Sunday, April 13, 2014

19th century- What were women like?

  2. Must we write to what people ‘believed’ happened in the 19th century, or what could & did happen? Some real women truly did extraordinary things throughout history and I prefer to use them as my control group rather than the ‘average’ woman of the historic time held by common belief per modern readers. 
    I suspect if we had a time machine and could go back to view real women of history, we would find the women then as diverse as we are today. There will be women who truly believes a man is master (and yes they still exists) and those who wants to be their own master, and every nuance between. I don’t think humans have fundamentally changed in a very long time. 
    So yes, given the right circumstances, women can fence, shoot arrows & guns, captain a ship, head a smuggling ring or live as a man and become the finest surgeon in England. To me, believability comes from ‘is it possible’ not ‘is it probable that 51% of females of the time did this.’ I don’t need a majority behavior. My characters like to be unique.
  3. And who is to say this ‘belief’ is even close to being valid?
  4. Only clothes, style of transportation, types of sport, and standards of living alter over time. And while we adapt to the situation we are born into, due to our various personalities, we will all react and behave differently to the same stimuli. Some will learn to get along, and some will break out. 
  5. In Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen provides five very different young women, who react differently to the same environment.
When Jane Austen wrote her books, she wasn't writing a historical novel, she was writing contemporaries. However, she did have a shielded life, her father being a minister, and it being a large family of six brothers and two sisters.

Still, I believe her reality has to be closer to the truth she knew than the standard reality that we now have of the past. 

The further away we get from the truth, the more generic it becomes. 

So let us study the past through Jane Austen's characters.

All are very different: Jane the beautiful kind daughter who waits for love to find her, but embraces it when it comes. She epitomizes what a young woman should be.

Elizabeth who examines life with a satirical eye, who challenges authority, (Not only Darcy, but his Aunt), who fights against injustices,

Lydia, who sees the reality of her situation, as the youngest of 5 daughters with a pathetic dowry to catch a man. She runs off with a soldier to London and lives in sin until they are found and married. She refuses to allow shame to touch her. She did what was necessary to become Mrs. Wickham...and thus, there is no shame involved.

Kitty, the sister without a sense of self, she  follows and emulates others.

Mary: Rigid, rule conforming, judgmental and plain. Perfect for their cousin, but Mr. Collins wants a beautiful wife, and when he cannot have that, he settles for a plain, kind, pragmatic wife.

They are all stereotypes, but real enough to Jane that she could bring them to life, which probably means they all existed in the people she knew.

Then move to Sense & Sensibility, and you get two more young women: Elinor, quiet, supportive and kind, but with low self-esteem,

and Marianne, spoiled, vivacious and mesmerizing.

Then in her later novel, Emma, Austen provides a young who externally appears to be the proper young woman, but in fact, has many flaws she must fix, including rudeness and a meanness of spirit to those less fortunate before she can become worthy of the man she loves.

While none of them  learned to fence or fought pirates, I believe if offered the opportunity Lizzie, Lydia and Marianne would have done so without hesitation.

I was surprised to discover that Jane's books did not conform to 19th century expectations of a novel. They failed to express the strong emotions in sound and color that was expected by readers. Does that mean her characters were too subdued?

By the end of the 19th century, women became very vocal about their rights, or lack there of. The New Women and other organizations challenged and forced a great deal of changes through Parliament. 

If ignored, they would rally people to the streets to protest not just for their rights, but for their children's safety. They had far more influence than the men of power wished to admit.

Women who did the extraordinary, who spoke up, who did not conform to the rigid standards of the time, were the ones who changed the world. It is those women I wish to celebrate in novels, for they inspire me.

History of the 'norm' is filtered and diminished to such a degree, who knows if it is true at all. Did all young ladies learn to play and sing? According to Jane, they did not. Did any of her young ladies spend a moment sewing? Not that I recall. However the movies certainly had them doing so.

But did a real woman dress like a man, attend medical school and become the highest ranking doctor in the army, performing the first successful Cesarean where mother & child survived. Yes, that is well documented and certain.  That is a heroine extraordinaire.

In my upcoming Late Victorian Mystery/Sleuth novel, The Troublesome Assistant,  my heroine, Vic, decides early on in life that she would rather have the opportunities of a young man rather than the confined and strict bindings of a woman. So she dresses as a male from the age thirteen onward. By the time she goes to Oxford, she is most convincing as a young man, so much so, that the greatest sleuth in England doesn't catch on right away.

I'm very proud to declare my heroine a one of a kind.


  1. There were a lot of very advanced women in the early 19th century. For some reason I do not understand, Queen Victoria set women back a hundred years. After she came to the throne, it was much easier for husbands and fathers to place wives and daughters in mental institutions. All the forward thinking of the earlier part of the century, when it came to women, was lost. I too prefer to base my characters on women who were not your typical ladies.

    1. Yes, I think your characters are far more likely to be real than our generalized concept of what ladies were likely to be. While they can conduct themselves properly, they often chose not to.

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  3. Great post, Liza! Over the ages, I don't think women's inner workings have changed much, if at all. It's the mores of the society that surround them that change, and that most women adapt to with varying degrees of success and willingness.

    There will always be those who fight against mainstream society, and I think many women during Jane Austen's times know the pitfalls of their society all too well--but wanted to steer clear of scandal. When Jane began to have her works published, everyone thought her a man. Of course, the secret got out, but by then, she'd gained many admirers of her stories--even the Prince Regent himself, whom she detested but had to make nice with when he requested she dedicate a book to him.

    So I see this as Jane being somewhat constrained by the society that surrounded her. In her personal letters to one of her relatives, she related the story of how she wanted to take a public coach, but her brother told her no. Her novels allowed her to push her limits in a way that society still deemed acceptable for someone of her station. And in these novels, we see that all types of women existed--as they exist now. By and large, women still have the same hopes and dreams. It's merely the society around them that changes how women interact with and move through that society.

    1. Yes, and I think those who fight again constraints make far more interesting characters.

  4. I like reading about unique women who pushed boundaries and set out to be different. After all, that's the kind of woman I am.

    There's a middle grade book called Riding Freedom about a woman who pretended to be a man in order to be one of the first Pony Express riders.


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