Regency society organized itself around marriage and family. Adults were identified by their place, or lack thereof, in a married, family unit. Married women were ranked higher and more respected than the unmarried spinsters.
The plight of the regency spinsters is fairly well documented. The local tax or judicial records says it all. Women were typically identified in tax or judicial records by their marital status (spinsters, wives and widows) whereas men were always identified by their occupation or social status. (Shoemaker, 1998) The message is clear: a woman’s identity (and legal existence) was determined by her marital status.
That status though was not morally neutral. Spinsterhood was considered ‘unnatural’ for a woman, even though nearly one in four upper class girls remained unmarried (Day, 2006). They were called ‘ape-leaders’ (for that was what they would be doing in hell as punishment for the unnatural lifestyle. Enough said on that point….) and ridiculed for their failure in the most basic requirements of femininity.
However, if a single woman possessed independent means—a fortune of her own sufficient for her to live on, it was possible she could maintain her own household and carry on an independent life. Female investors were not unknown and their capital supported the joint stock companies behind municipal utilities and railways. (Not going to comment on the irony here–good enough to provide money, but not enough to be respected in society…) Wise investments could provide a steady income without administrative worries. (Davidoff & Hall, 2002)
Not all women were so fortunate as to have independent means, and even if they were, male relatives might make it difficult or impossible for her to access her own fortune. (Naturally the men in her life knew better how to manage her affairs than she.) In those cases, a spinster would have two choices, find a job to support herself or live in the house of a relative.
Upper class ladies had limited job prospects, given their desire to remain respectable—and their more or less complete lack of marketable skills. Genteel options were limited to being a lady’s companion or a governess.
Being a governess required and education that not all ladies had and was not necessarily an enviable position. Within the households they served, the existed in a nether realm, not equal to the family but above the servants. Often, a governess would associate with neither, virtually shut away from all society. She would also be vulnerable, as all female servants were, to (unwanted) advances from the males of the household.
Unmarried women unable to become governesses were expected to make themselves useful to which ever relative might take them in. They might keep house for bachelor (or widowed) brothers or uncles, tend children, cover for married sisters while they were indisposed or during lying-in, nurse the sick, cook, clean and mend. Ironically, despite these functions, they were still often considered spungers and a burden to the household.
No wonder women like Austen’s Charlotte Lucas would get panicky about getting to an age where they were considered unmarriageable and ‘on the shelf.’ Not quite a death sentence, but much like being a prisoner sentenced to life in heavy labor with no parole. Though it might sound a little exaggerated, I’m convinced it is a fairly apt description of the plight of an unmarried woman in the era.
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The Woman’s advocate or The baudy batchelor out in his calculation: Being the genuine answer paragraph by paragraph, to the batchelor’s estimate plainly proving that marriage is to a man of sense and oeconomy, both a happiner and less chargeablo state, than a single life. Written for the honour of the good wives, and pretty girls of old England. London: Printed for A. Moore, near St. Paul’s, 1729.
Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.
Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.