Hearts Through History Romance Writers

How Conservative Were They?

by | September 2, 2013 | 9 comments

The Courtship, Charles Green - 1878

The Courtship, Charles Green – 1878

You know me.  I’m a History Apologist.  Any time someone says “And that’s the way things were”, I have to ask “Was it really?”  That’s especially true when it comes to the assumptions that are made about what people’s attitudes were, how they deported themselves, and what society’s rules were in the historical time periods in which we write.

So a couple of months ago when I was having a discussion with a fellow historical romance writer about why we write in the time periods that we do, hers being Regency and mine being Late Victorian, I was somewhat taken aback when her answer was “I prefer to write in the Regency because social rules were so restrictive and rigid in the Victorian era and men and women hardly had anything to do with each other”. 

I bumped up against this assumption again recently when someone made the observation about my novel Fool for Love—set in 1896, mind you—that the heroine NEVER would have slept with the hero without being married to him (in spite of the fact that this particular heroine was already pregnant from a horrible previous relationship, was ridiculously grateful to the hero for saving her life, and was pretending she was married to him).  But I suspect that person’s biggest problem was that the heroine really liked sex.  How historically inaccurate!

Whoa.  Hold on there, Nellie.  You know what they say about ‘assume’: it makes an ass of u and me.

So naturally I dove into my treasure trove of historical books—bunches of which are social histories of the 19th century—and went to work.

Curiously enough, the Rules of Society were malleable and ever-shifting.  This writer friend was dead right when she said that the Regency was more wild and carefree than the first part of the Victorian era.  Um, the FIRST half.  She was far from accurate about the rest of the Victorian era though.  Something curious happened in the early 1870s.  Attitudes shifted, morals became more flexible, and the role of women strengthened, leading to what was widely referred to at the time as “The Naughty Nineties”.  Interesting!  More interesting is how this happened.

In England, which had a profound influence on the rest of the world in the 19th century, a great deal of the mood and guidelines of the time was determined by the ruler.  Prinny certainly left his mark on the Regency, as did his successor, William IV.  They were fun guys, and while they were in charge, mistresses, wild parties, drinking and gambling were the rule of the day.  A young woman by the name of Victoria saw all of this and, when she was informed that she would be queen, vowed to “be good”.

Albert and Victoria, 1854

Albert and Victoria, 1854

It was a slow transition.  Some licentiousness hung around—a high-profile divorce here, some governmental mistresses there—but as Victoria solidified her reign, some curious things happened.  One of these things was Albert.  Victoria and Albert, by all reports, had a good, strong marriage.  No mistresses, drinking, and gambling there!  The country, and indeed the world, saw the example and sought to emulate it, whether they had the emotional and affectionate underpinnings that Victoria and Albert had or not.  Suddenly mistresses were out and conservative family values were all the fashion.

Two other things happened at around this same time that added to the moral mood of the nation that can’t be overlooked.  First, the British Empire enjoyed a period of prosperity.  The economy was doing well, which generally leads to a feeling of contentment and rightness.  Hand-in-hand with that satisfaction was an enormous evangelical religious revival.  Yes, Prinny was out, God was in.

I could write an entire book about the effects of God and the economy on the morals of Britain and the world.  The important note here though is that between the conservatism of Victoria and Albert and the traditionalist interpretation of the Bible, the Rules of Society did become stricter, and those who violated them were in for a greater amount of trouble and scandal than ever before.  A woman’s place was relegated to the home and her job narrowed to the raising of her children and the adoration of her husband.  I would have gone nuts living in an era like that.

Side note:  At the same time, laws were beginning to be passed that gave women greater legal protections from abusive husbands (The Matrimonial Causes Act which was first enacted around 1857 and amended in 1878), an expanded ability to gain custody of their children in cases of separation and divorce (Custody of Infants Act of 1839), and more control over their property (The Married Women’s Property Act of 1884).  It was slow, but it was happening.

And now we come to what is off-handedly called the Late Victorian Era.  Honestly, I much prefer the American term for the same time period, The Gilded Age, because it separates the years between 1873 and 1900 from the rest of the Victorian era as the monumental shift in attitude and approach that they are.  Because life, love, and living in the last two and a half decades of the 19th century were a huge contrast to what had come before in the middle of the century.

Okay, why?  Well, Albert was dead.  The period of conservative domesticity of Victoria’s household had been replaced by mourning.  By the middle of the 1870s, mourning was giving way to stoic acceptance that life goes on.  It was actually possible to see the widowed queen out and about again.  Then came the depression.  In 1873, the British economy took a bad turn.  All the certainty and confidence of the previous decades vanished, replaced by questions and angst.  The economy recovered by the 1880s, but the angst was still there.  Add to that the “moral decline” of new scientific theories, such as Darwin’s, and the apparent advancement of the power of man to control his environment, to stop death and life if he wanted to.  The evangelicalism of the middle of the century took a hit as people explored their own power.

Two interesting and parallel things happened in the last quarter of the 19th century.  After being steady for the first three-quarters, quite suddenly life expectancy went up at an enormous rate and the birth-rate went down.  Why?  Because germ theory and a greater understanding of sanitation and sterilization/surgery were keeping people alive longer than ever before, and birth control was  stealthily introduced into middle- and upper-class households.  Yes, birth control.  And that’s a whole other blog post, believe me!

Women were not just gaining legal rights by the end of the 19th century.  Yes, their sphere was still firmly in the home, but they increasingly dominated that sphere.  There are books of the time that joke that the moment a man stepped into his own house he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing and had no right to know either.  It isn’t defeatist or demeaning to state that a woman’s place in the late 19th century was in the home.  In fact, the home gave her a platform for social action, for profound influence over her husband and her children, and a social scene that increased the rights she was gaining.

