It’s winter, and that makes it the perfect time to curl up with a hot beverage and a good book. For me, that would probably be something with lovely dresses, big houses, and meaningful glances across the dance floor.
We all love of the pageantry and drama of Regency England that Jane Austen and her peers made real for us. But surely life for those ladies wasn’t entirely tea and marriage proposals. What did they do when they weren’t trying to sort out their personal lives?
First and foremost, they had the full-time job of running their houses. If you were an upper-crust lady in Regency England, keeping house was less like being a modern homemaker and more like being the manager of a large luxury hotel. A grand estate like the fictional Downton Abbey could have as many as fifty people just to do the laundry. Yes, the housekeeper and the butler headed the staff, but the lady of the house was the one in charge of what they did and how they did it. She kept the accounts, paid the wages, settled disputes, hired and fired staff members, and had the final word on all purchases, menu planning, and repair work.
And that’s before we even get to the social responsibilities. Or the dinners. Or the formal parties that could have four hundred guests or more.
Oh, and did I mention that the success of their families was directly dependent on their success at managing their households? Parties and dinners were reported on in the papers, and if things went badly, the whole town could be reading about it over tea and toast the next morning.
And you thought social media was a problem.
But that was the least of anybody’s worries at the time. Even the wealthiest women could find their fortunes precarious. There was no social safety net in Regency England, and no equivalent of the Federal Deposit Insurance Company. There were, however, all kinds of ways to lose spectacular amounts of money in very short periods of time: You could invest in risky stocks—canals were exceedingly popular. You could put all your money in a bank that suddenly failed. You could gamble, borrow from shady lenders, or simply go into debt trying to keep up appearances.
And suddenly you’ve left Austen-land and headed straight for the much gloomier Dickens-town.
If you were a man, you could go into the army or you could (gasp!) get a job. But if you were a woman? Women of the aristocracy were not taught how to work. Yes, managing their homes and their domestic lives was work, but it was unpaid, and that was the key. The second money entered into the equation, any activity became … ungenteel. She began to be considered ungenteel, and from there it was a short step to improper and then isolated.
Now, aristocratic women did work for pay, but it was rare and it was quiet. One of the most popular options was writing for magazines or writing novels. But that option was only open to a few people. What else could a woman whose husband or father or brother failed the family do? Usually, a woman turned, or returned, to her birth family. But if the family couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help?
This was the question I was working on while writing my historical series, The Rosalind Thorne Mysteries. The title of the first book is the answer I found: A Useful Woman.
I first came across the idea in the novel Almack’s by Marianne Spencer Stanhope Hudson. In its day, the book was famous, and deliciously scandalous. But somewhere in the pages of sarcasm, historic gossip, and a really convoluted plot, I found a moment where one character was talking about a friend who had fallen on hard times and become one of “those useful women.”
It turns out that if a woman’s family lost their money, there were ways for her friends to step in. They couldn’t ever offer her money; that would be considered insulting and degrading. But what they could do was invite the unfortunate woman to dinner. A lot. Or invite her to stay with them in the country for a month or more. Or to stay in London for the season.
In return for this extended hospitality, the visitor would make herself useful. She would help with the details of party planning (remember, four hundred or more guests?). She’d make social calls and leave cards, run errands, or do shopping.
She’d also help keep up with accounts and visiting books, as well as write letters. Letters were the fuel for the engine of Regency London, and an aristocratic woman could write up to a dozen in a single day. She also might deal with the newspaper writers, if her patroness had a bit of news about a party or a dinner that she wanted to make sure got a good mention.
I don’t have proof that any of them helped their ladies out of blackmail and murder like Rosalind in A Useful Woman, but you never know.
In return, the useful woman would have a place to stay, at least for a while, which would reduce her expenses. All those errands would give her access to a carriage that she could use to perform her own errands or social calls. She might also be given the occasional gift, a dress, or a hat and gloves, for example. These were things that could be worn or, very discreetly, sold.
But what she was truly being given was a way to keep up appearances and to maintain access to her social world, which was very important. Those contacts would provide all the hope she could have of bettering her circumstances. And maybe, just maybe, finding herself receiving a meaningful glance at one of those parties she helped arrange.
About And Dangerous to Know
When the ladies of the ton of Regency London need discreet assistance, they turn to Rosalind Thorne—in these mysteries inspired by the novels of Jane Austen . . .
Trust is a delicate thing, and no one knows that better than Rosalind Thorne. Lady Melbourne has entrusted her with recovering a packet of highly sensitive private letters stolen from her desk. The contents of these letters hold great interest for the famous poet Lord Byron, who had carried on a notorious public affair with Lady Melbourne’s daughter-in-law, the inconveniently unstable Lady Caroline Lamb. Rosalind is to take up residence in Melbourne House, posing as Lady Melbourne’s confidential secretary. There, she must discover the thief and regain possession of the letters before any further scandal erupts.
However, Lady Melbourne omits a crucial detail. Rosalind learns from the Bow Street runner Adam Harkness that an unidentified woman was found dead in the courtyard of Melbourne House. The coroner has determined that she was poisoned. Adam urges Rosalind to use her new position in the household to help solve the murder. As she begins to untangle a web of secrets and blackmail, Rosalind finds she must risk her own life to bring this desperate business to an end.
About the Author
Darcie Wilde is the award-winning author of the Rosalind Thorne Mysteries, a Regency-set historical mystery series inspired by the novels of Jane Austen, as well as the Regency Makeover Trilogy of eNovellas. Visit her online at DarcieWildeRomance.com and at the social platform below.