Secret Betrothals

I received the author copies of A Not So Reputable Gentleman? last Friday, and there is nothing like seeing the book in its tangible form. Even ebook-Kindle-loving me savors holding the book in my hands and flipping through its pages.

I’ll do an “official” introduction to the book near its release date of July 24, but revisiting the book after several months reminded me of some of the essential elements of the story.

My hero and heroine were secretly betrothed before the book begins. Secret betrothals, while favored in fiction (e.g. Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility; Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in Emma), were frowned upon in the real Regency world. In fact, it was considered a serious moral lapse.

Unmarried men and women in society were not permitted to be alone together and were expected to meet only in carefully chaperoned circumstances, like balls and other society parties.

Before a betrothal, young men and women were forbidden to use each other’s Christian names. They could not correspond by letters. They could not exchange gifts. They could not touch in any kind of intimate way and certainly could not kiss.

My hero and heroine had broken nearly all these taboos, although they, of course, considered themselves betrothed. In public, however, any show of particular attention or lapse of correct behavior would have given them away. Society was quick to assume a serious attachment on any sign of particular attention between a couple.

A secret engagement typically meant that there were reasons parents would not approve of the match. During the Regency a parent’s approval was expected if the child was under 21 years of age. Parents naturally wished for socially and financially secure marriages for their children. At the time of my book’s beginning, my hero was neither financially secure or socially acceptable.

By the 1800s a betrothal became more of a gentleman’s word than a contract between families. Even though suing for breach of contract was no longer the norm, a gentleman was expected to keep his word if he asked a woman to marry. A gentleman was disgraced if he broke an engagement and his fiancee was considered damaged goods. The lady was the only one who could “cry off” but then she was considered a jilt.

This, of course, makes great fodder for Regency Romance Novels. In reality, it is what led Wellington to marry Kitty Pakenham. When Kitty had been young and vivacious Wellington had courted her, but his suit was not accepted by her family. When he returned from India, Kitty had become pale and sickly, but Wellington realized that she had considered them betrothed all that time. He felt duty-bound to marry her as a result.

A secret betrothal held no such protections for the couple. By its secrecy, words–and hearts–could be broken without any social cost, although the emotional cost could be enormous.

In matters of marriage, the Regency was, like in so many areas, a time of change. In the 17th and 18th century society marriages were arranged by the parents and were secured for financial gain or rise in social status. By the Regency, couples wished to marry for love. Some blamed this foolish notion on the reading of novels.

Do you like secret betrothals in Regency romances? What about arranged marriages?

If you would like a chance to win a copy of A Not So Reputable Gentleman?, enter my part of the Harlequin Historical Authors Summer Beach Bag Giveaway. For more chances at other prizes and the grand prize of a Kindle Fire, enter daily. See details here.

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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