Cabined, Cribbed, Confined: Girlhood in the Gilded Age

One of the biggest challenges of placing Her Scottish Groom in the Victorian era was the development of the heroine, Diantha. I had her basic characteristics from the start.  Quiet and shy by nature, she prefers to avoid outright conflict in favor of tact.  As the book opens, her attempts to assert herself have been firmly squelched by her social-climbing parents. Like many real-life couples in the late nineteenth century, they want only to mold their child into the ideal female of the time: passive, subservient and sadly, ignorant. I’m kind of proud of her growth as she takes responsibility for her new position as an aristocrat’s wife, and for her own happiness.

Like many females of that age, Diantha learned to keep her opinions and true nature hidden as she grew up.  Ironically, wealth could limit a girl’s opportunities for education.  For females on both sides of the Atlantic, society considered good breeding and a good education antithetical to each other.  In reading modern biographies of women in the Gilded Age, along with essays and articles from that time, what struck me again and again was the emphasis on restricting women physically, mentally and even emotionally.  Writers from straight fiction to mystery to romance successfully overcome this challenge by creating heroines with unusual backgrounds or unconventional personalities.  But from reading parts of nineteenth century diaries and letters, I have learned that even women who conformed to social pressure harbored strong opinions and great passion beneath a docile surface.  That is where Diantha came from.

In both America and England, girls were raised with the ideal of a ‘perfect lady’, too fragile for any activity more strenuous that horseback riding or dancing.  The thousands of women who spent hours laboring as servants, in factories or mines and on farms and ranches were not, of course, real ladies. (Insert eyeroll here.) An upper-class girl’s education depended on the whims of her parents. Some encouraged serious study, but too many families subscribed to the belief that the rigors of a masculine education would undermine a girl’s health.  Diantha studied mathematics with her brothers, but only because it pleased her father to permit it. Some young ladies attended finishing school, which provided no more than lessons in deportment and a smattering of music and languages. Even finding reading material on one’s own could be problematic. Men could and did forbid their wives and daughters to read newspapers and some books.  Like Diantha, women read the forbidden material anyway, in secret.

One of the more tragic consequences of keeping young women in a state of almost total ignorance was their lack of knowledge about even the basic mechanics of sex.  At most, proper courtship allowed a kiss on the hand and some meaningful glances under the eye of a chaperone.   (I suspect there was a great deal of improper courting going on, however.) Some women faced a lifetime of marital rape at the hands of a thoughtless or indifferent husband. At best those restrictions led to some miserable wedding nights, and not just for the bride.  In the first chapter of Her Scottish Groom, the lack of spirit he has observed in his fiancee so far has filled the hero with misgivings.  Like many men confronted with the prospect of marriage with a poorly educated teenager, he assumes he will only find physical and emotional satisfaction with a mistress.

One of my favorite things about this book is Diantha’s learning curve.  As she gains confidence in her abilities, she becomes braver, more assertive and even sexier — until she’s faced not only with her greatest fear, but with her husband’s impenetrable heart.

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