What makes a character true to their time? Does he or she adhere to a certain moral code or strictly stated socially acceptable behaviors? And who deems those behaviors acceptable: the society in which that character lives, or our interruption, as readers, of what that society would have thought of such behavior? As we consider this, it’s imperative to remember the Regency era represented a step into the modern world, and its conventions and ideas challenged notions of the past. So it’s possible our ideas of Regency society, and thus the characters that inhabited it, are a wee bit skewed.
When I set out to write my newest release, TO TAME A SCANDALOUS LADY, I knew there would be some readers who would take exception to the heroine, Lady Flora Campbell. As the younger daughter of a Scottish duke, certain decorum is expected of her, and she would be expected to serve as a paragon of virtue. Yet, Flora doesn’t quite fill that role. She’s outspoken, brash, and unafraid to stand up to bully, be that bully a fellow debutante wielding cutting words, or a titled lord making rash decisions that affect the whole of the country. When Flora decides to disguise herself as a lad to work in the famed horse training stables of the Marquess of Amstead, she knows she risks a great deal in pursuit of her dream. But like any intrepid historical romance heroine, Flora embraces the risks and goes forth in search of greatness.
Some early reviewers have questioned whether a woman of Flora’s station would have behaved in such a manner. Would have taken such risks. Yet one has to look no further than history for real life examples of bold women shedding the expectations of their gender. One such woman was Lady Hester Stanhope. *The daughter of an earl, Hester served as a hostess for her bachelor uncle, William Pitt the Younger, who was Prime Minister of Britain. When Pitt died, Hester embraced adventure and traveled to the Middle East, where she became intrigued by its long history. She studied old documents and explored historical sites, and is said to have done the first archeological dig in Palestine. She donned men’s trousers and refused to cover her head, and her charm and zest for adventure made her famous the world over.
Or consider Sarah Guppy, the English inventor who took out ten patents in the Regency period for various inventions, including a device that kept ships free of barnacles and a candleholder that allowed candles to burn for longer. This may not seem like much, but remember that Sarah lived in a time when women could not own property…and patents were considered intellectual property so she could not apply for the patent in her own name. But that did not stop her from pushing forward to see her ideas for useful inventions come to fruition.
Lady Letty Lade was the daughter of a sedan chair operator who worked as a cook in a brothel, and managed to charm her way into winning the hand of Sir John Lade and the friendship of the Prince Regent. Fondly referred to as ‘the Amazon’, Lady Lade had a natural ability with a horsewhip and swore liberally, to the extent that Prinny used her name as a catchphrase, “He swears like Letitia Lade!” Her driving abilities made her notorious, but it was her ability to maneuver from a working class beginning into a position in the Prince Regent’s set is why we remember her today.
These real life Regency women may not have disguised themselves as a young man to pursue their dreams, but they showed that women of the time were perfectly willing to tear down social and gender norms to explore, to create, and live the lives they wanted. So now when I read a review that a duke’s daughter would never have behaved in the way my Lady Flora has, I smile and think, Are you sure?
*Works cited: Six Women Who Helped Define The Regency Era – And Our Conceptions of Modernity by Andrea Penrose for Kensington Books