misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Under-governess in a great house, servant, street-walker, wife & mother -- or nun?

Dear friends and readers,

Over on C18-l  (a listserv community devoted to discussing the long 18th century, 1660-1815), someone has asked, Where would YOU fit in eighteenth century society? It was quickly pointed out already several fallacieswere  afoot here. Still, i was among those who quickly answered this amusing (in the 18th century sense of provoking thought) question.

The dream fantasy:  Darcy shows Elizabeth and the Gardiners Pemberley park

Given who my ancestors were in Poland (serfs on the Catholic side, desperately poor disenfranchised Jews in a town), I would have been a migrant laboring girl; from the other (ditto) a very low status servant. If I count my connections to my husband's family (who I somtimes playfully call the Admiral), I might have aspired to work in a shop for a while or been a slightly higher servant, or I could have ended up (as they so charmingly put it) on the streets. My "master" would have chased me, probably gotten me to have sex, and well, there it is.

Upshot: I'd be dead, long dead: I would have died of a hemmorhage from a miscarriage before my mid-twenties. Miscarriages were common and there was no effective contraception. (My own medical history and two miscarriages in my twenties come in here as I imagine this.)

A 1998 movie called The Governess -- she's not in for anything good I fear

I (as a type) rarely appear in any of the 18th century books we usually read, and hardly even (or to take Mary Crawford's defintion of "never") never sympathetically.

Other people came onto the thread and over the course of 24 hours some 30 plus postings had been sent to the list.  One person commented about how if we go back we multiply grandparents upon grandparents. This is a point made in a book I do regularly with my students in Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Technologies (junior level course, one must have 61 credits to take it): Steve Olson's Mapping Human History.  Another who didn't want to reveal his earlier background I suppose, likened his present niche in life (a professor) to a printer.  Immediate objections were made to this equation, even supposing a printer to be a reading person, intellectual, surely it'd be a bookseller.

Charlotte Smith had twelve children by her gambling, violent, promiscuous abusive husband -- went on to write to support herself and them

But it made me think again and post another equivalent:  many of us were extrapolating from what we knew of the farthest ancestors.  As far as I can tell from my great-grandparents (whom great-aunts and two of my grandparents told me about), they would have been serfs in Poland -- or very lowly Jews.  Hence my very low status servant or woman in the streets, and the death rate was very high from pregnancy, miscarriage, and in prostitution disease.

Then I fast forwarded to think about myself as an adjunct lecturer.  My own parents have no equivalent in 18th century England: they got jobs with the US government through filling out a 171 and were clerks.  My grandparents included a man who aspired to be a tailor but coming over to the US ended up in a factory working 5 and 1/2 days a week, long hours, and died young of sickness; also a seamstress in a sweat factory who was matched with someone and quit as soon as she could.  But my husband, being English, did have some equivalents in the near past.  Not surprising.  I own a very old little book (in miserable condition, no titles on the outside) written out by a servant in a house in the 19th century: the writer seems to be a woman and it's filled with recipes, bits of information about marketing, food, clothes, notes to self about sewing.  Jim's male near ancestors were sailors.  Not something I could be as a woman.  One was a worker in shop.   But my mother-in-law, having been really bright, was somehow or other educated and became for a while a lower governess in a great house. She really loathed it and as soon as she could gave us this "great opportunity" as she told me her great aunt (or some such person) told her and went to work in Woolworth's when such jobs emerged.  She had free time!  She was her own person on Sunday and her half day off. She made some real money.

Jane Fairfax at risk of becoming a governess, as presented in the 1972 Emma, a wallflower until the generous Mr Knightley comes over to talk

But lower governess in a great house seems to be about as close as I can come to adjunct lecturer in a state-supported large university.

All this has many fallacies of all sorts -- it's like talking about how Mr Darcy would have spent his 10,000 a year.  Won't work for real, fantasy but of interest as all of us are interested in ourselves.

Someone who had accused people of shownig their "modern concerns" by their "race to the bottom suggested I lacked imagination, surely there were clerkships in the navy, army, working for lords and high offices. To which I replied:  one had to have connections to become a clerk in the Treasury or some such place. Hardly a GS-5 in government where you take a test and show a high school diploma; the taking of tests to get such places begins in the later 19th century and was very controversial at the time. Trollope fought it tooth and nail -- and he was not alone. The way he got his position in the post office (where he did work for 37 years and among other things helped set up pillars in the streets) was his mother (Frances, the novelist) went and nagged someone she knew shamelessly for days, early morning to late at night, pressured and pressured on the basis of family relationships and something he owed her personally, and finally the man gave in.  Other pointed out how education would be needed and only those known to the appropriate circles (patronage) would get you in.

The discussion teetered off as people who were not European (white) in race or Spanish people had been made uncomfortable because their total exploitation (slaves for example) not brought in as yet.  No one had identified that way. Jim had (probably) shown hmself tactless when he wrote:

"My first reaction was (like Ellen and Ted) I'd be dead.  Actually, about half of us would be, if my estimate of our age distribution is anywhere close.  Life expectancy, even among the rich, was much lower than now.

But there is a deeper fallacy at work here.  I, it is true, live better than Jefferson did:  Monticello didn't have air-conditioning; I have a bigger library than he did; I have more leisure, since I do not have to spend time driving slaves.  But it does not follow that in the 18th Century I would have been even his equal."

