A Regency Woman’s “Job”

Today’s post was inspired while I poked around at other people’s lovely blogs. I came upon “The Regency Reticule” (do follow the link to check it out yourself.) Here’s the quote I liked:

“…For instance, nowadays, most parents of daughters want their little girls to grow up and find a career or vocation they can be really passionate about.  In the Regency though, what most parents thought was ‘best’ for their daughters was an advantageous (financially) marriage.  Marriage was seen, for women, like a career is now.  It was prepared for, educationally and emotionally.  We have to realize that back then there really was no social safety net other than the church, and that was the dreaded ‘charity’…” [Source: http://loveregencies.tripod.com/regencyreticule.html]

Harriet Arbuthnot, painted by John Hoppner; Source: Wikipedia Commons
Harriet Arbuthnot, painted by John Hoppner;
Source: Wikipedia Commons

The part that particularly struck me was “marriage was seen, for women, like a career is now.” It’s a very interesting thought – and one I don’t disagree with. The Regency period held few rights for women – inside or out of marriage. Essentially, they traded the dominion of their parents for the dominion of their husband. Divorce was extremely rare, requiring an Act of Parliament (yes, see how often that’s likely to happen – especially if some of the hubby’s friends are in said parliament).

So marriage as career. What would that mean? Certainly there’s the requisite “heir bearing” or the perennial phrase “heir and a spare” (considering high infant mortality rates, you’d probably want more than one spare). If your husband is connected within society, it’s your duty to “represent” him well out and about, to help secure connections through female relationships, and certainly make good arm candy when necessary. Though often, husbands and wives spent little time together, men preferring the company of other men, and spending more of their time at their clubs (and quite possibly with the mistress), whereas women socialized, attended teas and events with friends, and probably often found themselves alone at home at night (unless of course they engaged in extramarital affairs as well.)

What happened if, as a woman, you chose another career? Jane Austen is often a prime example of this, never marrying, and living on the charity of her brother. While she chose a career outside of marriage – and few can claim not to have heard of her – interestingly, she didn’t want her name on the early books, and when she died and was buried, she isn’t listed as “awesome writer of fantastic fiction” (well, something more in Regency-speak, but you get the drift). Instead, her eulogy makes no mention of her writing whatsoever, instead emphasizing her “sweetness.” (I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up for yourself – it’s near the end of the page: Jane Austen’s eulogy can be found here.)

There are other females who chose careers outside marriage. Such as:

  • Amelia Curran, and Irish painter and close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
  • Harriet Arbuthnot had a career AND a marriage as a diarist, social observer, and political hostess.
  • Sarah Burney, English novelist, unmarried, cared for her father and family; sister to novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney. She’s an interesting example who didn’t marry, and suffers near penury, the associated scandal of possible incest (though this has since been dismissed), but lives to the ripe old age of 71. A hard, but interesting life.
  • Mary Anne Clarke, who left her husband who went bankrupt shortly after her marriage when she was 18, and is perhaps most famous for becoming the mistress of the Duke of York, and selling army commissions because he didn’t set her up to the style she required.
  • Felicia Hermans, who didn’t let marriage stand in the way of her literary career as a poet, although she died at only 41

Want to know more? Check out: Women of the Regency Era on Wikipedia; some very intriguing women, and not all of them chose marriage as their career.

So, what would you do if you were in the Regency? Would you choose a career in marriage – as was the norm? Or would you dare to be different like some of the women above? Any other different Regency women you’ve discovered?

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