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Maria Grace is a superwoman! She returned from evacuating due to Hurricane Harvey to pull off a book release AND a blog tour. I am honored to have her as my guest today to celebrate the release of her newest novel, A Less Agreeable Man, which is book 3 in The Queen of Rosings Park series inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I absolutely loved the first two books in the series, Mistaking Her Character and The Trouble to Check Her, and I can’t wait to see what happens next! Maria is here to talk about debt in the Regency Era, and she brought an excerpt and a giveaway to share with my readers. Please give her a warm welcome!

Debt in the Regency Era

Living on Credit is not a new thing

It’s easy to believe that living on credit is a modern thing. The news abounds with tales of woe regarding consumer debt, mortgages, student loans, and other lines of credit. How would Jane Austen have reacted to such news? Probably with great aplomb and a declaration that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

During the Regency era “almost all members of the middle and upper classes had accounts with different suppliers, who extended credit to their patrons. … Only if the amount was small or they were traveling did they pay cash. In fact, only the poor did not live on credit in one guise or another.” (Forsling, 2017)  In fact, more people depended on credit than ever before resulting in perpetual overcrowding in the debtor’s prisons.

Although debt, both personal and national, were rife in Regency society, attitudes toward debt were largely divided across class lines. “Aristocratic claims for leadership had long been based on lavish displays and consumption while the middle class stressed domestic moderation. In particular, aristocratic disdain for sordid money matters, their casual attitude to debt and addiction to gambling …, were anathema to the middling ranks whose very existence depended on the establishment of creditworthiness and avoidance of financial embarrassment.” (Davidoff, 2002)

Many small and otherwise flourishing businesses failed due to bad debts, especially among the upper classes. Some went so far as to begin refusing credit and to only sell for ‘ready money’. The notion that debts of honor had to be paid and paid quickly while debts to merchants could be put off indefinitely only exacerbated the situation.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Gaming debts were regarded as sacrosanct which might not have been so significant an issue had there not been so many of them. The Regency was a time when Englishmen, especially the wealthy and highborn, were ready to bet on almost anything. Though gaming for high stakes was illegal by Austen’s day, authorities mostly seemed to turn a blind eye to it, (Fullerton, 2004) perhaps because it was considered largely an upper class vice.

Different social classes offered different reasons for the immorality of gaming. The upper classes feared losing their money to the lower class, giving them income without having earned it and opposing the work ethic. The rising middle class also saw gaming as opposing the values of stability, property, domesticity, family life and religion. (Rendell, 2002) Regardless of the reason, there was widespread agreement that gaming was a problem, thus legislation was passed against it.

Unfortunately anti-gaming laws, much like prohibition in the US, only forced gambling from public venues into private clubs where individuals bet on any and nearly everything. Organized sports including cricket, horse racing, prize fighting and cock fighting attracted spectators willing to bet on the outcome.  Huge fortunes, even family estates could be won and lost at games of chance. Even the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars were subject to betting.

Moneylenders and bankers made themselves available at private clubs to assist gentlemen in settling their debts of honor which were not otherwise enforceable by law. The cost of this service though (beyond the interest on the debt of course), was creating a legally enforceable debt from which one had not been so previously.

Debtors’ Prison

English bankruptcy laws were particularly harsh, demanding personal repayment of all debt, including business debt, and often incarceration.  Ironically, there was no disgrace about being sent to gaol during the era, provided it was for an acceptable crime like debt or libel. (Murry, 1999) The Royal Courts administered three prisons primarily for debtors: the Fleet, the King’s Bench and the Marshalsea, though debtors might be imprisoned at other facilities as well. (Low, 2005) At any given time during the era, upward of a 10,000 men were imprisoned for debts as small as four pence.  (Savage, 2017)

Debtors were probably the largest proportion of the era’s prison population and had privileges not granted to ordinary criminals, including the right to have their family stay with them and to have other visitors. They could also often arrange to be supplied with beer or spirits. (Low, 2005) “During the quarterly terms, when the court sits, (Fleet) prisoners on paying five shillings a-day, and on giving security, are allowed to go out when they please, and there is a certain space round the prison, called the rules, in which prisoners may live, on furnishing two good securities to the warden for their debt, and on paying about three per cent on the amount of their debts to the warden.” (Feltham, 1803)