But it didn’t stop there.  More and more, single women were gaining rights and employment as well.  No longer was the single woman a drain on some male family member.  By the late 19th century, single women were holding down jobs, and by that I mean more than just governesses.  They were becoming nurses, doctors, factory inspectors, post office managers, small business owners, and teachers.  Single women could support themselves through their own endeavors during this time period and many did.

A Rally, Sir John Lavery - 1885

A Rally, Sir John Lavery – 1885

There were also changing beliefs about the physical capabilities of women.  Gone were the days of believing women were feeble.  By the 1880s it was widely believed that physical activity and organized sports were crucial to a woman’s childbearing capabilities.  You can raise one eyebrow at the admittedly sexist slant of that belief, but the Women’s Cricket Association was founded in 1884, field hockey and tennis leagues became popular, and once everyone got over the initial shock, bicycling became all the rage.

Okay, so let’s bring this back around to my original curiosity.  What were relations between men and women like?  Would a woman only have been able to talk to a man on the dance floor at a ball?  Were the sexes hopelessly segregated?  Would it have shocked Aunt Millicent’s wig off to find a young man and a young woman out walking together?  Nope.  Not anymore.  With women in the workforce, interaction between the sexes was becoming more and more common.  With the shared common interest of sports, they had something to talk about.  And with women running the home, it became necessary for there to be communication.  No, it wasn’t on the same level as 21st century mix-and-mingle, but it was a far cry from the absolute separation of the 1840s.

So would a man and a woman have been able to have a private conversation in the 1890s without risking their reputation?  I believe they would.  Would they have the opportunity and motivation for clandestine relations before marriage?  All evidence seems to point to yes.  Did they?  Historical record confirms they did.  Were reputations irreversibly  destroyed if they did?  Mmm, it varied from case to case depending on if and how they were caught.

The Late Victorian Era/Gilded Age was not the stiff and stodgy world of the Early and Middle Victorian periods.  Attitudes were changing faster than most people could catch up.  While it wasn’t the ‘anything goes’ free-for-all of the 21st century—or even the 1920s—all that was in the mail.  It wasn’t the same type of free-spiritedness of the Regency, but men and women were closer than they had been for 50 years.  Women’s power, rights, and sexuality were being recognized on some levels in unprecedented ways.  So if you happen to find yourself writing a romance set in the last quarter of the 19th century, feel free to be a little more liberal than you think you should.  It’s what the people in that era were thinking themselves.


  1. nancy

    At any time there were people who were very conservative regarding sexual morals , those who were more laissez faire, and those for whom whatever they wanted was OK.
    Even during the strict era of Victorianism there were those who went their own way. Prostitutes and bastards abounded even through the height of Victorianism.
    Even in the free and easy 21st century there are those who don’t believe in sex outside of marriage.
    During the Regency period, there were those who believed that sex belonged in marriage for women and even disapproved of males being sexually promiscuous.

    Do not blame the person with whom you were talking. She was merely saying what so many have said and even what she has found in history books.

    • Merry Farmer

      Sorry if I gave the impression I was “blaming” someone, Nancy. Actually, running up against the difference of opinion has mostly just made me question what I know, what they know, and what we all think we know about these worlds we’re writing in.

      You’re right, moral opinion runs the gamut in any age. My point is that people tend to believe that everyone “back in the day” was a lot more conservative than they actually were. I think it’s time we stop clinging to the notion that anyone born before our grandparents were necessarily conservative in opinion when history clearly shows otherwise.

  2. Ella Quinn

    Interesting. I’d heard of the 1890’s called the Gay ’90’s and knew women were involved in business and many other things. My own female ancestors ran mills and had their own businesses. One of them went jaunting off to France at the drop of the hat. I’ve found her on one census form but dozens of ships’ manifests, but that was in the US.


    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks, Ella. There was so much more going on back then than we give women credit for, wasn’t there.

  3. Nancy C


    Thank you, thank you! I write western US in the 1880s and 1890s — and my heroines range from newspaper owner to architect. I’ve amassed all kinds of research to show my “fiction” was possible. Thanks for an informative post!

    • Merry Farmer

      Sounds very cool, Nancy! Boy would your heroines face a lot of challenges though. But the challenges would make for great fiction.

  4. Lani

    I’m like Ella in that members of my own family, the women, were some of the first doctors in America. So I knew about women having work. As for sexual mores, I’m a lot like you, Merry. I question everything. An historian colleague of mine is doing research that indicates that whatever was socially acceptable is somewhat irrelevant. But birth certificates are not. Since the dawn of recording births in Britain and America the statistics reveal that most new brides were pregnant by the time they were married. That’s right, I wrote most, as in more than half. And this statistic is constant for hundreds of years. How we know the new bride was pregnant was in the records of marriage certificates versus the birth certificates. Look this up, because it’s amazing that we believe Victorians were so conservative, when clearly they had babies five or sometimes four months after marriage. This is the Victorian era, where NICU units were unheard of, you know? A four month baby would not have survived, but the babies being born were full term infants. Anyway, I’m very grateful you wrote this post. When in doubt numbers never lie, statistics don’t lie. But people do. So I’ve often just forgone research from people’s peective, and looked at statistics instead.

  5. Susan Macatee

    Awesome post! Although I love the Civil War period in America, I’ve been gravitating to writing stories set after the war in the 1870s and 80s.

    In America, the Civil War brought women out of their homes, by necessity, while the men were off fighting. And they sure didn’t want to go back into seclusion once the war ended.

    • Merry Farmer

      That’s so cool about women after the Civil War! The same thing happened again after WWI and WWII. There is so much about what women thought and what they wanted to do with their lives that we’ve only touched the surface of. It’s all fascinating stuff!



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