of the privileged classes. Each book was researched separately for the period within that age, to make it authentic to its particular time.
Did the Victorians write books of etiquette for the majority of working class women? I doubt it. Most books of manners were designed for those who could afford to indulge in it. Fashion catalogues display silks and satin gowns, accessories such as kid gloves, fans and hats all through the period. Victorian ladies didn’t all wear hooped crinolines. Skirts got wider as Victoria's reign progressed then narrowed down and grew bustles, which were lost as the Edwardians indulged in a more elegant style. The same economics that applied then,apply now. The majority of lower middle class young women couldn’t afford designer wear, or chaperones . . . or even underwear come to that. It stands to reason that they couldn’t afford several changes of outfit, but might have a special one kept for Sunday best, weddings and funerals.
In 1891 women were told that, legally, they could no longer be forced to live with a man if they didn’t want to. This was a two-edged sword. Divorce brought scandal with it for the female, and usually loss of her children. Without income, often the alternative was to starve to death or take up prostitution.
Even Queen Victoria must have regarded herself as her husband’s chattel, for she was reported as saying, from her lofty position of top hen in her glittering henhouse – thus setting back the women's movement by a number of years, I imagine – “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for her man, but with totally different duties and values.” With total respect, I wonder how she knew what He intended, and would she have said the same, had she been one of the 1,740,000 female domestic servants in England struggling to stay alive? Many maids in Victoria’s time took the occasional man to bed for supplemental income. They were called dollymops . . . very apt.
Victoria and Albert produced nine offspring, I believe. Of course, Queen Victoria never had to make ends meet, and (bless her) I wouldn’t like to have lived her life.
My mother’s child-raising wisdom came from clichéd and sometimes cutting little proverbs from her Victorian upbringing. I’ve been careful not to pass them on to my own. “Children should be seen and not heard. Spare the rod and spoil the child. You’ve made your bed, now you must lie on it. Pride goes before a fall . . . etc.”
Thank goodness we reach a point in life where we can think and reason for ourselves, and wonder at some of the tosh we accepted as wisdom. Unfortunately those wisdoms weren’t tosh to them. They were a necessary part of discipline. Mostly it was rule by fear, though that in its turn taught us respect. I was scared of anything with an official feel or a uniform attached to it – policemen, teachers, parents, priests, soldiers, bus conductors and fatherly lectures all signified authority. It didn’t stop me rebelling, even though one of my teachers was a reincarnation of Sweeny Todd, except she used a ruler instead of a razor.
So, our characters should be true to life, too. They should be encouraged to step out of the rule book and live their own lives. Over the sixty-year span that was the “Victorian Age” women weren’t all laced tightly into corsets, either metaphorically or literally). If we wrap historical characters in rigid rules, manners and clichés they’ll come across as cardboard, or at the very least, clones.
When I look at the “Victorian age” it has lots to commend it. On the industrial front, there were engineering breakthroughs, sewerage disposal was improved and railways networked. There was a certain amount of hypocrisy too – child labour, wars, forced immigration and starvation. But nothing was static. Advances were made in industry, medical and moral mores – too many keep up with. Bear in mind that change didn’t happen in all parts of England at the same time. The rural south trailed behind the industrialized north. So while some people enjoyed the luxury of train travel another part of the country might still be bumping around the countryside in a wagon.
Unless you can travel back through time it’s impossible to know how people actually acted or spoke in the past. Sure, they wrote letters, essays and books, and yes, I imagine somebody wrote a rule book. Writing is a more formal way of expression than speech. We all act differently when we’re on public view, but relax at home. When we write we don’t stutter or hum and har on the page. We don’t have people interrupting and turning our train of thought to something else, we don’t use body language to help people understand meaning, like we do face to face. We stick to the point.
Women wouldn’t have gone out without a chaperone? Some women, perhaps. But not the working classes.
Remember the early TV ads, where the lady of the house wore stilettos, make-up, beehive hairdos and false eyelashes, when they cleaned the oven with greasy goop? Did we all dress like that to clean the house in? Nuff said!