A while ago, I was doing a bit of research into the history and transformation of lady’s riding habits before and during the Regency period for a new story I was working on. As the name implies, riding habits are what women wore when they wanted to ride. A riding habit usually included a fitted jacket and a long skirt and a masculine-looking hat.
What I found interesting was that not only were these habits more structured and masculine-looking than what ladies usually wore, they were in fact tailored by men. Now, I cannot help but wonder why women’s riding habits were designed in this manner. Why did they look more structured and masculine? Was it strictly a matter of fashion? A matter of comfort? Was riding considered a gentleman’s activity and as such women were expected to look less feminine in order to engage in the activity? If so, this would certainly be an interesting topic for feminist discourse.
Below, I share an excerpt from my third novel, To Desire and Deserve, where women’s riding becomes a topic for dinner conversation and we get to hear Lord Carlisle scandalize a few people at the table and impress others with his opinion on the matter. I hope you will enjoy it.
Dinner began with Lord Paisley’s short but heartfelt announcement about Lady Claire’s engagement to Col. Fitzwilliam. Everyone expressed their happiness and well wishes on the joyous occasion. Col. Fitzwilliam, the knowing gentleman that he was, had noticed an underlying tension in the house. Aware of Lord Carlisle and Henrietta’s private conversation, he was fully expecting to hear news of their engagement or at least a courtship. But as no such announcement was made, he politely refrained from asking Lord Carlisle about it. Instead, he happily entertained everyone with tales of his youth with Mr. Darcy and Lord Carlisle at Pemberley.
“We used to ride for hours every day. My uncle, the late Mr. Darcy, had the best selection of horses. He enjoyed riding himself. But since my aunt’s passing, he often spent his time in his study. So, Darcy, James and I used to make good use of his fine horses.”
“And you would not take me with you.” Georgiana complained. “I wanted so much to race with you.”
“You were much younger, Georgiana.” Col. Fitzwilliam smiled at her. “And you could not keep up with us while riding side-saddle.”
“And what a poor excuse!” Georgiana said passionately. “I remember watching you from my window, thinking how unfair it was that men could do what they wished, when they wished it.”
“What can you be suggesting, Lady Paisley?” Lady Ruth asked with a raised eyebrow.
“My wife is an enthusiast for women’s liberation,” Lord Paisley said with a mischievous grin at Georgiana.
“I cannot understand why we have such different standards for the two sexes,” Georgiana declared, sending her husband a challenging smile.
“I respect your notions, Lady Paisley,” Lord Carlisle said. “And perhaps with time, we will begin to see some change. Though I fear it will be quite gradual and it will meet with great opposition.”
Lady Henrietta, who had been quietly listening to the conversation, looked up at Lord Carlisle with surprise.
Viscount Winston addressed Lord Carlisle. “Surely, you cannot approve of ladies riding as men do.”
“Not unless they can wear far more comfortable riding habits than the ones they are expected to wear now,” Lord Carlisle said. “Ladies are restrained by what they wear. Men certainly have far more comfortable clothing than ladies do.”
“Are you suggesting that ladies wear gentlemen’s clothing?” Lady Ruth gasped, clearly scandalized.
Lady Henrietta hid her smiles behind her handkerchief, amused by the way Lord Carlisle’s notions were giving Lady Ruth palpitations.
Lord Carlisle shrugged, seemingly unperturbed by how his words shocked the lady. “I suggest nothing, my lady. I am a man. Why should I be the one who decides what ladies should wear when they ride? Surely, women are intelligent enough to make that and other decisions.”
“You cannot be serious.” Viscount Winston shook his head in disagreement.
“I am very serious. I have travelled extensively and have lived in many parts of the world. I have seen women run households, farms and great businesses with admirable strength, dignity and grace.”
“You cannot compare those people to the English gentry,” Lady Ruth said with a condescending smile. “We are speaking of polite society, sir.”
“There is nothing polite about oppression and control, my Lady,” Lord Carlisle said, wiping his mouth with his handkerchief.
“Are you calling all English gentlemen oppressors?” Viscount Winston asked, his chest rising in indignation.
“No.” Lord Carlisle shook his head slowly. “Not all.”
The reaction to Lord Carlisle’s short but charged words was almost comical. Lord Paisley watched, with no little amusement, how Viscount Winston and his mother’s faces changed in color, one turning pale and the other blushing crimson. Lady Eleanor, Lady Claire and Col. Fitzwilliam hid their amusement as best as they could. Georgiana’s face was aglow with pride and excitement and Henrietta looked utterly speechless as she stared at Lord Carlisle.
“I am so glad you will be joining the House of Lords, Lord Carlisle.” Georgiana smiled proudly at him. “Our government certainly needs men of your understanding.”
Lord Paisley smiled too and nodded in agreement.
Lord Carlisle nodded his thanks, but his eyes sought and held Henrietta’s. Henrietta stared at him, unable to look away or to conceal how moved she was by the conviction in his words and the honest way he had expressed himself.