Anne here, blogging on a question sent in by Maureen Emmons (and thus Maureen wins one of my books.)
On women's rights: Before women had the right to vote I was under the impression that they had no rights at all. If this is correct then do you take this into consideration when writing your female characters?
Thanks for the interesting question, Maureen. It's quite a complex area, so forgive me, experts, if I over simplify. And feel free to explain in more depth in the comments section.
Single Women retained much
It's not quite correct to say women had no rights at all. They were limited, depending on the woman's marital status. If a woman never married, she retained the rights to any property she had inherited or any money she earned, as any individual would. In practice, daughters most commonly inherited personal property and sums of money, while sons inherited land, houses, businesses and the like, but if there were no sons, women could inherit everything, unless the estate was entailed.
Entailed means there was a legal agreement in place that prevented a current owner from selling or otherwise disposing of property such as estates or houses or land. It was designed to protect the heir's inheritance, and it took a legal act to break an entail.
Married Women lost everything
Married women pretty much lost all their individual rights on marriage. By the law of the time, the act of marriage united two persons into one, and thus all property and rights were held by the husband. Children were likewise held to be the property of the husband, as was in effect the woman — she had no right to deny her husband his conjugal rights to her body. He also had the right in law to any money she earned.
But marriage settlements could help.
Having no legal rights in marriage didn't mean that all women were entirely unprotected, however. Many families took great care to draw up marriage settlements — contracts in which the welfare of the women were safeguarded as far as possible. Marriage settlements could contain agreements that some or all of the property a woman brought to a marriage would revert to her after the death of her husband. These settlements would also stipulate income — the allowance a married woman might be paid quarterly or annually (sometimes referred to as 'pin money') and there might be conditions about future children and what they might inherit.
Marriage settlements would also make provision for a woman after widowhood. A dowager is a widow who lives under conditions that would have been set up in her marriage settlements. A 'dower house' is a house set aside for the use of a widow until her death, and the 'jointure' you may have read of is the annual income set aside for the support of a widow.
These provisions would be set out in in legal contracts signed by the heads of both families before the wedding, and thus her rights would be protected by law. These rights were usually overseen, however, by a male relative on her behalf. She still had little personal control.
A widow could inherit money or property from her husband, and retain it, just as an unmarried woman could. However the only way she could keep it and still marry again was to place it in a trust.
It all depended on the luck of the draw
In summary, a woman's welfare more or less depended on the benevolence of her husband or male relatives, and on how clever and comprehensive the settlements before her marriage were. Some women's rights were gradually introduced long before they were given the right to vote, but that's a subject for another blog.
The Law and my heroines
As for how I deal with this situation in writing my female characters, it's a balancing act. And an opportunity.
I don't believe human nature has changed all that much over time. Expectations change, laws change, rights change but people are still people. I also think that in most day to day life we don't tend to resort to legal rights. It's the kind of thing we only think about if we're denied them.
The lack of rights that women chafed against most in the Regency era were things like control of property, income, custody and access to their children, and the right to their own bodies — the right to say no to a husband, in effect. These were everyday realities for my heroines, and I try to imagine what any woman of spirit would do when confronted by them.
I've used some of these situations to put my heroines in a difficult position at the beginning of a novel. I've often had a heroine left in a vulnerable position as a result of her father's lack of care — Gallant Waif, An Honorable Thief — or as a result of a husband's improvidence — The Virtuous Widow.
In The Perfect Rake, the sisters were under the control of a violent and unbalanced guardian — their grandfather. He had the right to beat them, and nobody would step in to act on their behalf, so they took their future into their own hands and ran away. Their solution also involves wills and settlements, but it's too complicated to explain here.
In The Stolen Princess, the heroine's main concern is to protect her son from his uncle, who has designs on his inheritance. Again, all she can do is flee, and in the end, she makes a convenient marriage for the protection the hero can provide.
In His Captive Lady, at the beginning of the story, the heroine had a baby out of wedlock, her father took the child away as she slept and she has no idea where her baby is. In To Catch a Bride, the heroine is very much regarded as a piece of property, and she uses all kinds of stratagems to avoid discovery. (To explain any further would be a spoiler, sorry.)
In my upcoming January book, Bride by Mistake, (see the beautiful cover on the left) the heroine's cousin berates her for losing her mother's fortune by marrying in haste without having proper marriage settlements drawn up to protect her interests and those of her children.
Ramón glowered. He turned to Isabella. “Did you not negotiate the marriage settlements?”
Isabella flung him a scornful look. Of course she had not negotiated settlements. She was thirteen and fleeing from her violent pig of a cousin.
To Luke she said, “So, you would leave me entirely to your mother’s mercy?”
“Why not? My mother is very nice,” he assured her.
She narrowed her eyes at him. Luke smiled, confirming everything she’d thought. She bared her teeth at him in what was not exactly a smile. Oh, she would make him pay for this.
Ramón exploded. “You stupid bitch! Marrying an Englishman without thought or preparation. Dazzled by his pretty face!” He smashed his big meaty fist against the wall, making them all jump. “The money belongs here, here at Valle Verde! And now it’s lost, lost to you and lost to Valle Verde.”
“And lost to you, which is some compensation, at least,” Isabella said.
Ramón shook his head. “You should have married me! This is what comes of running from your family—you marry a stranger, an Englishman!” He spat.
“Still better than marrying you!” Isabella flashed.
“You brainless little slut, he’s not going to look after you. Don’t you understand? When he dies you’ll be penniless, no better than a beggar, dependent on the charity of strangers—”
“I’d rather be penniless than married to a pig like y—”
Ramón raised his hand. And found a sword at his throat.
“Lay one finger on my wife and you’re a dead man,” Luke said softly.
I don't give my heroines modern attitudes, but because I want modern readers to understand and identify with them, I try to show my heroines being strong and independent thinkers within the restrictions of their times. They use their wits, their brains and their courage to change their situations.
And then there are my heroes. I don't give my heroes modern sensibilities either, but as men of honor, they are protective and fair-minded toward women. And gorgeous. <G> As I said earlier, a woman's situation in marriage very much depended on the attitude of her husband.
So as a writer, I try to give my heroines a happy ending a modern reader would be happy with, but without violating or distorting the realities of the time. But as I said, it's a balancing act.
What about you? Does it bother you to read Regency era characters with modern attitudes? I must confess, some writers can sweep me away so I barely notice it. It all comes down to what you look for most, historical accuracy or story. What do you look for?
And if you're a writer, how would you answer Maureen's question?