Morality and Honor: Social Mores in Historical Romance


Georgian Lady with Book

Georgian Lady with Book

This article on Morality and Honor is excerpted from my 2014 workshop on Herstory: Writing and Researching the Historical Novel.

One of the biggest traps historical novelists can fall into is writing historical characters with 21st century mores, and nothing can make the reader want to throw a book across the room quicker. This especially applies to women. The double standard still exists, but it was much greater in previous centuries.

War and social unrest have always upset the normal patterns of life, and social mores tend to fall by the wayside during such periods. Still, a historical female character who shows no regard for her reputation isn’t believable unless she’s already a fallen woman and has no reputation to lose. Personally, I don’t necessarily mind a heroine who flaunts society’s rules; I just need to believe that she knows what she is doing and is well motivated in her choices. The woman who doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions strains credibility. Women had a lot more to lose in the not-so-good old days. It’s especially tricky when you have a virginal heroine. People in those days set great store in virginity. But if we’re going to write sensual or erotic historical romance, we need to find a way for our heroines to bypass those restrictions.

Though the concepts may seem rather passé nowadays, honor and integrity were more important in the past, esp. for men of the upper classes. One of my favorite scenes in Downton Abbey is the one where the Earl of Grantham tries to buy off chauffeur Tom Branson if he will leave Sybil alone. Tom refuses and informs the earl that men in his class aren’t the only ones with honor. Well said, Tom!

Shakespeare Stealer coverHowever, morality did tend to vary by class. Upper and middle-class children were taught their manners and the difference between right and wrong while poor kids just tried to survive. In his children’s novel, The Shakespeare Stealer, Gary Blackwood introduces us to Widge, an orphan boy apprenticed to a dishonest clergyman. Dr. Bright teaches Widge a form of shorthand he has developed and then sends the boy to write down other vicar’s sermons. One Sunday, Widge hears Bright deliver one of the sermons he’d copied. At first, Widge doesn’t think too much about it. As he puts it, “As nearly as I could tell, Right was what benefited you, and anything which did you harm was Wrong.”

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the basis for My Fair Lady, Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, talks about the undeserving poor and opines on Middle Class Morality.

Morality and honor sometimes require our characters to act against their own best interests, which can be great for conflict.

So how do you know what the social mores of your period were? And how likely were they to be ignored?

See what was going on in the period. As I said, social mores often go out the window in wartime. Plus, history being somewhat cyclical, periods of repression are usually followed by periods of licentiousness, like the English Restoration, a bawdy reaction to the moral restrictions of the preceding Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen (1775-1817) on engraving from 1873. License by Deposit Photos.

Also consider the prevailing religion of the time and location of your book. That will often provide guidance. Moral standards in Puritan New England and Cavalier Virginia during the Colonial period, were quite different.

For the social niceties, look for etiquette books. Search via Google and/or Amazon for etiquette of your period and you will likely find a lot of choices.

For the Georgian and Regency periods:

The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London by Hannah Greig, OUP Oxford, 2013.

Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester, Sourcebooks, 2010.

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders by Josephine Ross, Bloomsbury USA, 2006.

The Mirror of the Graces by A Lady of Distinction, first published in 1811. (There are various editions of this book available, incl. e-book.)

Victorian EtiquetteFor the Victorian era:

Hints on Etiquette: A Shield Against the Vulgar (The London Library) by Lewis Carroll and Charles William Day, Pushkin Press. (Original texts written by Mr. Day during the 19th c.)

The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness A Complete Hand Book for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society by Florence Hartley, Boston: G. W. Cottrell, 1860

The Pocket Enquire Within: A Guide to the Niceties and Necessities of Victorian Domestic Life by George Armstrong, 1856.

Victorian Etiquette, Manners, and Customs by N. C., Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1899.

Blogs and Websites:

The Georgian Index

Jane Austen’s World: This Jane Austen blog brings Jane Austen, her novels, and the Regency Period alive through food, dress, social customs, and other 19th C. historical details related to this topic.

The Phrontistery: a list of Fabric and Cloth.