When reading historical novels, it is all too easy to point the finger at the wilder heroines and declare, “She would NEVER have done that!” After all, surely all girls pre-1900 were terribly well-behaved and didn’t dare step outside convention? Surely the idea that they ran around or slept with men before they were married was preposterous, let alone for girls higher up the social scale? Surely this is just a case of writers imagining what they need?
Well…no. It isn’t. As today, unmarried women go right across the spectrum of character and behaviour, and whilst many made damned sure they toed the social line for their own safety, not all of them did. Not all of them could. In Georgian Britain, the army and navy had regular occurrences of women popping up in their ranks. For the right kind of girl in desperation, life in the forces offered better pay than any other job they could get, as well as far more freedom. These women could avoid detection for years because poorer soldiers never completely undressed. The most famous, Hannah Snell and Trooper Mary, had been married but this was not always the case. These unmarried women soldiers were seen as a menace because they sometimes ‘married’ other girls, sometimes friends, so that they could both be free -if caught, these soldiers were penalised, because they had ‘stolen’ a wife from Britain’s men!
Nor were unmarried girls always as chaste as they were expected to be. Lydia Bennet is an obvious case, running off to live with Wickham in London with the clear implication of having sex, but even further up the social scale, she had rivals. Elizabeth Chudleigh, later Countess of Bristol and (bigamously!) Duchess of Kingston pictured as Lady Godiva, was notorious for having slept with several men before her first marriage. Emily, Duchess of Leinster, slept with her husband before they were married, as she happily reminds him in her letters, and the famous courtesan, Julia Johnstone, had been born into a family received at court before her behaviour destroyed her reputation. She was caught; there would have been others who got away with it.
Many scandals were hushed up and still more were never noted, but news items and tidbits remain to paint the wider sphere of unmarried girls at this time. Girls ran away, girls joined the forces. Girls fought duels, girls raced horses. Girls had sex. Girls, expected to eat barely anything in public where champagne was on offer, got drunk. In Julie Peakman’s splendid book Lascivious Bodies, she has a plethora of girls behaving badly and girls winning out, along with one outrageous northern English family where the girls would appear at dinner topless.
They may have been in the minority, they may have been unusual, but the fact is that they existed. However wicked and wild your heroine from history, rest assured of this: her inspiration was very real.