May 16 2012 2:00pm

Author Bronwen Evans on Regency Working Girls (Companions, Governesses, Smugglers, and Courtesans)

Invitation to Scandal by Bronwen EvansToday we welcome author Bronwen Evans to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Bronwen’s most recent release, Invitation to Scandal, features a heroine who makes her not-quite-honest living as a smuggler. And she’s here to share what she knows about real-life options for women in the early nineteenth century. Thanks, Bronwen!

If you were a member of the nobility in the early 1800s, and of the female persuasion, you were totally reliant on men for your keep; your husband, father or brother. If, due to dire circumstances, you were left to fend for yourself, not only did you have virtually no skill-set with which to earn enough money to keep you in comfort, but the disgrace attached to any form of work saw you outcast from Society.

Ladies were not raised to work. They were raised to think of their position in Society and to marry well. Their role was to run a household and bear children. Nothing more.

So what happened to those ‘ladies’ whose circumstances changed for the worse and who were left with no means of supporting themselves? Widows whose husbands had spent all the money. Widows without children who were heirs. Daughters whose fathers died penniless.

If there was no hint of a scandal surrounding you then if you were lucky, you might get a position as a Lady’s Companion. This meant a widow or elderly spinster would support you in return for your companionship. You’d be someone to travel with, or to spend the days with. Often you’d be nothing more than a glorified servant. Unless the two women became the best of friends, I would think being a companion would have been a tedious, torturous existence. You would always worry that you might upset them and be thrown out onto the street. There was no such thing as job security. [CLUE TWELVE: STRATHMORE]

The next step down from companion was Governess. Again, no hint of scandal could follow you if you looked after children of nobility For a lady to become a Governess was a huge fall from grace in the eyes of Society. You were, in fact, a servant. But at least you did not starve.

There are examples of women who did actually work in male-dominated professions, but not usually from among the ton. Jane Austen is a good example. Her family was virtually penniless but she refused to marry for financial security and instead earned just enough with her writing to keep her family.

There were also wealthy woman in the south of England who used illegal means to survive. Smuggling was not solely the domain of the poor. Ladies often knew the best silks to buy and had the Society connections in which to on-sell the French brandy, gin and other sprits they brought into England. Custom officers did not believe a woman was clever enough to be involved and the Revenuers were also reluctant to question a ‘lady’.

However, the most common profession for a lady who suddenly found herself without financial means was to turn to the world’s oldest career—they became courtesans. A courtesan was originally a female courtier, which means a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person.

Those who shone in this role often ended up very wealthy and influential women. Men looked for an involvement with a woman who was pretty, and who could be socially acceptable, intelligent, witty and above all discreet. There are many examples of courtesans who, by remaining discreet and respectful to their benefactors, were able to extend their careers into or past middle age and retire financially secure.

More often than not, a woman serving as a courtesan would last in that field only as long as she could prove herself useful to her protector or protectors. For those who made their service as a courtesan their main source of income, their success was based solely on financial management and longevity. Many courtesans climbed through the ranks of royalty, serving as mistress to lesser nobles first, eventually reaching the role of mistress to a king or prince. Others were able to obtain such a high position early on, but few lasted long, and after serving a prince or king there was nowhere to go but down.

Most of the high class brothels in London were owned and operated by very clever business women. Some could make over one-hundred thousand pounds in a few years, an enormous amount of income for anyone in those days. Gentry were more comfortable trusting their private lives to women. Brothels run by men tended to be for a lower class of customer or for a more perverse clientele, or were homosexual in nature.

Society ladies left to fend for themselves financially, often sought a legitimate form of prostitution. They simply married the first man that asked.

In the male dominated world of 1809, Miss Rheda Kerrick, the heroine in my latest Regency romance, INVITATION TO SCANDAL, is faced with just such a situation. Being somewhat ahead of her time, she chose to use smuggling as a means to survive long enough to build a cavalry horse-breeding stud.


New Zealander BRONWEN EVANS loves story-telling - gobbling up movies, books and theatre. Her head is always filled with characters and stories, particularly lovers in angst. In 2007, encouraged by a close friend battling a debilitating illness, Bronwen finally started down the path to publication by joining RWA, The Beau Monde, RWAustralia and RWNZ. Her debut novel, INVITATION TO RUIN, received a 4.5 star rating from RT Book Reviews and has been nominated in the RT Reviewer’s Choice Awards - Best First Historical. Her new novel INVITATION TO SCANDAL was released on May 1.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I really enjoyed studying New Historicism in college and writing literary criticism papers about how the time periods that works like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice were written in affected the author and thus the works themselves. This post just reminded me exactly why I had so much fun with that. It's fascinating to me to read about the women in times like the early 19th century and what life was really like for them then. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
2. wsl0612
I really enjoyed the education and your first novel, Bronwen, looking forward to more!
3. Bron_NZ
Good morning, ladies

It's 8am here in New Zealand on Thursday morning and it's very cold! Winter is approaching. Actually, with the latest dusting of snow, winter is here. Thank goodness I don't live in the Regency period. I have central heating.
Cynthia Netherton
4. Cynthia aka Artemis
Great article Bron. It's so hard to imagine what a single woman had to endure during those years. What woman in general had to endure. Thanks for sharing.
Joy Gifford
5. JoyG
Wow, thank you for a wonderful article. Being a woman in that time period was really tough, you had to be totally dependent upon a man from how the supported you to how they treated you, if you were lucky he was honorable man.
7. Diane D - Florida
I love this post, I'm learning so much. I can't wait for my copy of "Invitation To Scandal" to arrive.
8. Carol L
Great post Bronwen. To read about the "nothing' available to women back then is almost choking, to me at least. It took an even stronger woman back then to go out and independantly fend for herself.
Carol L
Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com
9. Midnite
Interesting post but the information about Jane Austen is incorrect. Jane, her sister, and her mother were supported by small incomes that her mother and sister had, as well as by her brothers. One brother was quite wealthy and gave the ladies the house that they lived in rent-free in Chawton. They were not wealthy but were defnitely in the middle class of society.

Jane's writing brought them some extra income towards the end of her life. Don't get me wrong - it made their lives much more comfortable and enabled them to travel and buy some extra "wants" - but she was not single-handedly supporting herself and the other women in her family.
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