Janice Preston on the precarious financial position of women in the Regency era

Thank you so much for featuring me on your blog today, Jane.

The plight of women in the male-dominated Regency era has always fascinated me, particularly the challenges faced by the daughters of the gentry and the nobility, who faced an uncertain future if they failed to marry. Most women had few rights at this time. The daughter of a gentleman or a nobleman might grow up with more privilege than a woman of the lower classes, but her life was restricted by her family and the mores of society until she married, when she would pass from the control of her father to that of her husband. Under marriage law of the time, husband and wife became one person under the law and all property and rights (and, thus, power) were legally held by the husband. Any children were held to be his property, as was his wife – she had no right to refuse conjugal rights and neither did she have the right to keep any money she earned, nor to own any property. This would not change until the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882.


Phew! She’d better choose her husband wisely, then! But there was some protection. If her father was prudent—and if he could afford to—he would negotiate marriage settlements to safeguard his daughter’s position financially, to guarantee her an allowance and to make provisions to protect her if she was widowed. These settlements were still overseen by a male relative, though – the woman herself had little personal control.


A wife did enjoy some standing within her household and society, however, whereas spinsterhood was seen as an undesirable option for women of any class. Women who failed to marry faced unenviable challenges in a society where a woman’s worth was determined by her marital status. Looked down on, and often the butt of cruel jokes, the spinster often faced a life of poverty unless she had independent means – unusual in a society structured around primogeniture. There were only two choices open to such women, even those from affluent families – find a job to support herself (and the options for ladies were extremely limited if they wished to remain respectable) or depend upon the benevolence of their relatives to support them.


So, a woman's welfare essentially depended on the goodwill of her husband or male relatives, and I’ve often used these circumstances to place my heroines in vulnerable positions at the beginning of my stories, but I’ve also written about the opposite – a rare heroine who was a peeress in her own right, single and a wealthy baroness (Return of Scandal’s Son)!


My current trilogy, Lady Tregowan’s Will, tells the stories of three young women left in difficult circumstances after the deaths of their fathers. In The Rags-to-Riches Governess, heroine Leah works as a governess after finding herself alone in the world. In The Cinderella Heiress, heroine Beatrice is the poor relation, relying on the charity of her brother and his wife. In The Penniless Debutante (due out on 28th October) heroine Aurelia is left destitute and hungry after her widowed mother dies.


You can read more about my 16 published books (including the first chapter of each) on my website Janice Preston – I do hope you’ll drop by for a visit