The process of obtaining an arrest warrant for debt was expensive. Often several tradesmen would have to band together to see a writ for debt issued. (Kelly, 2006)

Once the writ was obtained, the debtor (once caught, of course, as it was not uncommon for debtors to flee in the face of a writ, even so far as to leave the country) would first be confined to a spunging or lock-up house. A spunging-house was a private house maintained for the local confinement of debtors to give them time to settle their debts before the next step, debtors’ prison.  “…For twelve or fourteen shillings a-day, a debtor may remain [at the spunging house], either till he has found means of paying his debt, or finds it necessary to go to a public prison, when the writ against him becomes returnable. We have heard that great abuses prevail in these spunging-houses, and that many of the impositions practised in them deserve to be rectified. … It would be wrong to quit the sad subject of prisons, without observing that such is the bad arrangement of the laws between debtor and creditor, that ruin to both is greatly accelerated by the expensiveness of every step in the proceedings, insomuch that not one debtor in ten ever pays his debt after he enters a prison. (Feltham, 1803)

Why Debtor’s Prison?

Given that once a debtor was in prison, they lacked the ability to earn money making the payment of his debt even less likely, this approach to debt seems ridiculous. So why was it done?

First, it was assumed that the debtor’s family and friends would be available to help pay off their debts. So imprisoning the debtor might help motivate them to action. Second, it was perceived as a deterrent to getting into debt in the first place. (Clearly, given the numbers in debtors’ prison it was a total failure on that count.) (Savage, 2017)

The third reason is perhaps the most difficult for the modern reader to understand. To the people of the time, the issue was bigger than simply insuring the debtor paid off their debts.  “The ‘moral’ imperative to make the debtor aware of their responsibility for not living beyond their means was judged more important.  … To understand the mind-set of the time, it’s important to remember two things: taking on more debt than you could pay was seen as a form of theft; and,  … (t)heft broke the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”. The causes of becoming too indebted to pay also pointed to the presence of other sins: idleness, covetousness, greed, deceitfulness.  … Sin demanded punishment and repentance not support,” thus jailing the debtor fulfilled the moral imperative.  (Savage, 2017)

Myth of the smock wedding

Just because there was a moral imperative to punish debtors didn’t mean that those who owed money accepted their fate easily or didn’t attempt creative means by which to discharge their debts. Running to avoid one’s creditors was common. Beau Brummell fled to France to avoid debtors’ prison.  In some cases a debtor could be pressed into naval service in exchange for the Navy to cover their debts.

Marriage, particularly for the upper class, was also a handy means of bringing in quick cash to alleviate a family’s money woes. The (disastrous) marriage of the Prince of Wales to his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1795 came about so that Parliament would pay off his debts.

Not all men were happy to marry a woman with debts, especially a widow still responsible for her late husband’s debts. Consequently, the practice of a ‘smock wedding’ came into being.  At such a wedding, the bride would be married naked, brining nothing into the marriage. In practice, she usually was barefoot and garbed in a chemise or sheet. The salient point was that she was technically bringing nothing into the marriage, thus her husband-to-be was thought not liable for any debts she might have. (Adkins, 2013) It is too bad that snopes.com was not around in the era, because it could have told them that the ‘smock wedding’ way out of debt was an urban myth and would not stop the new bride’s creditors from knocking at their door.

References

Adkins, Roy, and Lesley Adkins. Jane Austen’s England. Viking, 2013.

Craig, Sheryl. Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Davidoff, Leonore & Hall, Catherine   –   Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Feltham, John. The picture of London, for 1803; being a correct guide to all the curiosities, amusements, exhibitions, public establishments, and remarkable objects in and near London; with a collection of appropriate tables. For the use of strangers, foreigners, and all persons who are intimately acquainted with the British metropolis. London: R. Phillips, 1803.

Forsling, Yvonne . “Money Makes the World Go Round.” Hibiscus-Sinensis. Accessed July 22, 2017. http://hibiscus-sinensis.com/regency/money.htm

Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.

