Lady Pendleton, Damian Ashby’s eccentric aunt (see the epilogue to Treasuring Theresa on Susana’s web site), is visiting Susana from the early 19th century. She’s intrigued by life in 21st century Toledo, Ohio, and, of course, Susana is thrilled to have the opportunity to pick her brain about life in Regency England. It certainly gives her a great deal to write about in Susana’s Parlour!
Susana: [to the Reader]:
The other day, Lady P and I got to talking about the position of women in the Regency period and how it evolved from the late 18th century when women such as Georgiana Cavendish held political salons and marched in support of political candidates to a time when women were to be saintly and devout and “protected” from the seamier side of life, leaving the important decisions to their sturdier husbands.
Lady P: ‘Twas Hannah More and the Evangelicals that popularized it. Women were to be seen and not heard, at the same time obedient to their husbands and revered by them. [Snorting in an unladylike manner] Pendleton and I laughed about it on many an occasion. I’ve never been the obedient sort, and Lord P would not have wed me if I were. Nor did I wish to be worshiped either. The very idea!
Susana: No doubt it was a reaction against the excesses of the previous generation. The Devonshire ménage-à-trois, for example. The Prince Regent and his illicit marriage, as well as all of his mistresses and excessive spending. The scandalous behavior of Lady Caroline Lamb.
Lady P [Frowning]: There were excesses, of course, which did lead to the pendulum swinging in the other direction. But such extreme changes more often than not led to equally harmful excesses on the other side.
Susana: Indeed. I can certainly see that is true in the 21st century. But do explain what you mean, Lady P. What were the harmful excesses caused by the Evangelical movement?
Lady P: A popular interpretation of the wife-as-saintly approach was that the husband was allowed and even expected to be a sinner.
Susana: Which gave him the freedom to take mistresses and carouse as often as he liked, while his “sainted wife” stayed home and raised the children.
Lady P: Well, yes, but it was rather more than that. As unrealistic and unfair as it was to the women, I believe it was equally unfair to the men. Lord Byron, for example. Why would such a dissolute young man choose to marry a staid bluestocking like Annabella Milbanke?
Susana: Because she was an heiress and he was close to bankruptcy?
Lady P: Then why would she agree to marry him? She had turned him down flat in the past, having recognized that he was a loose screw.
Susana: Because opposites attract? Because she thought she could reform him?
Lady P: Exactly! She was quite forthcoming about it, actually, and Lord Byron seemed to agree that she would be a good influence on him, at least at first. But as the wedding drew near, he began to have doubts, complaining to his bosom bows that he feared the medicine would be far more disagreeable than the disease itself.
Susana: It can be tiresome to be preached at all the time. In a true partnership, both partners accept each other, flaws and all.
Lady P: Precisely. In this case, Annabella overestimated her own influence and underestimated the extent of her husband’s vices. She did not know of his immoral relationship with his half-sister Augusta until after the marriage, for example, and like most women who incessantly nag their husbands, she came to be regarded by her husband as a nuisance.
Susana: But as you say, Byron was a bit of a loose screw. Would it have worked between them, do you think, if he’d been on some sort of medication?
Lady P [with a loud harrumph]: Your society seems to be of the opinion that all can be cured with a tiny pill, Susana, but I’m not so sure. We had quacks touting medicines in our day too. Why, the stories I could tell you about laudanum…!
Susana: But getting back to the issue of women’s rights, what did you think of people like Hannah More, Lady P? Was she a good influence or a bad one? She did influence people to care for the poor, did she not?
Lady P: Hannah More and those around her were neither good nor bad, Susana. The mistake, in my opinion, is to paint everything in life broadly as either white or black. Hannah More did a great deal to awaken society to the plight of the poor and stir up support on their behalf, that is true. But I believe that she did a disservice to both women and men in promoting the role of women as subservient to men.
Susana: But women were still legally the chattel of men, were they not? And they were not given the right to vote for another hundred years.
Lady P [somewhat impatiently]: Legally, yes, that is true. But my dear Susana, you must not assume that every marriage was built on such an unequal basis. Discerning women always knew how to manage their husbands, so long as they took care to marry a husband who could be managed, that is. I daresay even the redoubtable Hannah herself could not have managed such a bedlamite as Lord Byron.
Susana: But you said yourself that you never told Lord Pendleton about your Whig activities with the Duchess of Devonshire.
Lady P: Indeed not. It was for his own protection. His family would have been scandalized.
Susana [shaking her head]: Sometimes your logic escapes me, Lady P.
Lady P: I’m not saying that my own marriage was ideal, or that most marriages were not unequal in my day, Susana. There was just as much hypocrisy in society then as there is in your century. Why Hannah herself apologized in her books for having the temerity to write them at all, being a mere woman as she was. My point is that one must consider one’s options and make the wisest choices possible in whatever circumstances one finds oneself. I may have decided to become a Whig, but I wasn’t foolish enough to believe they should have unilateral power. No indeed. Some of their official policies were ridiculous in the extreme, and I was glad there were rational voices on the other side to temper their excesses.
Susana: In that respect, I certainly agree with you, Lady P. I find I cannot blindly accept any philosophy or ideology without considering each facet of it on its own merits. But I find it extremely frustrating that there are so many who do, as though they haven’t a brain to think for themselves.
Lady P [dryly]: So I’ve noticed that about you. But Susana, it does appear that you are missing the point. People are who they are, and there’s not a lot you can do to change them. My counsel in such cases has always been to do what you can and let the rest be, else you work yourself into a state fit for Bedlam.
Susana: [shaking her head]. You remind me so much of Dr. Ellis, author of How To Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything.
Lady P: What a singular title for a book! The logic seems sound, however. Why, many was the time when Lord P left me alone to go to his club that I could have spent the night fuming, but I decided instead to use that time to follow my own interests.
Susana: Such as attend the Whig salons at Devonshire house?
Lady P: Yes, and attend balls and musicals that Lord P did not enjoy. It wasn’t fashionable to live in one another’s pockets, in any case. We muddled along well enough, I do believe. How I do miss the dear man! [Sigh]
As always, please do comment if you have any questions you’d like to ask Lady P about the late Georgian/Regency era. She does love to chat!