Friday, 22 February 2013

Sick and tired of fiction being presented as history

Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759 – 1797)
I actually have an awful cold at the moment, which is probably contributing to my really bad mood but I am sick and tired of people who learned their history from fiction books, trying to tell me that the behaviour of my characters is too forward, that women didn't act like that in those days and that I need to read more Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen to see where I'm going wrong.


You probably have no idea how ignorant you sound when you say things like that, and when you tell me to base my books on fictional depictions of the time, rather than cold hard facts, I want to laugh so hard that diet coke will spew out of my nose.

So, lets debunk a few myths about these supposedly chaste, virginal, prim and proper women who lived in the regency era, shall we?

The fact is, once you put the fiction down and pick up the biographies, it soon becomes clear that while I'm certain that some women were chaste, virginal, prim and proper, many others were not.

Mary Shelly (1797-1851)

Take Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), possibly the first feminist writer and a woman who had no problem pursuing men, even married men. She had affairs with artist,  Henry Fuseli (as well as proposing a Ménage à Trois to his wife) then she later had a child with Gilbert Imlay before marrying William Goodwin. After her death, her husband released a memoir of her life, happily revealing her affairs and illegitimate child to society, as he supported her views.

Mary's second child (with her husband, William) was Mary Shelly (1797-1851). She believed in free love, had two illegitimate children herself with, Lord Byron, the first when she was 18 and the second a year later. As for Lord Byron, he had affairs throughout his various marriages, one with Mary's step sister, Claire (who also had an illegitimate child by him) Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828) and Lady Oxford (1774–1824) who was the daughter of a reverend and 14 years older than Byron.

Lady Oxford (1774–1824)
[See the end of this post for a list of some more famous pre and extra marital affairs in the regency period]

And if reading biographies seems too much like hard work, here's some simple and easy facts for you.

In the early part of the 1800s, 7-10% of all births were illegitimate and 35% of brides were pregnant when they walked up the aisle. So that's almost half of all women who weren't virgins on their wedding night.

Prostitution was second only to becoming a servant, for the numbers of women working in the profession.

Illegitimacy was so common that Baby Farms began to appear, where women would take in illegitimate children from unwed mothers for a fee. Dozens of ads were found each week in newspapers, such as the Daily Telegraph and the Christian Times. Usually these poor children were drugged, poisoned or starved to death to maximise profits.

Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828)
Those regency women aren't looking so pure white and virginal now, are they? Bet those men are looking a little tarnished too.

Now, those images you have in your head of life in the regency period probably look something like this; beautiful women and men, with hours of leisure time at their disposal, whose lives are a whirlwind of parties and balls and romance, right?

The problem is, that isn't how it was for 99% of the population. The rest worked 12-16 hour days in awful conditions. Children entered the work place from as early as 5. Most didn't live in humble but very well kept dwellings, they lived in slums, where sewage leaked into their houses and disease was rife.

Regency London also smelled awful! People emptied chamber pots into the street, no one cleaned up after their dogs or horses (and horses were the only form of transportation), the air was thick with pollution from home fires and factories and the fog often described was so thick, because it was a mix of smoke and fog. Ever heard the term "pea souper"? That's fog that's so full of pollution that it looks green. That my friends, is the reality of Regency London for everyone, not just the poor.

Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806)
Now I do gloss over much of this, because who wants to read about a lady stepping in shit, or urine running down the gutter? But that doesn't alter the reality, or make the characters depicted by Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and the like, anything other that pure fiction.

Seriously, telling me to read fiction novels to learn where I'm going wrong, is like telling me to read the DaVinci Code to better understand the Catholic Church. That's not to say that the DaVinci code is completely made up and no facts about the church are real, but it's still an inaccurate portrayal and I'd be much better picking up a few factual books on the history of Catholicism.

And while my books do contain accurate historical detail, I really wouldn't recommend them as a way to learn history, because they just don't go into enough depth to be useful in that regard. I'm writing fiction to entertain, not history textbooks.

I think most of my readers are smart enough to understand that, but a few readers do get awful mad at me for deviating from their picture-perfect vision of times gone by.

*A (far from complete) list of affairs and illegitimate children that I have come across during my research.

James Smithson (1765-1829)
Georgiana Cavendish had an illegitimate son while married, with future Prime Minister, Earl Grey. As for her husband, the Duke of Devonshire, well he moved his mistress into the house and they all lived together, like one big happy family.

Lawrence of Arabia was illegitimate, the result of his father leaving his wife for the family's nanny. Sounds like something you'd read in a tabloid, doesnt it, not 1800s England?

Sir Henry Morton Stanley, writer and explorer, was born to an unmarried 19 year old girl in a small Welsh village.

One of the founding fathers of the USA, Alexander Hamilton, was born in the British West Indies colony, to married French woman Rachel Faucette Buck and Scottish Lord (or Laird) Alexander Hamilton.

James Smithson (of the Smithsonian Insttute) was born to the Duke of Northumberland and widow, Elizabeth Hungerford.

Sarah Bernhardt  (AKA the most famous actress the world has ever known) was born to an unmarried, working class girl, her father was unknown.

Countess of Bessborough (1761-1821)
Born in 1824, playwright Alexandre Dumas, was the illigitimate son of a dressmaker and the author, Alexandre Dumas Sr.

Lady Bessborough had two illegitimate children with, Earl Granville.While she was pregnant with their first illegitimate child, Granville had an affair with Lady Hester Stanhope and later, a Russian princess. Then when he had sewn enough wild oats, he married Lady Bessboroug's niece! Now that's what I call keeping it in the family.

Dorothy Jordan had numerous illegitimate children by many fathers, including the Duke of Clarence.

And finally, William IV had ten, yes TEN illegitimate children with Mrs. Jordan.

So the next time you think of doubting my historical fact, please do your homework first, BEFORE getting shitty with me.


  1. Actually, the married name of Rachel Faucette was Lavien. Alexander and his older brother James were fathered by James Hamilton, the fourth son of the Scottish laird Alexander Hamilton.