History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 January 2007

Women in the Victorian Village

While working on my latest historical (tentatively titled A Rake’s Guide to Ruin), I needed to research a wide range of topics. The hero is a rich, elegant duke--pretty familiar territory for most of us--but the heroine. . . She’s a piece of work.

Her life starts on a grand (if run down) estate but from there she moves to a small country village, then to London, and finally a tiny, remote cottage on the Yorkshire coast. While she was running about, I spent a lot of time at the university library.

A book called The Victorian Village by David Souden paints a fascinating picture of the English village during the changeable Victorian era. For the village women, of course, there was washing and cooking and mending and cleaning inside the home. She tended the children and the garden, which provided most of the food for the family. The average adult ate only twelve ounces of meat a week, though "average" might be a meaningless word. Men earned the hard money, and they were treated with preference at the table. The father was served first, then the sons, and mother and daughters came last.

In the first half of the Victorian era, it was also common for women to work the fields, but the Industrial Revolution changed that. As farming became more automated, agricultural jobs grew less plentiful, and women were forced out except in times of high demand like harvest season. (Does that sound familiar?)

But most regions of England had some sort of cottage industry. Women made lace and buttons, gloves and stockings. They wove and spun wool and plaited straw for hats and baskets. Aside from the money, the work was a much-needed outlet for the women, who would often gather together in one home to work and socialize. The money wasn’t bad either; some of the extremely skilled women could earn more than their husbands.

So where were the children? Well, unless they were still nursing, they were probably hard at work too. The very young girls watched the babies. In The Rural Life of England, William Howitt wrote, "The little creatures go lugging about great fat babies that really seem as heavy as themselves. You may see them on the commons, or little open green spots in the lanes near their homes, congregating together, two or three juvenile nurses, with their charges, carrying them along…" When they got older they worked alongside their mothers in the home, in the fields or wherever else they were needed. But all of this changed with the Industrial Revolution.

Whole counties of England lost their cottage industries to machines in cities that made lace and buttons and textiles. In 1851, there were 10,000 lacemakers in Buckinghamshire; in 1901, there were 789. There were 20,000 straw-plaiters in Bedfordshire in 1871. By 1901, there were only 485.

At the start of the Queen Victoria’s rule, two-thirds of British people lived in the country. By the end of her reign only a quarter lived in rural areas. The granddaughters of those hard-working village women might stay in the country, but their only opportunity for work would likely be as servants. The age of the idyllic English village was over.

Though I read lots of books featuring Englishwomen with daring occupations (Alexandra from my book To Tempt a Scotsman manages her brother’s estates), I think there are some stories to be found in these cottage industries of the nineteenth century. What about a heroine who takes over the family business of dealing in fine lace? Or a young woman who organizes the women of her county and makes them enough money to find some independence?

(Btw, I will post another euphemism blog soon, but I'm waiting until Kalen is back in the US. She's the only other Hoyden I'm sure is as dirty as I am. For all I know, the rest of you are perfectly dignified and ladylike.)


Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hey Vicki! I'm still in Morocco, but I'm checking in when I can. I love the idea of stories about working class people (and I know Susan W. will second me on this!). I think it can be a hard sell to editors, though. *grumble* Can't wait to hear more about your intrepid heroine!

1:15 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Sounds like a great story, Vicki! I too love stories about commoners and the working class. I have an unsold Regency manuscript about a man who deals in Renaissance art who is forced into marriage with an impoverished Baron's daughter.

And my upcoming February 13 release, "Bedding the Beast," features a couple who live on an 1880's farm in Pennsylvania. Life was hard, but they didn't know any different so to them it's just "life." My heroine thinks it's a luxury to have a pump in their one-room farmhouse.

who also would love another nasty euphemism post.

1:19 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Doreen, I was reading your post and it suddenly occurred to me that working-class romance is perfectly acceptable--and EXPECTED--in Westerns! I guess even the most romantic of us doesn't want to imagine rich people trying to survive on the plains. HAHAHAHA

(and I'm glad to hear you're down with the dirty euphemisms!)

7:28 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

. . .I wonder if it's because there is a different mindset about the West and the US in general. I think there is a tendency to regard poor English villagers in a serf-like way. Impoverished and uneducated. Quirky and bumpkinish. (I am picturing those paintings of drunken harvest dances. . . Buxom wenches and their ruddy beaus.)

Whereas we think of the people settling the West as determined and strong and stoic. Poor, yes, but sacrificing everything for a better life. ????

7:33 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Doreen, I was reading your post and it suddenly occurred to me that working-class romance is perfectly acceptable--and EXPECTED--in Westerns!

I realized the same thing a few months ago while analyzing why my gritty Regency/Peninsular War romance with a working class, enlisted hero hasn't sold yet and what that means for what I should write next. Thing is, I don't want to write Westerns! I enjoy reading them on occasion, but the era and setting don't grab me enough to make me want to do the research I'd need to write one. I decided to try my hand at mainstream historical fiction instead, though just yesterday I had an idea for a historical mystery series with a working-class amateur sleuth. I wish my muse would MAKE UP HIS MIND and pick a genre. (I always think of my muse as male--no idea why.)

10:31 AM  

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