Embellishing poverty itself

From The Angel Out of the House, discussing Sarah Scott’s 1762 novel Millenium Hall, about a charity-working proto-commune for unmarried gentlewomen:

“What the narrator first notices about the ladies’ schools is that the pupils are ‘perfectly clean’ and always busy. The narrator uses the word ‘clean’ every time he brings up the subject of the poor who are served by Millenium Hall. This preoccupation with cleanliness–an ‘article of unspeakable Moment,’ as one charity sermon put it–is a key element in the philanthropic goals of restoring both the health and morals of the nation’s working population. If the poor are clean, they are understood to be deserving, and the charity bestowed on them can be expected to achieve its desired goal.”

A bunch of rich guys conduct a committee meetings with to-do lists while eating rich food (one visibly suffers from gout) and drinking. When the poor clamor to be let in at the door, they are forcibly ejected.
“A Select Vestry” by Thomas Rowlandson, 1806. The parish collected taxes called “poor rates” and administered parish relief (i.e. welfare). The vestry was the administrative body of the parish, sometimes it included most or all of the congregation, but a “select vestry” was when a parish had a smaller committee that made some/most/all of the decisions. Image from Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library, call number 806.00.00.49.

Reading this book and its descriptions of women’s charitable work was pretty upsetting. Charity work and activism was one of the few socially acceptable substantive outlets for women’s energy (I’d say profession, except that these women usually didn’t get paid). This was important work that needed to be done, and no one else was doing it. And yet (this is so painfully familiar) it’s often really a way of getting power for upper- and middle-class women at the expense of poor people (and that’s not even getting into all the messed-up stuff in the Abolitionist movement). Look at this:

“Along with the implied power that philanthropy gives to the benefactor in [Hannah] More’s vision of an ideally functioning society comes the right and responsibility of the philanthropic woman to superintend those she relieves. Philanthropy creates an unrepayable obligation; it also affords the upper-class woman the right to supervise the household of the poor. One of Lucilla’s [from Coelebs in Search of a Wife] philanthropic projects, for example, involves her orchard and garden. When one of the servants or a girl from the charity school marries–‘provided they have conducted themselves well, and made a prudent choice’–Lucilla ‘presents their little empty garden with a dozen young apple trees, and few trees of other sorts, never forgetting to embellish their little court with roses and honeysuckles.’ This, recollects Charles, explains the ‘many young orchards and flourishing cottage gardens’ in the village that ’embellish poverty itself,’ rendering it pleasing to the eye of the tasteful rich. Besides nourishing their aesthetic sense, these flowers, although transplanted to the gardens of the poor, still evidently belong to the rich–another characteristic of a gift exchange economy. Charles cuts a bouquet of roses for Lucilla from the bush outside the cottage of one of ‘her poor’ without even mentioning it to the inhabitants of the cottage present in the room.”

Something about that moment of cutting the roses without asking is just so chilling, it turns my stomach. One of the ongoing struggles of writing historical romance is the politics of accuracy (which is not to say that classism is a thing that only existed in the past, or anything!). On the one hand, writing a heroine who behaves like Lucilla is gross and offensive. On the other hand, writing an upper-class heroine who is so amazing she does charity in a way miraculously free of problematic attitudes that were completely entrenched in the British society of her time has the potential to be equally gross and offensive, by erasing the experiences of Regency poor people. And my Lydia is from a staunchly Tory family which makes her not only conservative for our time, but conservative for hers.

My current strategy seems to be to greatly soften what I would consider “period-accurate” behavior–since I know I wouldn’t want to be reading a fun love story and suddenly have my stomach turned by classism (I can always go to Georgette Heyer for that…look, I love her, but every so often there’s just that worm in the apple, you know?)–while still giving Lydia hints of prejudice that are either questioned by Lydia herself, or undercut by the narration.

Fast and loose

New History Hoydens post up about Regency scams and con artists!

“Pin-and-girdle” and “prick-the-garter” are two names for the same game, in which a belt or long piece of cloth is doubled and then folded a number of times, then held in the swindler’s hand. The flat is given a pin and bets that he can stick the pin in the belt at the place where it was doubled. Of course, the game is rigged and he can’t. This game dates back a good long way. This game has many names and variations, but one of its earliest names was “fast and loose” (attested 1578, and using “fast” in the sense of “immobile, fixed” as in “stand fast”), which is where the idea of “playing fast and loose with” something or someone comes from!

New contest: "The Black Hawk" by Joanna Bourne

ETA (7/4/13): This contest is closed. Kylan won the book! A new contest (for Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened) will open on Monday 7/8.

Do I even need to say anything about this book? Or can I just link to the 2012 AllAboutRomance reader poll, in which this book won in SEVEN CATEGORIES?

I’ll just list those categories, shall I?

Best Romance
Best Historical Romance Not Set in the U.K.
Biggest Tearjerker (Tied with Eloisa James’s When Beauty Tamed the Beast)
Best Romance Hero
Best Romance Heroine
Most Kickass Heroine
Best Romance Couple

So there you have it. Personally, I imagine it had to be a close-run thing in Best Love Scenes too. That one with the tree in the rain…let’s just say I remember it very vividly.

It also won a RITA.

I can see that I was equally tongue-tied in my goodreads review, which reads simply “★★★★★ It was wonderful to see more of Justine and Adrian. I love these characters so much, and they love each other so much, and <333! I’ve been waiting for this book a long time, and it was worth it!” Yeah, that about sums it up.

book cover: A man in a red-lined cloak and open but tucked in shirt
He is her enemy.
He is her lover.
He is her only hope.
Someone is stalking agent Justine DeCabrillac through London’s gray streets. Under cover of the rain, the assassin strikes–and Justine staggers to the door of the one man who can save her. The man she once loved. The man she hated. Adrian Hawkhurst.

Adrian wanted the treacherous beauty known as “Owl” back in his bed, but not wounded and clinging to life. Now, as he helps her heal, the two must learn to trust each other to confront the hidden menace that’s trying to kill them–and survive long enough to explore the passion simmering between them once again…

If you haven’t read a book by Joanna Bourne yet, I’d actually recommend starting at the beginning–but enter this contest anyway because you’ll get through the first three in a week and then you’ll want this one!

Just comment on this post to enter, and make sure you enter your e-mail address on the comment form–it won’t show up to other commenters, but I’ll get it and then I can easily notify you of your win. As always, if you want to be alerted when a new contest goes up, I recommend signing up for my newsletter.

NB: this is a copy I got signed at the RWA National Conference. Ms. Bourne isn’t involved in the giveaway and the book isn’t personalized. So if you want to tell her how much you loved her book, this isn’t the place. That would be her website. (But this IS the place to tell ME how much you loved it!)