Kelly, Ian. Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.

Low, Donald A. The Regency underworld. Stroud: Sutton, 2005.

Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. New York: Viking, 1999.

Rendell, Jane. The Pursuit of Pleasure Gender, Space & Architecture in Regency London. London: Athlone Press, 2002.

Savage, William . “The Georgian Way with Debt.”  Pen and Pension.  July 19, 2017. Accessed July 25, 2017. https://penandpension.com/2017/07/19/the-georgian-way-with-debt/.

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About A Less Agreeable Man

Dull, plain and practical, Mary Bennet was the girl men always overlooked. Nobody thought she’d garner a second glance, much less a husband. But she did, and now she’s grateful to be engaged to Mr. Michaels, the steady, even tempered steward of Rosings Park. By all appearances, they are made for each other, serious, hard-working, and boring.

Michaels finds managing Rosings Park relatively straight forward, but he desperately needs a helpmeet like Mary, able to manage his employers: the once proud Lady Catherine de Bourgh who is descending into madness and her currently proud nephew and heir, Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose extravagant lifestyle has left him ill-equipped for economy and privation.

Colonel Fitzwilliam had faced cannon fire and sabers, taken a musket ball to the shoulder and another to the thigh, stood against Napoleon and lived to tell of it, but barking out orders and the point of his sword aren’t helping him save Rosings Park from financial ruin. Something must change quickly if he wants to salvage any of his inheritance. He needs help, but Michaels is tedious and Michaels’ fiancée, the opinionated Mary Bennet, is stubborn and not to be borne.

Apparently, quiet was not the same thing as meek, and reserved did not mean mild. The audacity of the woman, lecturing him on how he should manage his barmy aunt. The fact that she is usually right doesn’t help. Miss Bennet gets under his skin, growing worse by the day until he finds it very difficult to remember that she’s engaged to another man.

Can order be restored to Rosings Park or will Lady Catherine’s madness ruin them all?

Goodreads | Amazon | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | iBooks

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Excerpt from A Less Agreeable Man, courtesy of Maria Grace

The little chapel hummed as it filled with Sunday morning congregants. Mary plucked at the braided trim of the periwinkle blue calico gown that she wore every Sunday.

Charlotte slapped her hand lightly. “You will spoil your dress. He will be here. Stop fretting.”

Mary laced her hands tightly in her lap and glanced over her shoulder. The Hunsford parish church appeared exactly as it always did: stark slate floor and grey stone walls. Sturdy dark wooden pews scarred with use, just a few more than absolutely necessary to accommodate the parish church-goers. Several cobwebs dangled in the corners, and the windowsills needed dusting.

But this Sunday was like no other.

Mr. Collins minced his way to the pulpit. Did he enjoy the way all eyes were on him as he paraded past? Although he professed his humility to any who would listen, it seemed that a man so assured of his modesty would necessarily be prideful of it.

One more topic to avoid at the Collins’ dinner table. It might have made for interesting conversation, though.

He climbed the three steps up into the dark-stained walnut pulpit. A hush fell over the chapel. “I publish the Banns of marriage between Graham Allen Michaels of Hunsford parish and Mary Susanna Bennet of Hunsford parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first time of asking.”

Lady Catherine slowly rose, her purple silk ball gown rustling against the front row pew. “Where is he?”

Whispers and cloth-muffled shuffles mounted, gathering with the force of storm clouds. Mary glanced over her shoulder. Too many people were looking at her, although just as many were scanning the chapel for Mr. Michaels.

Lady Catherine turned to face the congregation. “Where is he? How can I know if I approve if I cannot see him? Present him to me now.”

“He is not here, your ladyship,” Mr. Collins stammered, heavy beads of sweat dotting his forehead.

“I do not recall giving permission for him to be elsewhere. I am quite certain of that. I insist—”

The church door groaned and swung open. Two men paused in the doorway, silhouetted in bright sun.

“Richard Brandon Fitzwilliam! Young man, why are late for—”

“Your ladyship.” Mary stood, her knees having all the substance of calves’ foot jelly. “May I present Mr. Michaels?”

