Regency era novels, such as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen showcase the importance of a young woman’s reputation through some of their characters.
Lydia Bennett’s illicit elopement with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice threatens to destroy the reputation of all her sisters as well, until the damage is minimized by Mr. Darcy.
In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood’s unabashed pursuit of scoundrel John Willoughby’s attentions in a desire to find romantic love has heads turning and tongues wagging. Her sister, Elinor, fears for Marianne’s reputation.
During Victorian times and through to the early 20th century, such concerns changed little for middle and upper class women. Wives and mothers were lifted to the lofty position of guardian of her family’s morals. Purity and piety were expected to be the norm. When a young man courted a woman he was allowed to take her arm over the rough places, but they usually kept a respectful distance apart, unless they were engaged.
|The Outcast by Richard Redgrave, 1851|
Women weren’t allowed to visit an unmarried gentleman alone or entertain a gentleman caller on her own. Another family member needed to be present in the room. It wasn’t proper for a woman to travel alone with a man who wasn’t her husband, especially in a closed vehicle such as a carriage.
Just as Eve had tasted the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and initiated the fall of mankind into sin, women were considered fallen not only if they had become intimate with a man of their own volition, but even if they were raped, or pushed into prostitution. The unwed mother of the 19th century was shunned by polite society and often their families and friends.
Once a woman’s reputation was ruined by such acts or even having one’s character called into question, it was much more difficult if not impossible to make an acceptable matrimonial match. An American colloquialism, “shotgun wedding,” comes from a coerced marriage, usually because the woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Can't you just picture the father of the bride holding a shotgun to the groom to make sure he follows through on the wedding? One foolish choice would change the course of a young woman’s life and sometimes that of a young man, if he were held accountable.
Compared to the young woman of today, the ladies of the 1800s had few choices and marriage was expected of most of them. Once a reputation was lost it was difficult, and likely impossible to restore.
Her debut novel, Rumors and Promises, from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, is coming out in April, 2016. Connect with Kathleen at her website, Facebook author page, Twitter and Pinterest.