Hallie Rubenhold is an historian and broadcaster and an authority on British eighteenth-century social history.
I find it ironic
that sometimes a true experience can only be told in the form of fiction. This was the case with my new novel, Mistress of My Fate.
many years, I’ve found it difficult to reconcile our common understanding of
what it meant to be a woman in the eighteenth century, with what I had learned
about it through my work as a historian.
Unfortunately, the media hasn’t helped much. These days, we’re more
likely to get our concepts of another era from sumptuous film and television
adaptations of works of literature; Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, in
particular. Worse still, the gap between the stories shown to us, and the
realities of how life was actually lived is often enormous.
The strangeness of
this situation really struck me when I began the research on my first book, The Covent Garden Ladies. This was a work of nonfiction book about an
infamous set of guidebooks to London prostitutes published in the second half
of the eighteenth century. The Harris’s
Lists, as they were called, provided names and short biographical stories
of women who found themselves ‘upon the town.’ Each story was fascinating in its own right.
Some were filled with harrowing descriptions of abandonment, betrayal,
violence, alcoholism, abortion, and imprisonment, while others offered tales of
hope and perseverance. The most heart-wrenching aspect of all of their stories
was that these women had been victims of circumstance, whether they had run
away from boarding school or been widowed. As the law recognised women as the property of
men, and not as individuals, any adversity could leave them completely
unprotected. They had few options in life, and a fall from the path of
rectitude and virtue could be a long and painful one. More intriguing still,
the further I investigated, the more these narratives and experiences could be
cross referenced in other documentary material; in court records, in parish
records, in letters, publications, diaries, and memoirs. History seemed to be full of the stories and
voices of women who no one had wanted to hear.
I think my
inspiration occurred one evening when I turned on the TV and sat down in front
of yet another Austen adaptation. But certainly, certainly, I found myself thinking, there’s more to the late
Georgian era than beautiful dresses and elaborate courtship. Why do we never see the grim realities and
instead indulge in images of the well-laid tea table? I thought of the story of
the young woman I had read about that day. She had lived in the year that Austen
had written First Impressions, the
book that would later go on to be Pride
and Prejudice. Much like Lydia Bennet, this young woman had fallen in love
with a solider and followed him to London on a promise of marriage. However,
this unfortunate runaway didn’t have a family to look after her interests. She
ended up in prostitution, having to eek out a living between brothels and the
‘generosity’ of male ‘protectors.’
It was experiences
like this that made me want to allow the true voices of these forgotten women
to be heard.
In keeping with
the traditions of many women of her profession, Henrietta Lightfoot’s story is
told in the form of a memoir. However,
unlike many of the Kiss and Tell versions of courtesans’ lives, Henrietta’s aim
is not to titillate the male reader, but to inform the innocent female of the
hazards that await her out in the world. She spares no blushes and documents
all of the unpleasantness of being an eighteenth century woman, from makeshift
birth control to the horrors of childbirth, while also instructing the fair sex
on what it is they must do in order to gain some degree of control over their
lives. Her advice, though absolutely historically accurate, would have been
certain to have raised eyebrows in her own day. Elizabeth Bennett would have
been scandalized to be sure.