“Michaels? Why do I care to receive him into my acquaintance? Come and sit down this moment, Richard.” She pointed to the empty spot beside her and sat as if on a throne.

Colonel Fitzwilliam scowled—an expression that would likely bring an entire regiment to order— and stalked to the family pew. Mrs. Jenkinson whispered something—probably very serious given the tight lines around her mouth— to Lady Catherine.

She threw her head back and cackled.

Mr. Michaels slipped in beside Mary, offering a supportive glance to Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Mr. Collins cleared his throat, waited for silence, and returned to the order of service. Once he exhausted all the words of his sermon and a few thousand more, he dismissed them and the congregation dissolved into a throng milling in the cheerful morning sun just outside the church.

 

Mr. Michaels beckoned Mary aside to a stand of shade trees, just far enough away from the crowd for a little private conversation but not so far as to raise the attention of the gossips, but Mr. Collins trailed after them like a terrier on a rat.

“Late to services, sir?” His tone had an edge which suggested this dialogue might well last all day. “I cannot condone it. Think of the precedent it will set among the parish. You see how it distressed her ladyship.”

“I assure you it was not by intention or neglect. I was called away for a bit of an emergency—”

“What happened?” Mary and Mr. Collins asked simultaneously.

“Not to worry; the issue is quite resolved. There was just a small misunderstanding on the road.” Michaels glanced over his shoulder toward a sandy patch near the church door where Lady Catherine, flanked by Mrs. Jenkinson, held court. Her fondness for that particular spot was not accidental. Her proximity to the stone building caused her voice to broadcast farther than it would if she stood anywhere else.

Mr. Collins’ face changed entirely, his critical tone fading. “Was her ladyship involved?”

“The matter is resolved, and no further discussion need be had.” He offered Mary his arm.

“I am most gratified to hear that, sir. Most gratified.” Mr. Collins trundled off toward the church door with his peculiar step-hop gait.

Lady Catherine took Colonel Fitzwilliam’s arm and slowly made her way past the crowd toward her waiting carriage.

“I do hope Collins can keep his mouth shut.” Michaels muttered under his breath.

“He does seem to upset her as often as not.” Mary winced as Mr. Collins reached Lady Catherine and started talking.

Michaels leaned very close. “She pitched Colonel Fitzwilliam from the carriage halfway to the church. She did not recognize him and refused to permit a strange man to ride in her carriage.”

“This is the first time she has failed to identify him,” Mary whispered behind her hand.

“I came on them in the road as it was happening. It took some time to calm him down.”

“An excellent reason to be late.”

“On the first Sunday our banns are read. I know, and I am sorry.” He frowned a little. He always did when they disagreed over timeliness.

“What are you discussing, so low and private?” Charlotte waddled up to them, her drab, high-necked gown showed the outline of her belly. It would not fit for much longer.

“Certainly not what you would expect.” Mary glanced toward Lady Catherine.

Charlotte’s smiled faded. “Would you have dinner with us this afternoon, Mr. Michaels? It has been so long since we have enjoyed your company.”

“I should like that very much, thank you.”

Charlotte nodded and shuffled off toward Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine.

“I think I shall follow the carriage back to Rosings in the event Lady Catherine suffers any more confusion. In any case, I should speak to the Colonel about a few matters—”

She squeezed his arm, a bit harder than might be decorous. “It is Sunday. You should rest. You work late into the night, and you start far too early in the morning. Once you begin, it is difficult for you to stop.”

“Why do you not come out directly and say it? You fear that I might miss dinner altogether and thus offend the Collinses.”

Mary stared at her feet.

“And offend you as well?” He laid his hand over hers and pressed firmly. “You are right. The situation at Rosings has been so overwhelming it has brought out a level of single-mindedness in me that I know is both a blessing and a curse.”

“It is pleasing that you work so diligently, and that you are so good at what you do.” He always intended to keep his promises. Nonetheless, there was a better than average chance he would fail at the endeavor.

Still, it was good that he should be so hard-working and committed to those he served. Or at least Mr. Collins said so. If only he were so dedicated to her.

