Plus, a sneak peek at my newest novel!
As many of you know, some Austen Authors write more than just Jane Austen fan fiction. A number of us also write Victorian romances, that is, romance stories set right after the Jane Austen period. I thought it might be fun to compare and contrast these two different kinds of romances by taking a look at the worlds they describe. We will not look at fashions or architecture, but at some of the social differences between the two eras. And then I’d like to give you a preview of my work in progress, Margaret of Milton!
First, what are these two different time periods called? The earlier of the two periods, the regency era, was named for the ruler of England at the time, the Prince Regent.
The Prince Regent ruled in place of his father, King George III, from 1811 to 1820. Thus literature, architecture, music and other creations from this time fall into the regency era.*** The Victorian age, by contrast, started when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and did not end until 1901. The Victorian era gave rise, in many ways, to the world we live in today.
During the regency years England was much closer to the start of the industrial revolution. Most labor was not yet mechanized and there were few railroads in use in the country. Towns existed, obviously, but England’s economy was still mostly agrarian. The population was growing at a slow yet steady rate. Most of our major medical advances had not yet occurred. Life was changing, but the change was gradual.
By the start of the Victorian era the industrial revolution had radically transformed England. More and more jobs traditionally carried out by hand were taken over by machines. Factories multiplied in the cities, and workers migrated from rural farms to work in them in astonishing numbers. The populations of cities soared, and in some areas crushing poverty followed. Railway lines crisscrossed the country. It was a time of adjustment, anxiety, and conflict.
But the Victorian age was also the age of reformers. Unions sprang up to try to improve working conditions for people in the factories, and the government took an active interest in improving living standards in towns. Philanthropists founded orphanages and started schools. Slavery was abolished, and there were popular movements to give voting rights to non-landowners and to women.
One thing both eras had in common: an emphasis on etiquette and firm rules for interactions between the sexes. But modern readers often think that the unswerving morals of the Victorians were in place throughout the 1800’s. That is a misconception. Even with strict etiquette, there was plenty of “naughty” behavior during the regency! In certain circles (especially high society) affairs were winked at and liaisons were common. In fact it was the excesses of the regency that made the Victorians set such rigid standards later on. (An entire article could be written just on this subject!) So while there were many differences between the two eras, some things stayed the same!
My upcoming novel, Margaret of Milton is set in 1850, at the height of the industrial revolution, in a factory town in northern England. In this variation of North and South the hero and heroine, John and Margaret Thornton, have entered a marriage of convenience after the death of Margaret’s father. Thornton is the master and owner of a mill that produces cotton cloth. Margaret recognizes her husband’s business success but her conscience is pricked by the way factory workers are often exploited by the owners. Thornton takes her on a tour of the mill so she can see the conditions for herself. The scene below is part of that tour.
Margaret held a handkerchief over her mouth and nose to guard against the bits of cotton floating freely everywhere, and Thornton could see her fighting not to cough. She watched the loom nearest to them as the carriage sailed out away from the frame, remained stationary for a short time, and then retracted again with a slight hiss. “What happens if the children do not get out of the way in time?” she asked him, speaking loudly through her handkerchief.
Nothing good, he wanted to answer, but knew he could not say. “My minders are trained to wait until they see both children out from under before they let the carriage retract again,” he responded instead. “It is one of my strictest rules.”
Margaret did not answer. She kept her eyes on the children at the nearest loom and kept watching until Thornton touched her elbow to urge her to move back towards his office. There were other parts of the mill that he could have shown her, but he sensed that she had seen enough. He waited until the door had closed behind them and she uncovered her face before asking, “So, what do you think of the mill now?”
Immediately he was on the defensive. “All the mills do. Only children are small enough to go under the machinery and do what needs to be done.”
“But they are so young. They should be outside in the fresh air, not forced to work all day in . . . . ” she struggled to find the right word, “deplorable conditions!”
“We make the conditions as safe and healthy as we can.”
Margaret continued as though she had not heard him. “The air is so thick with cotton dust that it ruins their lungs! The noise must surely make some go deaf. And if one of your minders does not see a child in the way, or if they should trip or fall while the carriage is moving, what then? I have read about accidents that maim or even kill a child!
“And adults too!” Thornton exclaimed, angered against his will.
“But how much worse for children than for adults? They should not be employed at all!”
This was not how he had hoped an afternoon with Margaret would go. Temper, he reminded himself. Guard your temper. “Their families make the choice to send them to work.”
“But they should be in school. They should be receiving an education that will enable them to move beyond all this!”
Thornton took a deep breath and spoke with as much restraint as possible. “Margaret, have you considered what would happen if we did not employ children?” he asked. “They come to us from families desperate for income. If they did not earn wages with us they would starve. Here in the mill they can work and earn money for their families year ’round, regardless of storms or whatever crop is ready to harvest. And they learn a trade that will help them move up in the world later on. A skilled weaver earns a good living.”
Margaret did not answer, but for the first time she looked uncertain of herself.
Thornton leaned down and picked up one of the books he had moved off of a chair earlier. “Here. This is a book written by a mill owner in Scotland, a Mr. Owen, whose principles I have tried to imitate. He founded a system of free education for his workers and their children. And this is one written by a man in America who encouraged his workers to learn and to better themselves. Both of them made great improvements in their employee’s lives.”
Margaret took the book from him reluctantly. “I did not realize you were interested in the works of reformers.”
“I devoured them when I was first establishing Marlboro Mills. I wanted my mill to copy the philanthropic endeavors of those I was reading about, but upon further investigation I discovered that their ideas were not always practical. For instance, I cannot completely avoid the use of children in my mill, but I do not employ any under the age of ten. And I insist that they be able to read and write before they come to me.”
Margaret looked down at the two books in her hands. “What about establishing a school for them?”
“I have looked into the idea but the families of the children who work for me are content with the Sunday school education they receive. They do not see the need for a more rigorous academic program.”
“I see.” She seemed suddenly dispirited, as though the idea of families who did not desire education for their children troubled her. “The problem is obviously more complex than I realized.”
He floundered for a moment, wondering what he could do to cheer her up. “Would you like to take these books for yourself? I think you would find them interesting.”
“I am certain that I would. I will read them and return them as soon as possible.” She slipped the two volumes inside the basket she had brought with her. “And now I am afraid I have taken up too much of your time. I appreciate you showing me your mill. The tour was most enlightening.”
“It is our mill, Margaret, not just mine,” he reminded her. “It belongs to you as well as me.”
She smiled sadly. “Thank you.” She slipped out the office door without another word.
What do you think? Could a shrewd mill owner and a determined reformer find happiness after being forced together? Look for Margaret of Milton to be released this spring!
***Some people count anything from the end of King George III’s reign until the ascension of Queen Victoria as the regency period.