A Room of Her Own?

“Oh! Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone!”

I sometimes think that one of the greatest and most subtle difference between our time and the Regency period is that now we take privacy and the right to time alone for granted. Then, it wasn’t so clear cut. Very few people lived alone, and “living alone” then might well mean a household with a servant or two. If you were an unmarried woman, you’d live with your family. I ran into an interesting fact somewhere that a household of three or more unrelated women was considered a brothel under the law in London (oh, how I wish I could give a source and a time period for this–I believe it was Georgian).

Living alone for a woman would be particularly difficult since she’d need someone to lace her into her stays. I’ve seen mid nineteenth-century front-lacing stays of linen for a working-class woman, and I’m sure they existed in our period. Yet, if you were a lady, you’d have back-lacing stays because that’s what ladies wore–and a maid, or sister or other female relative had to lace you into them every morning and out every night. And even at night you wouldn’t be alone–chances are a sister would share the bed.

Even if poets could wander lonely as a cloud, it wasn’t encouraged for women. Your activities would be tied into those of your family and you would be busy, busy, busy–there was a prevailing belief that women were weak and inconsistent creatures who would get into trouble morally if left to their own devices. Finding time “for yourself” was an alien concept; even Jane Austen had to snatch time to write, pretending she was producing something of little consequence.

How do you think you’d cope?

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