I noticed this juicy question on the Topic List our Whipmistress maintains, and decided it was a perfect choice for a blog by a Wench with more opinions than time. <g> Maureen Emmons asked, “I am wondering what you would have to change about yourself to fit into the historical time period that you are currently writing in?”
Let me count the ways! To begin with, I’d probably be dead and the issue would be moot. I’m told that as an infant, I had pneumonia and the doctor came to the house and gave me penicillin. Since there were no antibiotics in the Regency, I might well have become just another example of infant mortality. (Historical note: there were some folk medicine practitioners who used a gloopy mixture involving moldy bread which could have been a de facto version of penicillin, but this wasn’t a widespread treatment.)
Assuming I didn’t die in the cradle in the late 18th century, who else would I have to change to be a Regency lady? For starters, I’d have to give up a whole lot of independence, not to mention that distressing tendency I had as a child to want to prove I was smarter than any of the boys in the class. “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
I’m sure that there have always been females who have known they were the equal or superiors of the males in the vicinity—and even in the 21st century, we get grief for it. Competition is so unladylike.
There were independent, self-supporting women in the Regency. There have been in all eras. But usually that path was from necessity, not choice. Through the centuries, women have become alewives or laundresses or taken on other trades. Not many became self-supporting writers as I have. (Actually, that’s rare even now, but at least it’s not unthinkable.)
Historically, marriage was an economic partnership, with each party contributing essential services. Most often this took the form of the husband working to put food on the table and a roof over the family heads, either through subsistence farming or wages while the wife bore children, cooked, cleaned, ran the household, and cared for anyone who needed care.
Things have not entirely changed—it’s still a model that works well. But now we have many more choices. In the Regency, the choices I’ve made for my current life would have been highly unlikely. Instead of going to school and taking academic courses, I’d have had to spend my late adolescence surveying the eligible local men to decide which would be the best bet as a husband—someone who would take good care of me and the children I hoped to have, and was also someone I liked well enough to live with.
This was a HUGE decision. In the Regency, if you married someone you were mated for life. Occasionally there were legal separations, and in a bad marriage, death probably started looking like a decent option. But there were a bare handful of divorces, since it took an act of Parliament (and a lot of money) to get a divorce.
What would I have to change in order to fit into daily life? For one thing, I’d have to get used to different clothes, such as wearing skirts all the time. From an anthropological point of view, dress style tends to follow climate. In very cold areas, everyone tends to wear trousers—think Eskimos. In very hot areas, everyone tends to wear some form of skirt. Think the sarongs and loose robes of Asia, or the sometimes minimalist clothing of equatorial Africa.
In temperate zones clothing tends to follow lifestyle. Men who were out and about in the world, riding, working the farm, etc, wore trousers. Women, with a more home centered life, wore skirts because homes were warmer than fields. These practical customs became enshrined as something next door to divine law: It was shocking, SHOCKING!, for females to wear trousers, and even worse for men to wear skirts. (Someone, probably Jo, could write a lovely blog about how dressing in drag is considered the height of British male humor, but that’s another topic. <g>)
These days, women are as likely to be out and about as men, so many of us wear trousers most of the time. What was shocking in ‘30s Hollywood—think Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn in their trousers—became a way of life starting in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m old enough to remember the dress codes that were common. Offices and restaurants where women had to wear dresses all the time. Ugh!
To some extent, I’m weather oriented about dress—in the heat of summer, I often wear long, loose skirts. But 98% of the time (at a conservative estimate), I wear trousers, and I’d hate to give up that freedom.
Assuming I could adjust to living a quiet, home centered Regency life, I’d still have to learn to wear the clothes. Properly made stays aren’t uncomfortable, but they do require different movements. When Wenchling Nina wore accurate Regency dress for a historical weekend, she found that her correct corset meant that she had no upper body strength: she couldn’t even lift a small suitcase out of the trunk of her car. She had to learn a new way of moving that was forced on her by her clothing. This included not being able to lift her arms even as high as her shoulders.
For modern women who are used to freedom of moment, this would be a dramatic change. <mjp picturing herself lying on the floor to coax a cat out from under the sofa. Would that be possible in Regency garb? Difficult, at the least!)
What about eating? That I can actually address from experience, since I lived in England for two years in the 70s, and that gave me a sense of lived closer to the natural cycle. Refrigerators were often tiny, what we call office size, if houses had them at all. In the cool English climate, food didn’t spoil quickly, and besides, women usually went to the shops for food several times a week, even daily.
Most interestingly, the English ate much closer to the seasonal calendar. In the U.S., most produce was (and is) available any time of the year. The tomatoes might bounce like rubber balls and the strawberries have no flavor, but you can buy them in December. In England, you only ate strawberries for the few weeks in early summer when they were in season—but you really appreciated them, and the flavor was fabulous. All this would be even more true during the Regency.
In the nature of things, Regency people were “locavores”—people who ate food produced locally and seasonally. That could be a whole blog in itself. (No orange juice! No olive oil! But lots of gooseberries in season.
I could prattle on indefinitely, but shall control myself for today. Maybe I’ll come back to this topic another day. But for now—Maureen, I owe you a book! If you go to the book list pages of my website, www.maryjoputney.com, you can look for a book of mine you might enjoy. If it’s in mass market and I have sufficient copies, I’ll sign and send. (You can e-mail me from the contact link on my website.)