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My Obsession with the Fate of Orphans and Poor Relations

“Genteel” women of the late 18th Century and Regency era, in which my books are set, had few choices in life. This was a time when status depended on birth rather than wealth as it does in our day. If you happened to be born into the landed classes, you were privileged. But no privilege is ever all roses.


With that particular privilege came a host of restrictions, especially for women. The expected path was to be groomed into a potential wife for a landed gentleman. The higher your birth status, the more restricted in terms of choice. The higher the rank of your father’s peerage, the higher the rank to be looked for in your future husband.


The vast majority of genteel women were born into families of lesser rank and title, if any. Like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who owned a house with some land and probably obtained his income from rents on properties thereon. Mrs Bennet’s sole mission in life is to find suitable husbands for her five daughters.


What would happen to these girls if they failed to secure a husband? We know that both the elder daughters married well and secured well-protected futures. The youngest made a runaway match and lived precariously on her husband’s low income and help from her better-off elder sisters. We don’t know what happened to the two middle daughters, but we can assume that if they did not marry, once Mr Bennet died and the property passed to his cousin, Mr Collins, the wealthy husbands of Jane and Elizabeth would, at the persuasion of their wives, provide for them and their mother.


By contrast, when the three daughters lose their father in Sense and Sensibility, their half-brother, who inherits the estate, is persuaded by his spiteful and ambitious wife to reduce the money they receive. The daughters are rescued by their mother’s cousin, who offers them a home in a cottage near his estate.


This demonstrates the plight of genteel women who had a small or no “portion” to offer a potential husband. No marriage, and she would likely dwindle into an aging spinster expected to help out her married siblings at need in exchange for board and lodging.


If a genteel girl without means was orphaned, the situation was worse. Failing a named guardian, and if no generous relative was willing to take them in, what could they do? No genteel lady could engage in trade without losing status. The only occupation open to such women was that of governess or companion.


Whether such occupations were congenial depended on the character of the employers. Like a drudge of a poor relation, a companion might be obliged to fetch and carry and endure a barrage of insults or complaints, but at least she would be part of a social circle.


The governess, on the other hand, was doomed to a lonely existence in a limbo status below her employers, although above the upper servants of the house. She would likely dine alone in her room or with her charges until they were older and joined the adults at dinner. Perhaps she would be invited to dine with the family on special occasions.


It is easy to see why women were willing to marry almost anyone for the sake of securing a home of their own, regardless of the character of the husband. Pride and Prejudice gives us an example of this with Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte, who marries Mr Collins exactly for that reason.


As we have seen, the alternatives were not inviting. It is a dilemma, however, that presents an author of historical romance with a wealth of possibilities.


Such is my obsession, I have devoted an entire series to stories about women of that era who seem doomed to spinsterhood and very likely drudgery. The heroines of Brides by Chance Regency Adventures all fall into one or other of the situations described above.


In my Governess Trilogy, I have picked up three such girls and settled them at the Paddington Charitable Seminary for Indigent Young Ladies run by Mrs Duxford, a stern but kindly woman dedicated to training orphans for the role of governess.


From this unpromising future, I have plucked my Cinderellas and granted them instead the romance of the proverbial rough path to love and happiness. Thus the magic of authorship!




1 Comment

Alis N.
Alis N.
Jun 14

I always enjoy rereading your books, Elizabeth, mainly because, apart from the excellent and engaging writing, the heroines are believable, and they engage one’s emotions. I’m now on book 9 of the murder mystery books, and thoroughly enjoying them.

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