I am SO pleased to have Krista Ball on my blog today to talk about her newest book – Husters, Harlots, and Heroes: A Regenc and Steampunk Field Guide. This is the follow up to her previous book – What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank. Both of these are invaluable research tools for writers, and even better? They’re SO much fun to read! So, without further ado, here’s Krista!
I came into Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes with a good grounding in what “poor” looked like in a Georgian or Victorian setting. However, I wanted to know what everyone out there saw as “poor”. I turned to social media and posed the question, “When you think of the Regency era, who do you consider poor?”
The Regency period is just a small period that this book intersects, but it is a trendy time period. If you know of the Regency period, it’s probably because of Jane Austen. Perhaps you own all of her books, movies, modern variations, and manners guides. On the other hand, perhaps you were forced to watch Pride and Prejudice in 1995 by your university sweetheart and still mourn the loss of those six hours.
So I asked the question and the list was nearly all of upper middle class to upper class women deemed as “poor.” None of these women were allowed or expected to work. They had servants and relied on the charity and good-will of others. Now, having a servant or helper wasn’t unusual for impoverished people of the era; this was a time before microwave ovens and laundry machines. But consider, however poor old Miss Bates in Emma might have been, the maid-of-all-work that worked for her would have been even poorer.
It’s at this juncture that we must butt up against the myth that women didn’t work back then.
Most women worked jobs, as did most men. They worked for themselves or others, but they worked nonetheless. Money didn’t grow on trees. The meager social safety net that existed was appalling. The majority of British people worked bloody hard just to survive. Balls, fine muslin, and crinolines were things of fantasy for many teenaged girls, as were the horses, sports cars – I mean curricles – and fine claret.
More people were poor, as opposed to comfortable. Even fewer were wealthy, and still less were rich. According to the social researcher Charles Booth (1840-1916), 31% of late-Victorian London’s residents lived in poverty. The majority of the rest just above poverty, and most had fallen into poverty at one point in their lives.
I don’t fault any writer for thinking that women such as the infamous Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), were a dime a dozen. Georgiana’s life has been highlighted in several books, paintings, and even a feature film. During her lifetime, she travelled in such exalted circles that the Prince Regent himself once had a temper tantrum in her foyer.
So when writers sit down to write a poor family in Regency London, it’s easy to think a woman relying on her wealthy brothers was the poorest of the poor, excluding maybe the destitute sleeping in the gutters. It’s understandable to mistake that no women worked, since we don’t often see heroines working in the most popular books from the era, with the exception of being a governess – and the most famous of those inherited a fortune and married a wealthy man. Ladies in more modern novels sometimes enter a romanticized version of prostitution, where everyone is a glamorous courtesan and not addicted to gin, where their first client rescues them with a marriage proposal.
I’ve read plenty of romances and adventure books where women living in the “depths of poverty” were well-educated, but lived in three-bedroom apartments, received small annuities to keep them afloat, and travelled extensively in their own little part of the world. For a duchess, sure, that would be poverty. For most Londoners, that would be winning the life lottery.
This is an excerpt from Krista D. Ball’s new book, Hustlers, Harlots, and Heroes: A Regency and Steampunk Field Guide. C 2014, published by Tyche Books.
Sounds amazing, right?!
For those who haven’t yet read the previous guide – What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank – it has been reduced to just 99c to celebrate the launch. That sale is only going to last a few days, so grab it while you can.