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Tracy Rees on working women in Victorian times

Tracy Rees on working women in Victorian times

I’ve written five novels set in the Victorian era now – I’m endlessly fascinated by what life was like then, particularly for women. The sixty years of Victoria’s reign saw great change and development yet, even at the end of the era, choices for women remained limited. My tenth novel, The Elopement, is set in 1897, when the primary expectation for women was still to marry and have a family.

At the beginning of The Elopement, Pansy (who’s unmarried due to a severe case of unrequited love) is a maid in a grand house. She’s miserable because she hates her employers but also because the work is dull and repetitive and Pansy is very bright. But back then, it wasn’t considered important for girls and women to be fulfilled on an intellectual plane. Pansy’s mother urges her to explore and find something that makes her happy; an unusual challenge in those days. “Everyone else just got a job and stuck to it if it kept a roof over their head. Then again, everyone else didn’t have Laura Tilney for a mother.”

At first Pansy’s ideas are very stilted. “What could a woman do? Work in service, work in a shop, or work in a factory. Those answers came easily and held no appeal. Nursing?… there weren’t many things, really, if you weren’t a wife.”

Pansy’s first experiences of different working environments don’t provide the answer that she’s looking for. But the idea behind Pansy’s story, as I have learned in life, is that it isn’t necessarily what you do or try that provides the solution. Rather it’s opening yourself to new experiences, people and ideas. This process creates a flow that seems to attract opportunity.

For instance, Pansy investigates millinery as a potential career but finds it dull. However in the course of this experiment, she visits a factory where fabric flowers to decorate hats are made. There she’s appalled by the working conditions: a hundred workers crowded into poorly lit rooms, struggling to breathe because of the dust from cutting out fabric, damaging their hands with the fiddly work involved in binding the flowers with wire. It is the “fierce blaze of horror at the miserable lives she saw” that guides her to her true calling – for justice and equality: Pansy eventually embarks on a degree in law.

I never plan my books in advance so when the story took off in this particular direction, I worried it would be too much of a stretch. Could women even study law back then? My research uncovered two inspirational real-life women.

Eliza Orme was the first woman to earn a law degree in England, in 1888. Although women weren’t allowed to qualify as a barrister or solicitor until 1919, Eliza found ways to work in the profession unqualified. Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to study law at Oxford and the first female graduate from Bombay University. She became the first female advocate in India but could not practise as a barrister in India until 1923. I’m inspired by how open their minds were: just because something had never been done before, didn’t mean they weren’t going to do it – and change the world for the better while they were at it! Certainly, these were women ahead of their time.

Nowadays girls are taught that any career is open to them and that they can work as well as, or instead of, having a family; that the world is their oyster. And it’s true that we’ve come a very long way. However, there’s still further to go and subtle attitudes to women are not always as different as we’d like them to be. Comments on women’s appearance, sexual preferences and life choices still seem to be fair game in many quarters and there is still shocking pay inequality in certain sectors. But if Cornelia Sorabji and Eliza Orme could break through such enormous barriers of prejudice and tradition in the 1800s then we can keep doggedly chipping through them when we encounter them now. Ultimately, what really hinders or empowers us isn’t what other people think about us but what we choose to believe.

Tracy Rees’ The Elopement is published by Pan on 16 February 2023

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