One of the joys of writing historicals is learning about life in in the past. The Ton's Most Notorious Rake features two aspects of life during the Regency, although neither of them are glamorous. The poor and those who had "fallen from grace" had little prospect of improving their lot without some help.
My heroine, Molly, is housekeeper for her brother, who is vicar of Compton Parva, and since he is unmarried she had taken over many of the duties that would normally fall to a vicar's wife. She visits the poor, and has set up a Sunday school for the poorer children.
The Sunday school movement began in the 1750s and flourished throughout the 19th century. The first documented Sunday school was set up by Hannah Ball in High Wycombe but I first heard about this movement as a child in Sunday school. We learned about a local philanthropist, Robert Raikes, who believed that one of the best ways to prevent the poor turning to crime was education.
Raikes was born in Gloucester in 1736 and inherited a publishing business from his father. He used his fortune to fund schools for poor boys, and his newspaper to publicise his views. Since many poor children worked in factories six days a week, the best time for them to attend lessons was on a Sunday. Originally, his textbook was the Bible. His first school began in 1780 with boys only, but later girls began to attend. Other schools flourished across the country and despite some detractors, including criticism from some religious leaders, the movement proved a success. By 1831 over one million children were being taught weekly.
Raikes's schedule for the school is probably not much different from others set up around the country. This is his plan:- "The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise."
Reading and writing were skills that could take a poor person from the gutter into gainful employment, perhaps as a clerk, or working in a shop. It also meant they were able to read newspapers and notices for themselves, which meant they were better informed.
The second aspect of Regency life that I wanted to explore in this book, just a little, is the plight of "fallen women". Molly is the widow of an abusive husband, and she knows all too well how difficult it is for women to make a living without a man's support. Women during the Regency were rarely free to choose their own destiny. They were expected to obey their fathers until they were married off, when they became the property of a husband. Women who lost their reputation were often cast out of their home, or their place of work, and left to survive as best they could. You may have heard of the Harlot's Progress, Hogarth's prints that show how an innocent country maid is lured into work as a prostitute, and eventually comes to a bad end.
Molly sets up Prospect House, a refuge for women in this parlous situation. Molly knows their stories, and she is determined to help them to help themselves. The residents of Prospect House are lively, courageous young women and in return for her support they provide Molly with friendship and advice.
Naturally, because The Ton's Most Notorious Rake historical romance, it has a happy ending. But I do not believe that as a novelist I should ignore the darker side of Regency life. We should never forget that the ladies and gentlemen who people our stories live on a knife edge. Reputations and fortunes could be lost in an hour, and rich and poor alike were liable to be struck down by death or disease. This constant threat adds colour and vibrancy to the period, and makes it, for me, one of the most exciting times in British history.
Sarah Mallory / Melinda Hammond
The Ton's Mot Notorious Rake