‘Fame never yet spoke well of woman’ were the rueful words put into the mouth of the king’s mistress, Nell Gwyn, by a seventeenth-century hack. I think it’s time to redress the balance.
My new BBC4 series ‘Harlots, Housewives and Heroines’ is about the women of the Restoration period. It covers not only the royal mistresses thronging the court, but also ordinary housewives at home, and even female pioneers like the first professional actresses, writers, scientists and explorers.
Many of the dilemmas of their lives sound strikingly modern. What should a woman expect from marriage? How much should she be paid for her work? How much make-up should she wear, and how much flesh should she expose?
The answer to the last question is ‘plenty’, especially by comparison to the buttoned-up Puritan period immediately before.
When Charles II was restored to his father’s throne in 1660 after Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth ran out of steam, it’s as if history turns technicolour. Charles was a complex and theatrical monarch, surrounded by rouged beauties with rich satin robes slipping off their white shoulders. You can see them all for real in this summer’s
exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, The Wild, The Beautiful And The Damned, where portraits of the king’s mistresses jostle for position around the royal bed.
Certainly the Restoration period was optimistic, vigorous, exciting. But apart from lovely dresses, did things get better for women? Of course history doesn’t work in straight lines, and the answer is yes … and no. The potential rewards for being one of Charles II’s ‘harlots’ were considerable. You could win enormous political influence, a dukedom for your children, financial security. You might even, like Barbara Villiers, end up with Hampton Court Palace as a retirement home. Barbara was powerful enough to depose a government minister like the Earl of Clarendon, and self-confident enough to be unfaithful even to the king himself.
It’s fun to imagine the tables being turned on Charles II, so well known for cutting a swathe through the beauties of his court and consuming women like a combine harvester. And yet, he deserves some feminist credit. This king who loved women also respected them. For the first time, we find his female favourites becoming companions and advisors as well as playmates.
But the defeated Clarendon vowed vengeance upon Barbara, warning her that: ‘You too, Madam, will grow old’. When the king’s eye wandered, the essential weakness of Barbara’s position was exposed. It would be quite wrong to conflate the new prominence of women in court life with any kind of real female emancipation.
The same goes for women outside the rarefied world of the palace. In the seventeenth century, a woman was defined lifelong by her marital status. She was either a ‘maid’ (i.e. not married yet), a wife, or
a widow. The widows often had the best of it: only at this life stage were they allowed to control their own money.
But change was coming. In the seventeenth century civil marriage appears for the first time. Some women simply didn’t get married at all: in such numbers that the terms ‘spinster’ (to mean ‘unmarried woman’ rather than someone who spins for a living) and ‘old maid’ begin to appear. These women formed a significant new group in society. Yet people found them disturbing, and it was the singletons who tended to be accused of witchcraft.
On the positive side, even housework, a married woman’s destiny, could be a significant way to spend a life. A wife was the head of a business, managing servants, healthcare, and the production of clothes and food. She could learn about enterprise and technological innovation from a growing genre of specialist literature, and authors like Hannah Woolley became the housewife’s advisor and cheerleader.
Of course, some felt threatened by all this female empowerment. A male imposter exploited Hannah by putting out a very different book, under her name, telling women to obey their husbands and get back in their boxes. Hannah was furious, but before the creation of copyright there was nothing she could do.
Certainly women’s health improved. There were new medical textbooks like Jane Sharp’s, addressed to her fellow midwives (‘Sisters!’ she begins). The new forceps saved many babies’ lives. However, the trick of using them successfully was kept secret by male doctors, who now began to oust the midwife from the birthing chamber. ‘Medicalising’ childbirth was not necessarily good for mothers. The midwife put a woman in a seatless birthing chair, to harness gravity. The doctor, brandishing his forceps and unwilling to stoop, now pushed her flat on her back on a bed.
Some Restoration women (and these are my heroines) refused to be imprisoned by expectations. There were travellers, like Celia Fiennes, the first person known to have visited every county in the kingdom. Aphra Behn, female spy and playwright, wrote that she valued fame ‘as much as if she had been born a hero’. Christian Davis went off to war disguised as a male soldier.
Some of them even went so far as to put their reservations about life in a man’s world in print. The magnificent Margaret Cavendish, who ended up as Duchess of Newcastle after marrying Charles II’s tutor (I’m fond of her partly because my own first published book, Cavalier, was his biography) advised women that a bad marriage was worse than no marriage at all.
‘Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second’, wrote Margaret Cavendish in a powerful passage, ‘yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First’. She was indeed the first person to publish a science fiction novel, and richly deserves her place in Westminster Abbey. So too does Aphra Behn, lying nearby, the only women until the twentieth century to write (her poem, The Disappointment) about erectile dysfunction.
For me, the value of studying history is the hope it gives us for the future. It shows us that things don’t always have to be the way they are. Some will get worse, but others better. Still others will stay the same, and I’ve found much about the lives of seventeenth century women to be strangely familiar. Although they lived more than three centuries ago, their world was changing from medieval to modern, and the shape of subsequent female experience was being set.
Above all, though, I believe that history can bring pleasure. I’ve loved my time learning about admirable, inspirational and utterly memorable women of the Restoration.
‘Harlots, Housewives and Heroines’ begins tonight at 9pm, BBC Four. ‘The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned’ exhibition runs at Hampton Court Palace until September 30