Guest Post with YA Author, Y.S. Lee 

By  Turn The Page

Author Y.S Lee has kindly put together a guest post to tell us a lit­tle bit more of what it would have been like to be a woman dur­ing the 19th Cen­tury, dur­ing which, her excel­lent series, The Agency, is set.  

Your life, 150 years ago

If your fam­ily is middle-class – say your father is a cler­gy­man or a solic­i­tor – you’ll be fin­ish­ing your edu­ca­tion. It’s far from excel­lent, this “edu­ca­tion” of yours. You’ll have lived at board­ing school for years, but the qual­ity of the teach­ing was often poor. While you can read and write and do sim­ple arith­metic, you spent long hours copy­ing “his­tory” and “geog­ra­phy” out of books, and you’ll speak a few lines of French or Ger­man. You learned needle­point and a lit­tle danc­ing, and you might also play a few songs on the pianoforte. This is sup­posed to be all you need, since you’re going to get mar­ried and raise a fam­ily. If you don’t marry, you’ll prob­a­bly be the spin­ster aunt, liv­ing with whichever sib­ling or cousin is will­ing to have you as a per­ma­nent houseguest.

If your fam­ily is wealthy – your father inher­ited a pile of money or is the direc­tor of a large com­pany, for exam­ple – your edu­ca­tion will still be patchy and dubi­ous, unless you have excep­tional good luck (tol­er­ant, intel­lec­tu­ally inclined par­ents) and deter­mi­na­tion (to fight for your edu­ca­tion). Edu­ca­tion is less impor­tant than ever, since your role in life is to be dec­o­ra­tive. You’ll make your debut in soci­ety, marry, and have a fam­ily. And if you don’t marry, there’s a good chance you’ll have enough money to live com­fort­ably on your own. There will be no ques­tion of a career.

As you can see, there’s a theme emerg­ing here. Even if a Vic­to­rian girl was lucky enough to be born rich, her chances of receiv­ing a solid and well-rounded edu­ca­tion were slim. And after that edu­ca­tion was over? Those who mar­ried became the legal prop­erty of their hus­bands, and every­thing they owned also became their hus­bands’ prop­erty. If their hus­bands were neglect­ful or abu­sive, it was incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to get a divorce, and there was no such thing as child sup­port. For those who didn’t marry, very few jobs were open to women: they could be gov­ernesses or paid com­pan­ions, teach­ers or fac­tory work­ers, office clerks or per­haps shop assis­tants. Pay was always much lower than what a man would earn for the same job.

It’s a grim pic­ture and one that makes me, at least, pro­foundly grate­ful not to have lived then. (There were excep­tions, of course – bril­liant women who forged fas­ci­nat­ing lives through a blend of good luck and bloody-mindedness.) But that dreary real­ity also inspired me to write a fantasy-based anti­dote about the Agency, a women’s detec­tive bureau in Vic­to­rian Lon­don. The premise? That women could be more effec­tive spies than men, pre­cisely because they were so often under­val­ued and ignored. While I’d love to think that such a women’s intel­li­gence agency did exist, we’ll prob­a­bly never find evi­dence of it.

Women today are worlds away from these typ­i­cal Vic­to­rian exam­ples. All the same, we are still work­ing towards equal­ity with men. And that’s some­thing worth remem­ber­ing this Inter­na­tional Women’s Day.

I love my period nov­els (and TV pro­grams. And movies. And won­der­ing around National Trust houses pre­tend­ing I live there *ahem*). I get swept away in the romance of it all, but I’m very grate­ful to be a woman in the 21st Cen­tury, because I prob­a­bly would have been a poor woman in the 19th! (Although… pretty dresses if you were rich…). If you’re inter­ested in know­ing a bit more about Vic­to­rian life, make sure to check out these fan­tas­tic posts on Lee’s blog!

If you haven’t checked out any books from The Agency yet, you really need to. Because, hello! Vic­to­rian women as under­cover spies! And James Eas­ton!! (You’ll see). And also — just look at those cov­ers! How can you not want to pick these up!?