Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ape Leaders and Vermin of the State: The Unmarried of the Regency Era

by Maria Grace

Regency society organized itself around marriage and family. Adults were identified by their place, or lack thereof, in a married, family unit. Married women were ranked higher and more respected than the unmarried. Married men were perceived as having come into their own and given the esteem and authority that went with such an accomplishment.

The plight of the regency spinster is fairly well understood. The local tax or judicial records says it all. Women were typically identified in tax or judicial records by their marital status (spinsters, wives and widows) whereas men were always identified by their occupation or social status. (Shoemaker, 1998) A woman’s identity (and legal existence) was determined by her marital status.

Spinsterhood was considered ‘unnatural’ for a woman, even though nearly one in four upper class girls remained unmarried (Day, 2006). They were called ‘ape-leaders’ (for that was what they would be doing in hell as punishment for the unnatural lifestyle. Enough said on that point….) and ridiculed for their failure in the most basic requirements of femininity.

However, if a single woman possessed independent means—a fortune of her own sufficient for her to live on, it was possible she could maintain her own household and carry on an independent life. Female investors were not unknown and their capital supported the joint stock companies behind municipal utilities and railways. Wise investments could provide a steady income without administrative worries. (Davidoff & Hall, 2002)

Not all women were so fortunate as to have independent means, and even if they were, male relatives might make it difficult or impossible for her to access her own fortune. (Naturally the men in her life knew better how to manage her affairs than she.) In those cases, a spinster would have two choices, find a job to support herself or live in the house of a relative.

Upper class ladies had limited job prospects, given their desire to remain respectable—and their more or less complete lack of marketable skills. Genteel options were limited to being a lady’s companion or a governess.

Being a governess required an education that not all ladies had and was not necessarily an enviable position. Within the households they served, the existed in a nether realm, not equal to the family but above the servants. Often, a governess would associate with neither, virtually shut away from all society. She would also be vulnerable, as all female servants were, to (unwanted) advances from the males of the household.

Unmarried women unable to become governesses were expected to make themselves useful to whichever relative might take them in. They might keep house for bachelor (or widowed) brothers or uncles, tend children, cover for married sisters while they were indisposed or during lying-in, nurse the sick, cook, clean and mend. Ironically, despite these functions, they were still often considered spungers and a burden to the household.

Today, most believe that bachelors of the era enjoyed the same social position as married men, free from the prejudice spinsters experienced. However, they too were touched by the societal bias toward the married.

This is not to say, though, that they were in any way as put upon as spinsters. The scarcity value of men in the era gave eligible bachelors the power to act as connoisseurs, holding off until the ‘right’ situation came along. (Jones, 2009) For younger sons of gentlemen, whom primogeniture denied substantial inheritance, marriage was likely to make him significantly less well off, unless of course he could find himself an heiress or woman with an excellent dowry. So, these men typically waited for marriage, often until their early thirties. But this time, they would have worked long enough to have established themselves in their profession and have the means to support a family (or attract a woman with money, which would always be an attractive alternative.)

Nonetheless, like upper-class women, one out of four younger sons remained lifelong bachelors. (Jones, 2009) While bachelorhood was seen as a natural (and possibly necessary for wealth-gathering) phase of life, the lifelong bachelor was a different creature altogether. Though not subject to the vicious ridicule heaped on spinsters, bachelors were subject to degradation as well.

In marriage, a young man took up the burdens (and the dividends—don’t forget those) of patriarchy, and became a fully realized man. In a very real sense, a man achieved political adulthood when he could support his dependents and represent their interests in the public forum. Failure to marry was often seen as being unrealized in masculinity, at the mercy of impulses and negligent in the duties to society.
“Perpetual bachelors were the ‘vermin of the state’ pronounced The Women’s Advocate … ‘They enjoy the benefits of Society, but Contribute not to its Charge and spunge upon the publick, without making the least return.’” (Vickery, 2009).
The strength of this sentiment led to punitive taxes being placed upon bachelor households.

In 1785, employers of one or two male servants paid an annual £1, 5 shillings for each of them. All bachelors over 21 (the age of majority) had to pay an extra £1, 5 shillings for every male servant they employed. Female servants were taxed at a lower rate, but bachelors had to pay double the amount. (Horn, 2004) And of course, as taxes go, the rates only increased as time went on.

Unless they were able to set up housekeeping with an unmarried female relation, sister, niece, aunt, etc. (Not a cousin mind you as they were considered marriageable and living with them unmarried would have been unacceptable), a bachelor would have also had to pay for services usually rendered by female labor. The top four occupations for women in London 1200-1850 were washing, charring (cleaning) nursing and the making/mending of clothes, reflecting the needs of bachelors. Few women noted prostitution as their occupation, but that was a thriving trade as well. So, not only did bachelors pay for their choice not to settle down and make legitimate babies in loss of social status, and taxes, but basic domestic comforts cost them dearly as well.

So, unmarried men may not have been leading apes in hell, according to regency standards, but being considered selfish social vermin was hardly desirable either. The attitude was hardly surprising though when the fundamental unit of society was the male-headed, conjugal household.

Baird, Rosemary. Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses, 1670-1830. London: Phoenix, 2004.
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998.
Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Day, Malcom. Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David&Charles, 2006.
Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum, 2009.
Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and scullions: life below stairs in Georgian England. Stroud: Sutton, 2004.
Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House. London: Hambledon and London, 2004.
Shoemaker, Robert Brink. Gender in English Society, 1650-1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? London: Longman, 1998. Pearson Education Limited
The Woman's advocate or The baudy batchelor out in his calculation: Being the genuine answer paragraph by paragraph, to the batchelor's estimate plainly proving that marriage is to a man of sense and oeconomy, both a happiner and less chargeablo state, than a single life. Written for the honour of the good wives, and pretty girls of old England. London: Printed for A. Moore, near St. Paul's, 1729.
Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.
Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent article, Maria. It was also very helpful to see how things were regarded with bachelors vs 'spinsters'


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