The Gritty Side of 19th Century England

gen·teel : \jen-ˈtēl\ : of or relating to people who have high social status; pretending or trying to have the qualities and manners of people who have high social status ; having a quietly appealing or polite quality
In my book, there’s no better way to leave behind modern life’s troubles than escaping to the genteel society of Jane Austen’s England. But even the most devout Austen fans know, in our hearts, that life then was not all tea and crumpets. Among the gentry class, women had few choices outside of marriage. Meanwhile, only the long hours and hard toil of domestic servants made the leisurely life of the upper classes possible. Life for the urban poor was not exactly a picnic in Hyde Park either. The collapse of traditional rural manufacturing during the industrial revolution led to an unprecedented influx of people into England’s cities. Low wages, scarce jobs, slum housing, alcoholism, prostitution and disease marked life for the poor in areas such as London’s East side.

Historical fiction dealing with the less fortunate of this era can make for grim reading at times. It may not be genteel, but it gives a fuller sense of the times than can be gained from Regency romances. So, take a dip into the grittier side of 19th century England. Because sometimes it’s good to remember how much better we really do have it after all.

Visit life below stairs at Elizabeth Bennett’s home from Pride and Prejudice in Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Sarah, an orphaned housemaid, dreams of a life beyond laundry and chores. She soon finds her head turned in two directions by a troubled veteran of the Napoleonic wars and Mr. Bingley’s more urbane footman.

In A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers, author Hazel Gaynor slowly reveals the fate of two orphaned Irish sisters, tragically separated while struggling to earn a living selling posies in London’s Convent Gardens. A young woman in 1912 finds one of the sister’s notebooks and sets out to uncover the mystery of their fate.

Sarah Waters, author of last year’s lauded novel The Paying Guests, tells the story of a young orphan raised by a family of thieves in her earlier work Fingersmith. Multiple layers of secrets and deceit are revealed when Sue becomes embroiled in her family’s plot to rob an heiress of her fortune.

Slammerkin is based on the true story of Mary Saunders, a serving girl who murdered her mistress in 1763. Emma Donague, author of the bestseller Room, depicts Mary as a young girl tricked into prostitution at an early age by the lure of a single red ribbon. She struggles to become a seamstress, yearning for freedom from drudgery while still desiring the finer things of life.

Ruth Downes, deemed too unattractive to work in her mother’s Bristol brothel, finds a new life as a bare-knuckle boxer in The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A twist in her career brings her into contact with reclusive yet genteel Charlotte Sinclair. Charlotte, scarred by smallpox, fears the outside world, yet longs to escape her debauched brother’s control.

-Rebecca Wolff, CE Regional Library

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