Thursday, 26 June 2014

Meeting Places

One difficulty when writing fiction with a historical setting is coming up with ways for male and female characters to spend time together. 

With upper and middle class characters there are the well-used settings of balls, assemblies, dinner parties, country house parties.  Chaperonage was not as strict as some Regency novelists suggest; in Jane Austen's novels it was acceptable for a young woman to walk and talk with a man  in the town or country. Darcy twice entered a room where Elizabeth was alone and on each occasion stayed long enough to have a conversation with her. 

Among the working classes, men and women might have the same workplace - a factory, a farm, an inn. By the end of the nineteenth century, when more employment opportunities were opening up for women, men and women might be employed together in a school or an office or a department store. 

Young men and women from the middle classes and better off working classes  might belong to local or workplace based clubs and societies where they could meet and socialise.

Couples who were recognised as 'walking out' together might have more leeway in what they could do.

But what about men and women who were in none of those situations? What does a novelist do with a respectable young woman who lives in a rented room where it would be inappropriate to entertain a male acquaintance? When neither she nor the man in question has a family home, or none nearby, to which someone can be invited for Sunday tea? 

They have to do what many other people did in the past, and meet in public places.

Many people's homes in the past were small, overcrowded, poorly heated, poorly furnished. As a result, a lot of social interaction took place outside the home. The pub, of course, was the most popular meeting place for both men and women. In 1891 there was one licensed house for every 276 men, women and children in England and Wales.  These ranged from backstreet alehouses to opulent gin palaces. 

Coffee houses existed from the late seventeenth century. Some, such as Edward Lloyd's, catered for a business clientele and were less likely to be frequented by women. There was a wide range of other establishments, operating day and night, some more salubrious than others. 

In the Victorian period, public parks and open spaces were becoming available, but were really only practical in daylight. 

For many people in the past, life was lived on the street. Eating, drinking, talking, working, playing, singing, dancing, quarrelling, fighting, all took place in public, often because people did not have the space or the facilities to do these things indoors. 

Conflict arose in the Victorian era when middle class suburban development collided with working class neighbourhoods, or when holiday visitors arrived in traditional coastal communities. Sometimes, traditional entertainments were suppressed due to outrage at the rowdy and immoral nature of the proceedings.

For the middle classes, and the better off working classes, domestic life was the ideal, exemplified by the family life of the Queen and Prince Albert.

 This was something more people could aspire to, as standards of housing improved and people could afford to furnish their homes more comfortably. Entertainment at home or healthy, educational outdoor pursuits were seen as preferable to life lived in public. 

All of this can be used as a source of conflict in a novel. Meanwhile, the two characters in this particular piece of work will be spending a lot of time in coffee houses or just walking the streets together. 

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