Writing Regency Women : a #guestpost by Caroline Miley, author of Artist On Campaign

Happy publication day to Caroline Miley for her latest novel, Artist On Campaign. Caroline visits my blog today to talk about writing regency women in novels but first let’s see what her latest book is all about.

Author : Caroline Miley
Title : Artist On Campaign
Pages : 380
Publisher : Greenslade Creations
Publication date : October 30, 2019

| ABOUT THE BOOK |

Ralph Oughtred has few ambitions – to be rich, or at least out of debt, to eventually marry his charming mistress, and to get into the Royal Academy.

An amiable rake in Georgian London, Ralph is an artist who thinks he’s got it made when he wins a big commission to paint the Duke of Wellington’s generals. But before he can put brush to canvas they’re whisked off to Portugal to fight Napoleon, and he must follow or lose the money. In a comic romp through Portugal and Spain in the train of the British army, Ralph leads the reader through war, art, sex, love, travelogue, musings on life and a lot of drinking. He’s recruited as a spy, accidentally leads a cavalry charge, makes love to an officer’s wife during the Battle of Porto, and is captured by the French.

A man of his time and an everyman bound to the wheel of fortune, Ralph travels the road of the reluctant hero from innocence to experience. But he’s intelligent and complex and his adventures will appeal to the reader who wants their history to live, their escapism to be philosophical and their narratives lyrical. The book is written with a deft, light touch; there’s just enough accurate military history, and the characters – Ralph and his friends, and the generals he paints – are varied and amusing.

Artist at Large is that rare bird, a novel that is literary, historical and funny, a stylish evocation of the history and manners of an era, and an entertainment of the highest order.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

| GUEST POST |

WRITING REGENCY WOMEN

As a historian and author of historical novels set in the late Georgian, I’m often in conflict about writing female characters. The conflict is caused by the clash between the values of today and of the past, and between historical facts and imaginary characters. The past, as LP Hartley famously said, is another country. They do things differently there. And nowhere is that more apparent for a historical writer today, than in the position of women, which has changed far, far more in the last 200 years than the positions of men. And that poses a dilemma for authors.

Dame Hilary Mantel says that women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely “empowered”. Part of this, she says, is the desire to give ‘a voice to those who have been silenced’. That’s very understandable, but I’m with Dame Hilary. The problem is not empowerment, it’s the ‘falsely’. 

Two hundred years ago, women had few legal rights. Married women could not own property, although women from moneyed families often had specific amounts agreed to in marriage contracts. Married women had no rights, even, to their children, and depended on the men in their families – fathers, brothers, husbands – to use goodwill in managing their affairs and representing them in public spheres such as the law courts. Unmarried women over their late 20s were generally regarded as ‘poor cousins’ by society and had little status. Society had narrow views on what roles and behaviour were suitable for women and ostracized those who didn’t conform.

So what’s a writer to do? For me, the answer is in looking more closely at what women’s lives were really like, and what they thought themselves. Something that’s immediately apparent is that women didn’t particularly think of themselves as unempowered. Women of all classes – and there were enormous differences in the life of working, middle and upper-class women – exercised their powers in a large variety of ways.

The greatest freedom, as always, was to be found in the lowest and highest in the land. A wealthy woman had a great deal at her command, especially if her father had managed her marriage contract well. Lady Caroline Lamb had money and a title that no-one could take away; she was excluded from polite society because of her rampant behaviour, but perhaps didn’t care. Women like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair could shrewdly parlay their beauty and skills into social advancement. And women at the lowest levels could do much as they pleased, because they, too, didn’t care what people thought. They could fall down drunk on gin, brawl in the street, run a tavern or conduct a respectable business as a washerwoman. They still had no rights, but then, the men of their class had relatively few either. There was an equality of disempowerment. It was the respectable middle classes, such as Jane Austen’s family, who cared what people thought and tried to conform to expected standards of polite behaviour.

It’s important, too, to realise that the Regency was the last gasp of the rollicking, boisterous, bawdy Georgian era, the last before the straightlaced Victorians and their ‘family values’ and prudery about sex. Regency rakes still wore powder and patches, dampened their breeches to make them cling and wore ornate fobs dangling just above their genitals, and rakish Regency women rouged their nipples and wore transparent muslin. In the dark streets of pre-gaslit London and in country hedgerows, men and women enjoyed each other with gusto. We know this because of Sheridan’s and Goldsmith’s plays, and most of all, perhaps, from Rowlandson’s lampoons and sketches. One of the premier illustrators of his day, Rowlandson’s colossal output included a huge number of graphically sexual drawings that show men – and women – enjoying themselves with energy.

Soldiers’ wives – and the army was large at the time – lived in barracks with their children and followed their men on campaign, marching with them from place to place, carrying their children and sometimes even their man’s equipment. They might be respectable or otherwise. They could make money by doing the officers’ washing, mending and cutting their hair, and baking biscuit for the Commissaries. These women were enterprising and entrepreneurial, and endured hardships stoically. Their achievements were in many ways highly admirable.

More respectable women did none of this, but there is no reason to suppose that they didn’t enjoy their respectable marriage bed. And they had plenty to occupy themselves. They cared for the poor, visited the sick, drew the vicar’s attention to evils that needed to be remedied. They taught their own and other people’s children. They ran schools for girls and young ladies. They wrote novels and poetry and translated books. There were, in fact, many women writers of the late 18th century, although most have been forgotten today, but Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Anna Yearsley, and bluestockings like Hester Thrale were well-known in their own time.  Ann Radcliffe, author of Gothic novels, was the most popular and highest-paid novelist in Britain in the 1790s.

Women were also interested in politics, although the suffrage movement was decades away. Mary Wollestonecraft was middle class, but her more bohemian circle was more liberal in its acceptance of unconventional behaviour. Women could not speak in public or stand for Parliament, but they could read, and attempt to influence others. Again, they had to be imaginative in the ways they could exercise that influence. Women were very instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade movement of the period, for instance. Aphra Benn and Hannah More, among others, published books, tracts and poems drawing attention to the plight of the slaves, which were widely distributed. Women bought Wedgwood anti-slavery medallions they wore as jewellery and played a huge part in the very successful sugar boycott, which hit plantation-owners’ pockets, and exclusively patronising grocers who did not sell plantation sugar.

Women of the past may have had few rights and a narrow range of social roles, but there is real fascination, and countless stories, in seeing the variety of what they did with their lives within those confines, and how imaginatively and powerfully they exerted themselves in the spheres that were open to them.

I couldn’t agree more with this post if I tried. The whole idea of rewriting history is a scary thought to me. You can’t just erase historical events or ways of life because they make people feel uncomfortable in this day and age. Where do you even draw the line? That was then, this is now and I for one prefer my historical fiction, fiction though it may be, as close to the mark as it can possibly be.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Caroline, and for writing this fascinating and thought-provoking post.

| ABOUT THE AUTHOR |

Caroline Miley is an art historian and author of literary historical novels set in the late Georgian era. Her debut novel, The Competition, won a Varuna Fellowship and a Fellowship of Australian Writers award, and was selected by the Royal Academy of Arts for its 250th Anniversary celebrations. Her latest novel, Artist on Campaign, was inspired by wondering what would happen if a rake of an artist was obliged to put up with the British Army, and vice versa.

Her interests are art, both as a practitioner and a viewer, books, films, history, travel and gardens. 

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