JOIN me in welcoming, Maria Grace, author of a Pride and Prejudice retelling, The Trouble To Check Her. She will tell us a bit about women's plight during Jane Austen's era.
by Maria Grace
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A Woman’s Work is Never Done
Period dramas have left many of us with the notion that wealthy English ladies of the early 1800’s had little to do but dress in lovely gowns, embroider and gossip. I’m sure they would have loved it if that had been true. Reality, though, could not be farther from this image. Both the master and mistress of an estate worked hard around the estate, often working alongside the servants in the efforts to get everything done.
Labors tended to be divided along gender lines. So much so that single men were generally lost without a female to manage the household. Bachelors looked to sister or nieces while widowers often called upon daughters or the dead wife’s kin.
So, even if a woman did not marry, there was a very strong possibility she might take on the responsibilities of a household sometime in her lifetime. On the plus side though, gentlemen tended to respect the household mistress’ authority; her contributions to the home had worth equal to his.
Responsibilities of the Mistress
Depending on the size of the estate, the role of an estate’s mistress was the equivalent of managing a small hotel all the way up to being the CEO of a major corporation. She oversaw the finances, food service, hiring and training of the staff, procurement, charitable contributions of the ‘company’ as well as the interior design of the ‘corporate headquarters’ and entertaining.
While accomplishing all this, she was also expected to raise her children and cared for sick family members. Talk about a working mother!
The mistress’ responsibilities to her children are perhaps the most obvious. First, she was expected to provide them. ‘Nuff said.
Once children were born, it was on her shoulders to hire the nursery maids and governess, if the estate could afford them. If not, she would care for them herself and see that they were educated by herself or others she would hire for the task. Boys were often sent to school to complete their education in classic academic subjects.
Necessary female accomplishments included singing, playing an instrument, dancing, speaking French and possibly Italian, drawing and painting, sewing and decorative needlework, elegant penmanship, and the ability to conduct polite conversation that revealed suitable knowledge of history, literature and poetry. Interestingly enough, sufficient understanding of mathematics to manage household ledgers was also required.
An estate’s mistress served as the CFO of her domestic organization, carefully managing the budget and the household’s use of credit. Numerous domestic manuals, including Mrs. Rundell’s classic, "A New System of Domestic Cookery", were available to assist women in their efforts. Mrs. Rundell warned 'the welfare and good management of the house' depended on their careful surveillance. Accounts should be regularly kept and 'not the smallest article' omitted. That included weighing meat, sugar and similar commodities when they came from the retailer and comparing them with the charge. Mrs. Rundell also suggested using separate purses to contain moneys allotted to difference purposes, not unlike dome budgeting systems taught today!
Supplying the Manor
All manner of supplies for the home were handled by the mistress. What could not be made in house was purchased. What could be made was. Planning for and managing the creation of necessary products could be a huge year-round endeavor.
Most ladies kept their own journals full of ‘reciepts’ and instructions for housekeeping gathered from their foremothers and friends. All manner of foodstuffs and herbs were raised and preserved using recipes and instructions in these books. To neglect this process was to risk the family go without during the winter when it was often difficult to purchase supplies.
Various medicinal preparations would also be crafted and kept on hand in case of need.
Beyond this, the mistress of an estate oversaw the making, mending and cleaning of the family's clothes. Clothing for the servants might also be included in her purview. Soap for laundry and household use required animal fat and wood ashes to be saved and stored until needed. Animal and even human urine (yikes!) was also saved for wash day. Water from boiling rice and potatoes was saved for starching clothes.
Wash day was such a huge endeavor that it might require additional hired help. Many households only washed once a month.
Although men were legally responsible for hiring and firing servants, the mistress oversaw the engaging, instructing and supervising of domestic servants. The high turnover rate in hired help required the mistress to be constantly on the lookout for recommendations for new potential servants.
Not only did the mistress manage the servants, she saw to their needs. She typically provided for their clothing, medical care, possible education, and occasionally granted leave in emergency situations.
The responsibilities of a landowner’s wife extend beyond the home into the community at large.
Her peers expected her do her part and host dinners and social gatherings, providing entertainment and social connections for their sphere. Regular calls would be paid normal among the social circle.
To her social inferiors, she owed another kind of duty. In rural areas where no doctor was available, she might be called upon for her advice in treating the sick and injured. If the village children needed to be educated—she was the one to organize the dame school to teach them to read and write. At Christmas time, she would provide gifts of baby clothes, blankets, shawls, coats, stockings and flannel petticoats to the villagers.
The mistress of the estate also helped care for the poor. She might meet with the local clergy man to find out their needs and determine how to meet them. It was her role to visit them, deliver food-often in the form of leftovers from her own table, give advice, and listen to their complaints. Since the indigent had no other support system, the gracious provision of the estate’s mistress provided a needed safety net.
So much for covering screens and eating biscuits. An estate’s mistress was no lady of leisure; she was a full time working mother, business partner to her husband, and ideally, a leader in her community.
Guest post created by Maria Grace, author of The Trouble To Check Her
© 2016. All rights reserved.
About the author:
She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six new novels in the works, attended seven period balls, sewn eight Regency era costumes, shared her life with nine cats through the years and published her tenth book last year.
Find out more about the author:
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by Maria Grace
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READ more about this world...
A Pride and Prejudice Variation
(The Queen of Rosings Park #2)
by Maria Grace
-Sweet Regency Romance
Amazon | Goodreads | Excerpt
Lydia Bennet faces the music…
Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond's cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?