Last month, Wench Loretta’s blog Too Young to Marry? began a fascinating discussion about the ages of our historical heroines, and whether the young women of the past were more mature at an earlier age and better prepared to assume adult responsibilities than their contemporaries today.
There were many different examples given of young women, both from history and from fiction, a most capable bunch. But the more I thought about this question, the more I realized how all the young women we mentioned, whether from the American west or a Jane Austen novel, all had a certain level of family support and education to help them on their way. Jane Eyre was an orphan, but educated well enough to become a governess. The women in Sense and Sensibility are said to have been left paupers when Mr. Dashwood died, yet there is poor, and there is poor, and the Dashwoods’ degree of poverty still allowed for a handsome “cottage” and a servant or two.
In male-oriented fiction, real rags-to-riches stories abound. The orphan from the workhouse becomes the
industrious apprentice who marries the master’s daughter and eventually owns the business. The barefoot cabin-boy toils at his navigation and works his way up through the ranks to become an admiral. The immigrant son learns English, puts himself through law school while working two jobs to support his widowed mother, becomes a crusading district attorney, and finally governor.
But where are the girls? Before the twentieth century made education more universal for women, there were many more girls starting life in sweatshop factories, dairies, and as servants than those sharing the comfortable “plight” of the Dashwood sisters. Granted, the sexism and prejudice of the past would have made it quite challenging for a poor girl to work her way upwards to prosperity, yet it did occasionally happen. Industrious, low-born women did become master silversmiths, cooks in great houses, and owners of prosperous inns and shops, though never to the same giddy heights of success that men could. Of course the surest way for a woman to rise was on the coattails of a man, as a wife or a mistress, but even then in reality there were very few peers willing to play Henry Higgins for the sake of an aspiring Eliza Doolittles from the street.
So why aren’t there more in fiction beyond Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair and The Unsinkable Molly Brown? We writers are supposed to be in the business of dreams and escape and giddy “what if.” Why don’t more girls get the Horatio Alger treatment? In much contemporary women’s fiction, the message is even worse. The heroines do get the chance to work hard to achieve success –– power, glamour, careers, wealth –– but their success seems only to make them miserable in a way that never affects heroes. The only way these heroines can be truly happy is to return to their humble roots in the decaying small town/low-paying job/high school crush that they’d worked so hard to escape in the first place. They’re almost like cautionary tales against dreaming too high. Heck, look what happened to enterprising Mildred Pierce and her pie-shops!
But, as usual, I digress.
I have to admit that I’d never written a true rags-to-riches heroine myself. Oh, I’ve done a couple that came close, a fisherman’s daughter and a seamstress, but never anyone who starts out with every card stacked against her. Which is one of the reasons I was so captivated by Nell Gwyn, the 17th century woman whose life forms the story of my next historical novel, The King’s Favorite, due out this summer.
Born in Oxford in 1650, Nell was the illegitimate daughter of a soldier and camp-follower. When her father was killed in the English Civil War, her mother moved to London with Nell and her older sister, where they lived above the brothel where the mother worked. By any standard, it was an appalling childhood. Malnourished, illiterate, and beaten by her alcoholic mother, young Nell worked as a barefoot herring vendor in the street by day and served ale at the brothel by night.
But Nell was ambitious, and refused to follow the grim path taken by her mother and sister. She was
determined to do better for herself in the raucous world of 17th century London. She was clever, funny, and charming, a talented singer and dancer, and blessed (or cursed) with an almost insatiable need for an audience to entertain. By fifteen, she was selling oranges in the new Theatre Royal and bantering merrily with lords and peers. A year later, she was one of the first actresses on the English stage. Before her twentieth birthday, she’d made herself a headlining star, with plays written specifically to showcase her talents and crowds of fans cheering her wherever she went.
In a promiscuous era, Nell had only four lovers during her short life. The most famous, of course, was King Charles II, but she insisted on establishing a friendship between them long before she shared his bed –– likely the reason she was his lover for nearly fifteen years, until his death. Yet no matter how high Nell rose, she never forgot where she’d started, and remained as great a favorite with the common folk in the street as she was at the palace. Even today Nell Gwyn is something of a folk-hero in England, a splendid testimony to her “rags to riches” life, and a wonderful inspiration for me as I told her story.
Is your memory for books better than mine? Can you name more true “rags to riches” heroines than I could? Do you admire such women, or would you rather your heroine came equipped with her silver spoon rather than have to earn it?