Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Loose Women in Regency England

Allegra Gray joins us today to promote her book Nothing but Scandal, which hit bookstores July 7th. Allegra is a former military officer, turned English professor, turned defense analyst -- and she's also my critique partner ;) I can guarantee Nothing but Scandal will have you reading long into the wee hours to root for a sexy hero and a sympathetic heroine. Please welcome Allegra Gray to the Five Scribes. Post a comment or question, and be entered in a a drawing for a book give-away -- winner determined on Friday.

First, thank you to the Five Scribes for hosting me ;).

Second, I must begin this post with a disclaimer (well, actually, two): The academic in me must have been asleep when I selected this topic. Otherwise I would have realized I cannot begin to cover in one post what others have taken entire doctoral dissertations to discuss. The second disclaimer is that talking about the topic of loose women or prostitution and how it is handled in romance novels means we are dealing with fiction. Many writers strive for historical accuracy--but only to a point. We create dukes and earls in numbers far greater than ever existed, and part of the fun in writing historical novels is dreaming up ways our characters can bend the rules of their time and--as long as the rule-bending is done in pursuit of true love and passion--be rewarded.

But I digress. What fascinates me about the question of women's morality and sexuality in Regency England is that there are so many shades of gray. Take prostitutes, for example. At its basic level, we all understand that prostitution is: trading sexual favors for money (or some other tangible form of compensation).

Romance novels abound with tales of women who must marry for money (including my own "Nothing but Scandal" ...though my heroine takes a rather unusual approach). Yet to marry for money was not considered immoral--making a "good match" (not usually measured by love!) appears to have been downright encouraged. These women are in a tight spot, and are essentially trading themselves as a way out of that spot, but in the historical setting, we don't usually call their morals into question for this. In fact, the merest moral slip...a conversation with a strange man (or, heaven forbid, being alone with a man no matter what the circumstances) could lead to a woman being "ruined" and therefore unsuitable for a "proper" marriage.

But what about the many mistresses also populating the romance novels set in Regency England? Some are skilled courtesans accustomed to pleasing men of the upper class in exchange for "protection"--a house, an allowance, jewelry and clothing...but with no expectation of marriage or love. A "lady" would not associate with such a woman, yet we as readers routinely forgive our heroes for doing so, especially if they DO fall in love with the woman. Even if they don't we expect them to have had some past experience and a well-kept mistress or two (or possibly a few more) fits the bill. Rarely do our books feature heroes with a habit of frequenting the cheapest brothels in town: it's just not "heroic." (Unless he's visiting for some type of altruistic purpose that has nothing to do with his own "baser urges," but that would be a whole other story).

I've also seen many examples (both in real history and novels) of mistresses who are lifelong companions to a single man...they may share love and even children, but due to societal "rules" about class, they do so outside the bounds of marriage. Are these loose women?

There are certainly more clear-cut cases: the women who worked in brothels or the tavern maid who could be tipped a little extra for a quick "tumble." When the exchange is purely monetary, it is easier to apply that label of "loose" or "prostitute." Even then, though, we must ask if the woman prostituting herself is doing so because of loose morals or for other reasons...what led the woman to such a lifestyle, what other options might or might not have been available to her?). In both real history and novels, though, the street whore generally draws the least respect from the remainder of society.

Of course, the great thing about writing fiction is the endless possibility, and I know there are some wonderful writers out there making heroines out of low-born characters and doing a darn fine job of it. After all, a loose woman has possibilities for an interesting life story that a purely innocent, well-bred girl just might not have :)

The key is, these writers manage such storylines successfully not because they ignore societal conventions of the time period of their stories, but because they become experts on the obstacles and prejudices such a woman would face, then dream up creative ways to overcome them. And that is the power (and pleasure) of writing ;).

About Nothing but Scandal:


When her father dies leaving her penniless and without prospects, Elizabeth Medford is faced with a horrible future: marriage to the vile Harold Wetherby. Her family thinks he's a brilliant choice, but Elizabeth has witnessed Wetherby's cruel nature and knows a life with him would be a miserable one. If only he didn't want to marry her...but for that to be the case, she would have to have a damaged reputation, and despite her father's missteps, Elizabeth's own name is pristine among society...so far...


