Sunday, July 15, 2012
Michelle Styles: Why are Regency Business Women Neglected in Regency novels? plus giveaway
It would be tempting to think that businesswomen did not exist in the Regency period but that would be wrong. Women did own businesses. Think of the dressmakers and hat makers, the dancing schools, the women who ran taverns as well as various other professions. Women were brewers, ship owners, haberdashers, manufacturers. They are unfortunately often overlooked.
The highest paid bankers in London in the 1820s were the Peeresses who were the senior partners of Childs and Coutts banks. Lady Jersey who inherited Childs from her grandfather and served as its senior partner from 1806 until her death in 1867 also was at the pinnacle of London society. She served as one of the Lady Patronesses of Almacks. Harriot Mellon Coutts was a former actress who married well, inherited the bank from her husband, remarried a duke half her age and successfully managed the bank until her death.
Jane Austen reputedly used the mother of a friend of hers as the model for Mrs Norris, Fanny Price's horrible aunt. Sara Rice had other plans for where her eldest son was going to have his position and paid no mind to Jane's request. Sara was a highly successful businesswoman and among other things ran the pigeon carrier service which first brought news of Waterloo. Was she as terrible as Austen painted? It is impossible to say. But she was a Regency businesswoman.
Unlike Austen, Georgette Heyer does not feature businesswomen in her novels. This is more because Heyer didn't approve of them. Heyer had Edwardian sensibilities. She wrote about the sort of heroine who appealed to her.
One of the major problems for women prior to the Married Women's Act was that unless the marriage contract specifically declared otherwise, all her goods and wealth belonged to her husband. It had to be a specific exclusion and caused a number of women a great deal of misery when their marriage went sour.Some women like Eleanor Coade who ran the hugely successful Coade Stone never married in order that she never had to lose control of the business. Others like Lady Jersey were very careful to keep all the men in their lives out of the business.
What I find interesting is that certain women did do well during the Regency period but as the century progressed and business stopped being start ups, there were fewer and fewer top businesswomen, particularly in finance. The flowering of women in business seems to be more from 1750 -1850. In 1812 fourteen women held licenses to print money. By 1905, there were no women senior partners in British banks as far as I can determine. In many ways the Edwardian era when women were fighting hard for the vote was far more restrictive to women's prospects in business than the Regency. Heyer's lack of a businesswoman heroine is understandable if one looks at the era she was writing in, rather than the era she was writing about.
In an attempt to start redressing the imbalance, my latest heroine Eleanor Blackwell is the owner of one of the best sword-makers in Britian in 1811. In order to retain control of the family firm, she must marry according to her stepfather's will.
UPDATE: I have drawn the winner Cate S and will be popping a copy of His Unsuitable Viscountess in the post. Many thanks to all who entered.