Then another person asked what would you love to have been. In effect, wish fulfillment fantasies.

So I returned to my real underlying theme:  to coin Fanny Burney's subtitle for her The Wanderer, female (ahem) difficulties. What I have been struck with in all the postings on C18-l is how gendered are all the responses. Men and women in the 18th century could not do the same things; women's life choices were severely restricted.

Well, there are two ways to amuse (in the full 18th century sense) oneself with this one.  If I still keep the terms of a woman's existence biologically and socially, not much, or no choices on offer unless it be that 1) I imagine myself unable to get pregnant; and 2) some kind rich person offers me independence, as in the case of Kitty Clive Walpole did -- as I recall later in life he gave her a house to live in on his estate.  While an actress could make some money, most of them didn't and had to resort to male protectors or died young (back to pregnancies, miscarriages, venereal diseases and early death or crippling once again).  

Dora Jordan, on stage, she had 12 children by William IV, and helped support him by staying on the stage; late in life he dumped her with a minimal pension

If biologically and socially I keep up the usual terms, until the later 19th century there is no effective contraception, no access to higher education such that I could get a decent job, and wife-beating allowed (1890s was the first case where a judge decided a husband could not force his wife to return to him, and when her family did help her out, the neighborhood apparently did all they could to make life miserable for that family, but they did hold out).

The choices were marriage and again the usually endless pregnancies; if I survived until my later forties (avoiding now thinking about the hardships of said pregnancies and pain and miseries of childbirth very real before medicine and forceps), no much time left for myself -- statistics about death from middle-aged causes kick in here. Or I could be dependent on my family and male relatives.  Probably not much fun (see women's letters who endured this).  There was being a lady at court (and then like lower or under governess -- late yesterday I remembered the term my mother-in-law used was under governess -- I must avoid sex, seduction, rape) but like Fanny Burney and Jane Austen (who has a letter on this telling Clarke I believe for her it would be a death in life), no thank you. I've read French women's memoirs about life at court, and again, no thank you.  Anne Finch's poems from her early youth (especially one anonymous one I have on my site), no thank you.

Grisoni, a masquerade, mid-18th century

The other way to amuse oneself is the one many of us may take as we read novels, whether of the modern historical type or those written in the 18th century.  Even the most supposedly probable follow decorum (certain things not mentioned) and have dollops of fairy tale and fantasy, so one now has an array of pleasant roles and circumstances imagined for different characters along the way and at the end.  The big prize is in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the super kind intelligent gentleman with 10,000 a year who stocks his library. Lesser prizes are found in Austen's other novels.  As Mrs Gardiner says, a little phaeton to go round the park twice a day . Just the thing.  

(Kind here also assumes he will find ways not to inflict the usual pregnancies.)  Very important is that kind rich husband or partner (if I didn't marry but not it's not as safe so, like today in the US, if I were a lesbian I'd have no choice I wanted).

Boilly, a Game of Checkers (1803)

Still I think I would find life dull with the same little band of so-called friends (and Austen does say at the close of S&S that it was no little merit that Marianne and Elinor and their husbands could and did live in sight of one another without falling to real quarrels) and much prefer London (Moscow of the age unless it be Paris) and imagining some interesting occupation which rules would be waived so I could have. Emma Donoghue's heroine in her Life Mask is getting me there now or perhaps one of those delightful French concoctions of novels which win the Prix Fémina -- though they too have very limited nostalgic fantasies (as in Chantal's Adieux a la Reine).  Fun is had by Trobadora Beatrice in her life as told by her minstrel Laura in Irmtraud Morgner's recent picaresque novel, The life and adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as told by her minstrel Laura, as translated by Jeanette Clausen, but to tell the truth even Irmtraud doesn't manage it, for Laura has problems with day care and a layabout husband (doesn't work, doesn't provide child support, disappears periodically, she does all the bills &c&c), and Beatrice keeps getting raped.

Turn Nun?  Putting aside that I'm an atheist and would have to live a lie, but then lots of people do even in fantasies, I'm confronted with with another Theodora, one of my favorite memorable modern characters, in Italo Calvino's Il Cavaliere Inesistente (Nonexistent Knight). I find myself remembering this passage (as Englished by Archibald Colquhun):

"I who recount this tale am Sister Theodora, nun of the order of Saint Colomba. I am writing in a convent, from old unearthed papers or talk heard in our parlor, or a few rare accounts by people who were actually present. We nuns have few occasions to speak with soldiers, so what I don't know I try to imagine. How else could I do it? Not all of the story is clear to me yet. I must crave indulgence. We country girls, however noble, have always led retired lives in remote castles and convents. Apart from reli­gious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, har­vesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, we have had no experience. What can a poor nun know of the world? So I proceed laboriously with this tale whose narration I have undertaken as a penance. God alone knows how I shall describe the battle, I who by God's grace have always been apart from such matters, except for half a dozen rustic skirmishes in the plain beneath our castle which we followed as children from the battlements amid caldrons of boil­ing pitch. (The unburied bodies that remained to rot afterwards in the fields we would come upon in our games next summer, beneath a cloud of hornets!) Of battles, as I say, I know nothing ..."

Hogarth's famous Shrimp Girl, mid 18th century

Rien a faire. Like Uncle Vanya, I cannot delude myself with dreams of Moscow.

Tags: jane austen novels, women's memoirs, women's novels

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