A brilliant plan is hatched: Elizabeth will organize her own ruin and escape the betrothal, leavng her old life behind. The only hitch is the man she hopes will do the ruining--the irresistible Alex Bainbridge, Duke of Beaufort. But he has secrets of his own that make Elizabeth Medford a woman he should avoid at all costs--for both their sakes. He insists he will have no part in her crazy scheme...no matter how tempting she may be...


Helen Hardt said...

Fascinating post, Allegra. I think the "shades of grey" as you put it, are what draw me to the Regency period. Authors can really push the envelope, and a Regency is always a great read!

Teresa Bodwell said...

It is an interesting question--what is loose morals and what is merely pragmatic.

We have a similar situation in historical westerns. Single women living in the West didn't have a lot of choices in profession. Obtaining the protection of a man might require at least some of her work to be on her back--so to speak.

Maybe not a fun life, but really fun to read and write about.

Robin said...

And I love the unusual approach your heroine takes, Allegra! Great story and interesting blog topic!

Allegra Gray said...

Hi Helen,

Thanks for dropping by! Yes, the "rules" of Regency society are fun to work with, and it's deliciously satisfying to bring a hero and heroine together in spite of all the restrictions they might have faced!


Allegra Gray said...


Hi! I think the question of pragmatism vs. morality is one that applies to women in so many time periods and locals, westerns and Regencies included. :) Of course, there's also the question of why we're so tolerant of "loose" morals in the men who populate these books (at least before they meet the heroine), but that's another topic!


Donnell said...

Allegra, I love your qualifiers that you'd have to write a dissertation to expand on this topic and that writers bring to the written page more nobility than ever existed.

Also, as the professional you are, I'd love your opinion: why do you think readers are so drawn to the days when women had no voice, no money and no say....

Leslie Ann said...

Allegra, welcome to Five Scribes.

Great topic!! I think the conflict this decision brings to a character is fascinating and enduring as it colors the entire story.

I love reading this time period for it feels exotic, even alien to me.

I think your take on writers understanding the obstacles and then using them (or finding ways around them) is spot on. A great lesson for us.


Allegra Gray said...

Hi Donnell!

My answer to your question has a couple parts...the first is not very PC, but here goes:

I think women today shoulder SO much responsibility...jobs, kids, managing a house and financial planning for the future, taking care of elderly relatives...the list could go on. Sometimes it's nice to indulge in a fantasy where a big, strong, handsome hero "rescues" you by taking many of those worries away, and all you have to do is love him. (I think this also explains a lot of the popularity of the Harlequin Presents series, where the hero is always some kind of international tycoon).

There's a lot of things a modern woman probably *wouldn't* like if this fantasy were to come true, but that's why it's a fantasy.

Another answer is that although societal structure in the Regency period didn't make it easy for women to have a say or money of their own, there WERE women who did manage to be very influential, and when we bestow our heroines with some of the characteristics of these stand-out women, it is a testament to the strength of a woman even in hard times.

All JMO, of course! :)


Debbie Kaufman said...

Morning Allegra:
Congratulations on the release! Geek that I am, the dissertation would be almost as fascinating as the fiction. But that's probably just me! I guess the challenge (one of them) with writing the Regency period is staying within those conventions and yet coming up with a fresh story. How did you manage that?

Allegra Gray said...

Hi Leslie Ann,

Thanks for your comment and for stopping by!


Allegra Gray said...

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for commenting. As to how to come up with a fresh story yet staying with conventions, I think it all comes down to that indefinable thing: a writer's voice. There are certain plot elements or character types that have been used in fiction since the ancient Greeks, yet audiences still respond to them (and love and expect them!), and every new storyteller tells the story with different words, different nuances, that make it fresh.


Shelley Munro said...

Congratulations on your release, Allegra. I really like the sound of your plot. The rules etc during this time fascinate me, and as you say, the shades of grey and contradictions. As a reader, I like to cheer for the underdog and a woman managing to better herself gets a big cheer.

sheandeen said...

I see it all as a matter of pragmatics. Women have been 'bought and sold' into marriage for years in more than one culture.

This is an interesting topic--thanks for sharing.

Beth Groundwater said...

Fascinating topic, Allegra! I can't wait to read your book. When and where is your next Colorado signing?

Allegra said...


Thanks for dropping by! My next Colorado signing is actually tonight, July 24th, from 7-9 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble up on Briargate (near Chapel Hills Mall). Would love to see you there!


Donnell said...

The winner of Allegra's drawing for Nothing but Scandal is Debbie Kaufman. Congratulations, Debbie!