By Maria Grace
Period dramas have left many of us with the notion that ladies of the landed gentry in the Regency era had little to do but dress in lovely gowns, embroider and gossip. Reality could not be farther from this image. In general, both masters and mistresses of the house did a great deal of work 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 sought female relatives to manage their households. 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. Gentlemen tended to respect the household mistress’ authority; her contributions to the home had worth equal to his.
Responsibilities of the Mistress
The role of an estate’s mistress was the equivalent of, depending on the size of the estate, managing a small hotel 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.’ Depending on her intelligence, she might also assist her husband with overall estate business. 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 in the first place. Once they 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. She was responsible for their education, whether she conducted it herself or hired others to teach them.
As her daughters grew older, it was her role to insure they acquired the necessary accomplishments that would be expected of them, including, interestingly enough, sufficient understanding of mathematics to manage household ledgers. She would also tutor them in the skills necessary to manage a household of their own.
Managing the household budget and accounts made up a large part of the mistress’ efforts. Numerous domestic manuals, including Mrs. Rundell’s, "A New System of Domestic Cookery", were available to assist women in the process. 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. So, the mistress also served as the CFO of her domestic organization.
She might earn some additional money from managing the dairy and poultry, which was almost exclusively a female domain. Selling eggs, milk and surplus fowl could bring a tidy sum into the household, if carefully managed. Of course, doing so also meant more that required her attention.
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.
All manner of foodstuffs and herbs were raised and preserved using recipes and instructions passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. To neglect this process was to risk the family going without during the winter when it was often difficult to purchase supplies.
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. Water from boiling rice and potatoes was saved for starching clothes. Animal and even human urine (yikes!) was also saved for wash day.
Although men were legally responsible for hiring and firing servants, the mistress oversaw the engaging, instructing and supervising of domestic servants. Close control and supervision could be necessary. Many records of the era note inefficient and dishonest servants were common place. Not only did the mistress manage the servants, she was also in a position to care for their needs. She typically kept herself informed about their families, illnesses and needs and provided for their care.
The responsibilities of a landowner’s wife extend beyond the home into the community at large, both to those who were her social equals and to those below her in social rank.
To those on her level, she would be expected to host dinners and social gatherings. Regular calls would be normal among her 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. 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 was expected to 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, give advice, and listen to their complaints. Since the indigent had no other support system the gracious provision of the estates mistress provided a needed safety net.
So much for covering screens and eating biscuits. The Regency 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.
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Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England . Sutton Publishing (2004)
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Sullivan, Margaret C. The Jane Austen Handbook .Quirk Books (2007)
Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)