If I had been alive in the nineteenth century, they’d have locked me in an asylum

Feminism and the historical romance novel:  two concepts that I’ve found are pretty hard to reconcile with each other, if I’m going to be completely honest.

I am a feminist; I believe totally that men and women should have equality in all aspects of their lives. However, I choose to write about a time period where women were very much not equal.

Women were not educated in the same way that men were. Upper class ladies were taught the feminine arts – a foreign language (usually French) how to sing and play an instrument, drawing, painting or embroidery and perhaps, if their mothers valued it, enough mathematics to manage household accounting. The richer the lady, the worse her education often was; why bother to stuff your daughter’s head full of knowledge she’d never use as the wife of a man who could afford servants to run the house, write his letters and manage his accounts? Instead she practised her handwriting for placement cards and memorised the orders of precedence so that she did not commit a social faux pas.

In the UK, women did not get the vote until 1928. Some could vote beforehand if they met the property qualifications, but it took the efforts of the Suffragist movements and the social impact of the First World War to get men in power to understand that women were capable of taking a full role in the political life of the nation. They could hold drawing rooms and salons hosting famous politicians, they could even canvass for votes and appear on the hustings, but they could not enter a voting booth until 1928.  How utterly ridiculous.

Rules about divorce and child custody changed during the nineteenth century but they were always weighted heavily in favour of the men. In 1857 a law was passed allowing men to divorce their wife in court without needing an Act of Parliament if one case of adultery could be proved. Married women were not allowed to divorce their husbands. Custody of the children of the marriage was granted to the husband, who could ban his wife from seeing their children.

It wasn’t until 1882 that a woman was able to keep control of her money, property and earnings after marriage. If she married before then, her father would have had to do some nifty legal footwork to protect them from becoming the legal property of her husband.

A woman’s body was not her own – it was not seen as possible for a man to rape his wife, as consent was deemed to have been given from the moment of their marriage vows and could not be retracted by her. A woman disappeared as a legal entity once she married.

Who would want to have been a woman then? And why on earth would a committed feminist like myself write at all positively about the time period?

I find it difficult, I have to admit, to write female characters in a Victorian setting that do not set my teeth on edge. They would have been brought up with very strict ideas about what was correct and proper, and what women should and shouldn’t do. My heroines have to be defiant and ahead of their times for me to even think about liking them. I cannot write passive, submissive women, content with their lot in life as a second class citizen. It goes against every feminist bone in my body! I also cannot read a book with characters like that. Why do we like Elizabeth Bennet so much? Because she stands up to herself to Mr Darcy, that’s why. Politely (just!) and within the rules of early nineteenth century society, but she’s no pushover. Why has Jane Eyre lasted so long as a famous heroine? Because she would only accept Mr Rochester on her terms, not his. She may have been following the rules of society in not willing to be a mistress, but she stood up for herself against a strong and domineering character. It’s only once he is maimed and blinded that she takes him as her husband – note the word order in that famous line, “Reader, I married him.” I know who wears the trousers in that household!

I love nineteenth century writing. I grew up with the What Katy Did books, Little Women and Eight Cousins. I moved onto Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch.  All these books have strong female characters in them. Who among us did not admire brave Jo March, who cut off her hair to raise money for the family? Who didn’t cheer when young Jane Eyre told evil Mr Brocklehurst that the way to go to heaven was to stay in good health, and do not die? Who didn’t love Elizabeth Bennet for popping Mr Darcy’s balloon of priggishness?

These characters were all strong despite the awful restrictions placed on their lives. Although my writing can’t hold a candle to Eliot, Bronte, Austen or Alcott, these great authors have shown me that it is possible to create female characters that can be admired and respected despite their terrible context.

So at my keyboard I sit, trying to create a few fictional women who won’t let a few stupid laws and the ideas of a stuffy, overly-moralistic society stop them from being strong, independent and clever. And being somebody I wouldn’t mind having a drink with!

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