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.”
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.