Cara/Andrea here, As I sit here amidst piles of unpacked boxes and stuff to be sorted into its new places, I am breathing a sigh of relief that the ordeal of moving from one home to another is over. I’m usually able to stay on an even keel through all the inevitable storms and squalls that spring up in the course of Life. But this was incredible stressful. There is, of course, the physical process of sorting through your belongings and deciding what to keep and what is merely weighing you down. That can be emotional. However, far more emotional is both leaving a familiar place, where all your things have a regular place and surround you with a sense of order and continuity, and finding a new place where you feel you can create a sense of “home.” In some ways, change is good! It challenges you to reassess a lot about yourself things, and see things in a new light. But in some ways it’s also absolutely terrifying.
Which got me to thinking about moving in the Regency, especially for women. It suddenly occurred to me that “home” and the prospect of losing a secure place in the world, plays an integral part in many of Austen’s novels. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion—actual displacement from a familiar place or fear of losing it play a central role in the stories. Mansfield Park also has a strong theme of “home” as Fanny struggles to figure where and how she fits in.
Where is your place in the world? I had the freedom to decide I was ready for a change and then take independent action to make it happen, but for our Regency sisters, it wasn’t quite so simple. For one thing, few ladies had the financial means to make such decisions on their own. Unless they were lucky enough to have received a bequest from some rich relative of property or money, they had little hope of establishing themselves in their own place. Of course, if they were married, the situation became even stickier, as the legalities of the time made them little more than a husband’s property, like his horses and his hounds.
In the higher circles of English society, there was also the worry of a husband passing away without a male child, leaving his widow and daughters at the mercy of the heir, who by rights can toss them out on their ear. In this light, Mrs. Bennett’s obsession with marrying off her daughters—especially to a rich man who will take care of the rest of them—becomes a tad more sympathetic. Worry over the future was no trifling matter. Austen shows us this in Sense and Sensibility. The Dashwoods must make the best of being forced from their home when Dashwood’s son by his first marriage inherits the house. They are offered a cottage by distant relations, and must establish a new life. Their story, of course, has a happy ending, but I imagine that many real-life situations did not. Slowly sinking into genteel poverty was not uncommon. The sense of dislocation and helplessness must have been frightening and frustrating.
So ladies were pretty much dependent on making a making a good match or the goodwill of their family to care for them as spinsters or widows. Now, family dynamics likely haven’t changed much over the centuries. Relationships are, say we say complicated, and it’s the rare family whose interactions are nothing but sweetness and light. Conflicts and resentments can arise, making the hierarchy even more complex. A brother’s wife may resent the crowding and extra mouths to feed, or expect an unwed sister to serve as a nursery maid. An imperious grandmother may treat a poor relation as an unpaid servant, there to do her bidding at every hour of the day. Any female with spirit or a lively intellect could very feel stifled and frustrated by a lack of independence. For a gentry girl, an option could be seeking a position as a governess or paid companion, but that was in a sense simply jumping from the frying pan into the fire. For an aristocratic lady, there wasn’t even that choice—if she didn’t marry, she would likely find herself confined to world where the horizons were ever shrinking rather than expanding world.
So as I settle into my new digs, and surround myself with all the little things that are meaningful to me and create a sense of “home,” I reflect on how much as I love the Regency, I am glad to be living in the here and now. (But hey, I brought my oil lamps with me from the old house . . . there is something to be said for the best of both worlds!
So how about you? Have you ever moved, and did you find it as stressful as I did? What would you dislike most about living as a poor relation in a household? I would miss the privacy and the quiet time to read and reflect.