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Your Turn: The (suffocating) life of a lady in 1860s America

While researching “A Rebellious Woman,” my new historical novel, I learned some amazing facts about what it was like to be a “lady” in 1860s America.

The novel is based on the life of a real woman, Belle Boyd, who lived from 1844 to 1900. She is best known as a reckless teenager who briefly spied for Stonewall Jackson, once running across an active battlefield to deliver information.

The story goes that she returned home with bullet holes in her petticoats.

But Belle was rebellious her entire life. She had three husbands, and divorced two of them, at a time when divorce was unheard of. Her third husband was half her age. When she was between marriages, Belle supported herself and her children as an actress – also considered shocking.

Even more horrifying, she often appeared on stage dressed in men’s clothing.

Divorce. Multiple marriages. Acting career. Wearing trousers. None of this shocks us today, but in the context of her times, these were acts of defiance that put Belle well outside the mainstream of acceptable female behavior.

Etiquette

Victorian women were controlled in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There was a rigid code of proper behavior which girls learned from the cradle on, instructed by mothers, grandmothers, aunts, nannies, and virtually all female adults.

There were dozens of etiquette books, and snippets of advice appeared regularly in newspapers and ladies’ magazines.

You, dear lady-reader, are probably breaking some of these etiquette rules at this very moment, if you are so bold as to sit with your legs crossed at the knees or ankles, or are leaning against the back of your chair.

Did you recently have a private conversation with a male who is not a member of your family? Did you call him by his first name? At a private gathering, have you been guilty of speaking quickly, rolling your eyes, laughing loudly, or exclaiming, “Good gracious!”?

These things are not allowed. A “lady” must never call attention to herself, in word, dress, or deed.

Mind you, these incredibly specific rules applied only to women. The rules for men were more general and the consequence for breaking them not so dire.

For a woman who disregarded the rules, the consequences were grave indeed. She risked developing a reputation as “fast”, which could render her unmarriageable.

A Victorian woman’s one purpose in life was to be a well-behaved wife and mother. Even though this was a stultifying existence, it was better than the alternative.

An “old maid” (unmarried woman above a certain age) spent her entire adult life as a marginal figure in a household that was not her own. She would live with her father until his death and after that with a brother, even a younger one, or an uncle. She would have no money of her own and therefore no freedom.

Among the approved activities were the housewifely arts of sewing and knitting. Decorative arts included drawing, painting, and embroidery. Singing, playing an instrument, and ballroom dancing were social arts and therefore acceptable.

The most demanding physical activity a “lady” could engage in was horseback riding. Unlike the social arts, this activity was conducted out of doors and largely without supervision. Which meant there were rules galore.

A lady must always ride sidesaddle, never astride with a companion, and had to be guided by her escort, allowing him to determine the direction and speed of the ride.

A lady must never go faster than her escort or challenge him to a race or force him to chase her or be the first to go over a jump.

The business of riding sidesaddle is also worth mentioning. Sitting with both legs in shortened stirrups on the same side of the horse was a precarious perch at best. This impediment alone was enough to ensure that no woman would ever be seen to outride a man.

Clothing

In addition to etiquette, other forces worked to control the behavior of women. The beautiful dresses of the day often weighed as much as 10 pounds. Underneath their dresses, women wore layers and layers of underwear – several petticoats, a chemise, pantaloons, stockings, corset, and crinoline.

The corset was tightly laced and made it difficult for a woman to even breathe properly — another way of limiting her physical activity.

To hold out her enormous skirts, an essential undergarment was the crinoline, a contraption made of steel hoops that was exactly like wearing a birdcage.

It is no exaggeration to say that women of this era were literally tied up and caged.

Many Victorian women were quite content to be loving wives and mothers and competent household managers. But for Belle, with her overabundance of physical energy, these daily constraints amounted to a form of torture.

Opiates

Another aspect of life for Victorian women that was both a comfort and a curse was the widespread use of laudanum. This potent combination of 10% powdered opium and 90% alcohol was available without a prescription throughout the 1800s. In the absence of aspirin (not manufactured until the 1890s), laudanum was regularly used as a painkiller and was also a popular sedative. It was thought to be particularly useful in treating “women’s complaints,” such things as menstrual cramps or depression after the death of a child, an all too regular occurrence in the life of a Victorian mother.

It was commonly dispensed in bottles just three inches high, small enough for a lady to carry in her pocket or drawstring purse.

Addiction was common and may help explain why some women of this era found it relatively easy to be passive and obedient. Women’s diaries in this time period make painful reference to concerns over having to increase or trying to decrease the accustomed dosage. It is well-documented that both Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, struggled with laudanum addiction during the Civil War.

In the context of Victorian society’s efforts to control women, Belle Boyd stood out as a scandalous figure. Today we can recognize her as a modern woman whose tragedy was to be born a century too soon.

Claire Griffin of Old Lyme will speak and sign her book at Essex Public Library at 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 29. A Zoom link is available at https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwtfuiuqT4iG9dOWkrcw81YsqGptnaISjYG. For more on Belle Boyd and her times, visit clairejgriffin.com.

 

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