You may remember I included Mary Quinn as part of my Recommended Reading: Books with Strong Heroines, post last week. International Women’s Day was a few days ago now, but I wanted to carry on the theme for a little longer.
Author Y.S Lee has kindly put together a guest post to tell us a little bit more of what it would have been like to be a woman during the 19th Century, during which, her excellent series, The Agency, is set.
Your life, 150 years ago
It’s 1862. You’re a sixteen-year-old girl. What are your choices like in Victorian England? Much depends on your family and education, of course.
If your family is poor – if your parents are factory workers or farm labourers, for example – you’ll likely have been working since you were six years old. Now you’re earning a small weekly wage, and giving some of it to your parents to help out with food and rent. If you’re careful, you’ll save some of it for your own future, for the day you get married and have your own family. If you’re more interested in having a good time now, you’ll have to borrow whatever you can to rent and furnish your own house when that day comes. Either way, you may know how to print your name and you can probably do enough math to go shopping without being cheated. If you’re very lucky, you can just about read a newspaper. You were born poor, you’ll live in a hand-to-mouth fashion, and you’ll die in poverty.
If your family is middle-class – say your father is a clergyman or a solicitor – you’ll be finishing your education. It’s far from excellent, this “education” of yours. You’ll have lived at boarding school for years, but the quality of the teaching was often poor. While you can read and write and do simple arithmetic, you spent long hours copying “history” and “geography” out of books, and you’ll speak a few lines of French or German. You learned needlepoint and a little dancing, and you might also play a few songs on the pianoforte. This is supposed to be all you need, since you’re going to get married and raise a family. If you don’t marry, you’ll probably be the spinster aunt, living with whichever sibling or cousin is willing to have you as a permanent houseguest.
If your family is wealthy – your father inherited a pile of money or is the director of a large company, for example – your education will still be patchy and dubious, unless you have exceptional good luck (tolerant, intellectually inclined parents) and determination (to fight for your education). Education is less important than ever, since your role in life is to be decorative. You’ll make your debut in society, marry, and have a family. And if you don’t marry, there’s a good chance you’ll have enough money to live comfortably on your own. There will be no question of a career.
As you can see, there’s a theme emerging here. Even if a Victorian girl was lucky enough to be born rich, her chances of receiving a solid and well-rounded education were slim. And after that education was over? Those who married became the legal property of their husbands, and everything they owned also became their husbands’ property. If their husbands were neglectful or abusive, it was incredibly difficult to get a divorce, and there was no such thing as child support. For those who didn’t marry, very few jobs were open to women: they could be governesses or paid companions, teachers or factory workers, office clerks or perhaps shop assistants. Pay was always much lower than what a man would earn for the same job.
It’s a grim picture and one that makes me, at least, profoundly grateful not to have lived then. (There were exceptions, of course – brilliant women who forged fascinating lives through a blend of good luck and bloody-mindedness.) But that dreary reality also inspired me to write a fantasy-based antidote about the Agency, a women’s detective bureau in Victorian London. The premise? That women could be more effective spies than men, precisely because they were so often undervalued and ignored. While I’d love to think that such a women’s intelligence agency did exist, we’ll probably never find evidence of it.
Women today are worlds away from these typical Victorian examples. All the same, we are still working towards equality with men. And that’s something worth remembering this International Women’s Day.
I love my period novels (and TV programs. And movies. And wondering around National Trust houses pretending I live there *ahem*). I get swept away in the romance of it all, but I’m very grateful to be a woman in the 21st Century, because I probably would have been a poor woman in the 19th! (Although… pretty dresses if you were rich…). If you’re interested in knowing a bit more about Victorian life, make sure to check out these fantastic posts on Lee’s blog!
If you haven’t checked out any books from The Agency yet, you really need to. Because, hello! Victorian women as undercover spies! And James Easton!! (You’ll see). And also – just look at those covers! How can you not want to pick these up!?