Contrary to our ideas of what is acceptable, restrictions on Regency ladies were, on the whole, for their protection. We consider crowds safer these days, but at that time a country walk in a peaceful village environment held far fewer terrors than the capital. London was a dangerous place.
Pickpockets abounded, but they were small fry compared to the plethora of thieves, beggars and vagabonds as well as tradesmen going about their legitimate business. A woman alone, especially if young and pretty, was a target for any marauding male, of whatever class. Alone, she was vulnerable to unwanted gallantries and suggestive talk.
Even in the more genteel parts of town, like Mayfair and its environs, a lady would not walk out without her maid in tow, or preferably a footman. Even two or three ladies walking together in Hyde Park would have a footman following at a respectful distance. This, along with the quality of her dress, demonstrated her class and that she was protected. Better still, a male relative or known family friend would accompany her.
To be seen out without adequate protection therefore put a lady at risk of her reputation. She was expected to adhere to the rules. She flouted them at her peril. The prohibitions extended beyond walking out alone, however.
All the haunts of men were taboo. Public rooms at inns were off limits unless accompanied. This also applied to coffee or chocolate houses, eating establishments, public masquerades and assemblies, pleasure gardens—in fact anywhere except engagements in private houses. Even there, no lady would attend an event hosted by a single gentleman, unless he had a genteel female acting as his hostess.
This applied to travel as well. Necessarily, since highwaymen were a curse. A lady did not ride the stagecoach (unless she had descended the social ladder to become a governess or companion). At least a maid or older female must travel with her. The groom was armed, and ladies might hire outriders for further protection.
It is probably fair to say that the custom creating these shibboleths was built around the necessity for purity of line. Women were the child-bearers, therefore the source of heirs to titles and property. Purity of line demanded purity of womanhood. A girl must marry with her maidenhead intact and no hint of past scandal.
Scandal was not only to do with sexual encounters either. A lady would never be seen fraternising with women of ill repute—courtesans or fallen women. She was expected to pretend to know nothing about that side of a gentleman’s life.
All this presents an enigma to the novelist with a female Regency sleuth. How is she to investigate if she is restricted as to where she can go? The solution proved simple. Provide her with a male protector, one she can rely on to help her do what she needs to do despite his disapproval.
The male sidekick is also able to do a little sleuthing on her behalf, for he can go where she cannot. Although my heroine Ottilia rapidly becomes adept at cajoling Lord Francis Fanshawe into allowing her to go where no woman has gone before!
In The Mortal Blow, now on pre-order, Lady Fan visits the home of a Madam at a house of ill repute. Naturally, not without Francis for protection!