Lucinda Elliot

Romantic Novels and Working Class Characters

A writer friend of mine commented once that it is difficult to have romance when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.

Certainly,it’s true that I haven’t come across many love stories – let alone love stories that can be defined according to the current definition of ‘romance’  — which are set amongst ordinary, working people, let alone the impoverished, historical or otherwise.

And certainly, too, it is difficult to think of higher emotions, of anything but ones stomach if one is hungry. Perhaps this is why so many traditional rhymes turned into nursery rhymes seem to be about food. Henry Mayhew, who chronicled the lives of the London poor, comments on that in his mid-nineteenth century study ‘London Labour and the London Poor’.

Besides, even when not actually living hand to mouth, the normal lifestyle for working people in former ages was hardly conducive to romantic feelings. They had to labour for soul destroying hours, live in cramped, often damp, sparsely furnished housing, wear shabby clothing  which they could not afford to have laundered frequently, while eating a sparse and unvaried diet.  

It is true that most readers of historical novels who prefer a glamorous setting and a hero with social and political power might not choose to read stories about those low in social and economic status. They don’t make for comfortable reading, as they must by definition bring in questions of social justice and economic equality, and people don’t generally read romance to encounter too much emphasis on that. 

Yet, after all, that might be just a prejudice of our own age. The nineteenth century, for instance, had a great thing about the romance of unrecognised geniuses starving in garrets: hence the fate of the consumptive seamstress Mimi  in ‘La bohème’, which features an impoverished poet and painter living in the Latin quarter of Paris. The opera, though considered highly romantic at the time, does not have a story which would meet the criteria for a romantic novel today.

A few centuries earlier, Shakespeare’s age had a conception that the pastoral life, and shepherds and shepherdesses in particular, were romantic. Or anyway, this was the idea of certain more privileged members of society.  The abandoned baby Perdita in ‘A Winter’s Tale’, adopted by a shepherd and living as a shepherdess, is portayed as a highly romantic figure. She acts as hostess in a sheep shearing feast, already having caught the eye of the prince.

Fortunately, only a section of working people in early modern Britain and Europe suffered from actual want. Those slightly higher up the social scale, such as tradesmen and tenant farmers, were a long way from poverty.

The situation of the Robson family, where ex-whaler Daniel Robson is now a tenant farmer employing a labourer who lives as more or less one of the family, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ would be fairly common. The family lead a reasonably comfortable, though hard working and simple life. They eat porridge for supper, and have few luxuries, relying on rush lights and firelight after dark. However, Sylvia’s parents can afford to treat her to material to make up an unnecessary new red cloak from the haberdashers in town.

In fact, there is a striking story of romantic love in this novel. However, the general theme of the novel is the unromantic one of how wrong it is to worship another human being. Whatever the reader’s opinion of the character of the whaler Charley Kinraid, whom the foolish Sylvia Robson hero worships for standing up to the press gang (I have often stated that I think he is a shameless opportunist), the author’s portrayal of a young girl’s infatuation with a dashing young man is vivid and believable.

The surroundings are always prosaic. The setting is usually such places as the haberdasher’s, where Charley Kinraid’s would-be rival Philip Hepburn works, inside the Robson’s  farmhouse on evenings spent at the fireside, with the women sewing and listening to the men boasting of their adventures at sea, or at the untidy and crowded neighbouring farming family’s New Year’s party, or in the byre or dairy at the  Robson’s.  Despite these mundane surroundngs, Sylvia’s besotted admiration of the Specksioneer (chief harpooner) Charley Kinraid is depicted as fully as romantic as those of young girls swooning over some untameable aristocratic hero in a ballroom.

A large proportion of young people in the early modern age worked as servants, where the amount of work required varied according to the status of the master and the size of the household. Footmen in aristocratic households had a reputation, deserved or otherwise, for being lazy. Housemaids in less affluent houses had to do a lot of heavy, dirty work.

No doubt it is for this reason that the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s 1740’s bestseller ‘Pamela’, is a lady’s maid (without a lady to serve after the death of her master’s mother). The work of a lady’s maid consisted largely of sewing, and therefore she was considered to be ‘a higher servant’, unlike the coarse Nan, with whom she at one time shares a bed and the touch of whose coarse, red hands would never tempt the would-be ravisher Mr B.

Jo Baker’s best selling, highly praised and award winning 2013 novel ‘Longbourn’, definitely contains a romantic love story, and has been called ‘Achingly romantic’ by the “Library Journal‘.

The heroine Sarah is a maid of all work, complete with reddened hands (a highly unromantic and realistic touch) from washing the dishes in the days before washing up liquid, doing the laundry, carrying pails from the pump in icy weather, etc (maybe it is the unaesthetic effect of years of rough housework on the hands, which puts off writers of romance from making heroines out of maids of all work?).  The story of Sarah’s shared passion with the mysterious James Smith is vividly recounted.  

My criticisms of the novel are few, and not connected with this love story; they are for instance, that it is unfair to assume that Wickham was a paedophile from his running off with the fifteen-year-old Lydia Bennett – the age of consent being twelve at the time. The other was that later when working as Elizabeth’s lady’s maid, Sarah, who in that role would do so many intimate tasks for her, could not possibly have missed her pregnancy for so many months.

In my own novel ‘The Peterloo Affair’, I wrote about a love affair between a couple where the heroine indeed does not know where her next meal is coming from, if the vegetable patch runs out of potatoes or the poached rabbits stop coming in. The heroine comes from a Lancashire weaving family in the early nineteenth century in the era of terrible want following the Napoleonic Wars. They are gradually reduced to being on the verge of starvation.

While l would like to think that the story has a successfully recounted romantic love between a couple living in dire poverty, that is not for me to say.  However, here is the link on Amazon, should any readers try it for themselves.

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2 Responses

  1. The pheremones work the same for rags or riches, except that the onset of sexuality depends to some degree on how well fed one is. The law relating to minors is concerned with the age at which it can be judged that a person is intellectually responsible for their actions and decisions. It was somewhat different back in the 18th and 19th century when women were still regarded as the property of males.

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