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Sunday, 19 June 2011

A Woman of Consequence by Anna Dean

When I am not writing my series of Georgian murder mysteries, I have a wonderful job as a guide at William Wordsworth' s home: Dove Cottage in Grasmere.

Many of the people who come to the cottage are – like me – as interested in the life of William's sister Dorothy as they are in the great poet himself, finding the domestic details and meticulous observations of her journals endlessly fascinating. But visitors often raise their eyebrows when I tell them that Dorothy, lived with her brother for most of her adult life. Sometimes there are expressions of sympathy for William's wife; sometimes there are questions about the exact nature of William and Dorothy's relationship: was it, people hint darkly, unnaturally close?

The twenty-first century notion of how an unmarried woman ought to behave is very different from that of the early nineteenth century. In 1802 (the year of William's marriage) more eyebrows would have been raised over a young, single woman living alone than one patiently settling down with her brother and his wife – helping with the running of the house and eventually assisting in the care of five children. Independence now is a necessary part of self-respect; then it was dangerous, shocking – and rather selfish. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (published 1814) Sir Thomas Bertram laments over 'that independence of spirit… which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence.' It is an opinion with which many of Austen's original readers would have agreed.

With no expectation of independence and, frequently, insufficient income to maintain a home of their own, a place within the extended family was a spinster's 'pleasantest preservative from want,' (to adapt another famous Austen phrase). And I have always had a sympathy for this half-hidden army of spinsters who lived their lives subsumed within the needs of their brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces.

What was it like to live like that? Always poor and yet prevented by ideas of what was 'proper' from taking paid employment. Condemned to a lifetime of dependence.

When I created my Georgian spinster-sleuth, Miss Dido Kent, I decided that she – like Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Austen – should be entirely dependent upon her brothers for her livelihood. Like her real-life counterparts she hardly has a moment to call her own, for, in return for her allowance, her brothers feel that her time is entirely at their disposal when it comes to, 'illnesses, lyings in, funerals or house removals.' Being always at hand, dealing with an endless round of mundane family crises, is not an exciting life. It's far removed from the glamour of royal courts and political intrigue. But it is the kind of life which thousands of women actually lived; and one which I think is well worth exploring.

I considered the idea of making Dido an outright rebel. For there were some women who rejected the life of dependence and humility – striking out to make a career for themselves in a male dominated world. Mary Wolstonecraft, for example, earned her living by writing and had a delightfully scandalous love life.

But I decided that it would be more interesting if Dido was not one of these rare exceptions, but was rather one of the many thousands of women who accepted their fate – not exactly without question, because I doubt any intelligent woman could do that – but with dignity, humour and no loss of self-worth. One of the thousands of women who attempted to live a decent, fulfilled life within the restrictions forced upon her.

And being always upon the periphery of society – always a looker on, regarded as of no importance – may be humiliating; but it also has its advantages. It is an excellent vantage point from which to observe your fellow men and women. It was a situation which turned Jane Austen into a brilliant commentator upon human nature: and made Dorothy Wordsworth into an excellent diarist. I reasoned that it could turn Dido Kent into a very effective amateur sleuth.

By solving mysteries Dido finds an outlet for her abilities and, with her success, comes a growing self-confidence. As the stories progress she finds that, when she feels it is the right thing to do, she is able to rebel in small, crucial ways… But no, actually Dido would not put it quite like that. As she remarks to her would-be lover, William Lomax, when he is shocked by her behaviour: 'I seek only to act as my conscience dictates. It is a matter of integrity, not revolt.'


Deborah Swift said...

Hi Anna, I think this is a fascinating time for women who were becoming more literate and therefore informed, but had no outlet for their ideas, excluded as they were from decision making society. Also I absolutely loved "A Moment of Silence", so this will definitely be on my list.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi Anna
i'n not sure if this is the right place for my comment, still working my way around blogging, but just wanted to say how appealing your Dido Kent character sounds. I love 'sleuths' and setting Dido in this period, where men dictated how women should lead their lives, gives the story a fascinating edge. I'm looking forward to reading this and seeing how Dido suceeds. Oh, and one last thing, maybe this is in another blog, but why the name Dido? Did you take it from Queen of Carthage, or the singer, or was it just because you liked it? And, how important do you think a name is?
very best wishes and good luck with the book!

scaughie said...

This sounds fascinating! I'll be getting a copy...
Best wishes!

Anna Dean said...

Hello, thanks to you all for your encouragment. Marianne, I'm still finding my way round this blogging business too. So I hope this message reaches you. The full (fictional) story of how Dido got her name is on my website. But my reasoning went something like this: I wanted to have a slightly unusual name for my heroine. And - thinking of Jane Austen's sister's name in particular (Cassandra) I decided that a classical name might be fun. It seemed plausible since there was such a great interest in the classical world during the period. The name, I found, was occasionally used during this period and the most famous Georgian 'Dido' was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a sea-captain and an enslaved African woman. This Dido was the ward of the Earl of Mansfield. Yes I do think names are important but its difficult to explain why. Once the name Dido Kent had formed in my mind it just seemed 'right'. Best wishes Anna

Deborah Swift said...

How interesting about the name. And yes, it's odd how a name suddenly seems 'right.' Can't imagine Dido Kent by any other name at all!