Mr. Darcy’s devotion to Lizzy was the stuff of novels, running after her to rescue her from the clutches of Lady Catherine. And Lydia—who would have thought? She inspired her Mr. Amberson to walk all the way to Pemberley and demand an audience with a man so far above him that they should never have otherwise met. Apparently passionate tempers like Lizzy’s and Lydia’s inspired grand shows of affection.

Mary’s did not.

But comparing herself to her sisters never brought pleasure. There was nothing good to be had from it. Michaels had chosen her from among all her sisters. That was the thing she had to focus on. He could have courted any of them. Not that Lydia would have paid him any mind or that Lady Catherine would have permitted Jane a suitor she did not select. Still, Michaels chose her, purposefully, intentionally because her disposition—serious and practical—matched his. He cared for her exactly the way all conduct books declared he should—faithful and steady, pleasant and companionable. Complaining about such a man was the height of ingratitude.

“Shall I walk you to the Collins’ then?” He gestured across the rutted, uneven lane toward a little used footpath that led into the Rosings’ woods.

Tall hardwoods lined the path, their branches arching out and tangling with one another to form a covering that kept out the sunlight. Some found it ominous—even called it haunted at times—but that only ensured they would have a modicum of privacy to converse.

Honeysuckle vines twined around the trees, winding into the canopy and filling the air with sweet perfume. Too bad there were no flowers in reach.   Each flower had only a drop of nectar, but she relished the secret indulgence. If Michaels knew, would he find it endearing or ridiculous?

“You were concerned because I was away a fortnight longer than I had predicted?”

She clasped her hands behind her back with a shrug. “I know you had a great deal to accomplish.”

How could she tell him the local matrons were quick to believe that he would abandon her if he left Kent for any time at all. No doubt they did not think her sufficient enticement to keep his attention once he was exposed to the wider society of London. Surely there, prettier, richer girls would vie for his consideration, and she would necessarily be the loser.

It was very unpleasant to know that people thought her likely to be jilted.

Why was it the woman always suffered more being jilted than the man? He might walk away with barely any damage, but her reputation would bear the stain forever.

“Was your trip to London unsuccessful?”

“It was more complicated than I anticipated. I have finally untangled Rosings’ records, but it is just the beginning.”

“You look so weary.”

“I am certain the colonel expects the debts to be paid off quickly, with little privation on his part. The expenses of the manor are extreme, and I suppose the colonel would prefer to maintain a lavish lifestyle. I cannot imagine he will be amenable to plans of economy. It is hard to see how, under those circumstances, the estate might be unencumbered in even ten years.” He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger.

“I know you will find a way.” She touched his arm.

He turned to her, smiling. “I am glad to be home and privy to your good sense and encouragement. Now you must tell me how things have been in my absence.”

“Mrs. Collins is faring well as she increases, though it seems to be progressing far more rapidly than anyone has expected. The midwife has expressed some concerns.”

Michaels shook his head, the corners of his lips turning up. “It is difficult to picture a household of tiny Collinses running about. Perhaps it is a good thing he is the kind of man who will have little to do with his children.”

Was it wrong to agree? “He received word that he has inherited the estate that had been entailed upon him. I expect the topic will be discussed … extensively … at dinner tonight.”

The edges of Michaels’ eyes creased as his brow furrowed. “He will wish to seek advice in hiring a curate, no doubt. Something that is unlikely to please his patroness.”

“I expect not. As it is, she no longer comes to call.”

“Collins cannot like that.”

“Not at all.  There are some days she is driven past in the phaeton. He waits near the windows watching for them. She usually waves as they pass, and he appreciates that. Mrs. Jenkinson believes that the fresh air is beneficial for her spirits. According to her, Lady Catherine has some good days in which she is quite aware of what is going on around her and demonstrates strong understanding. She will direct menus and even engage in conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam.”

“You mean try to tell him what to do?”

Mary snickered. “The darker days are growing more common though, and very unpredictable. I saw bruises along Mrs. Jenkinson’s face last week. She claimed that she was distracted and ran into the door frame. I am not inclined to believe that.”

“If Lady Catherine is indeed becoming dangerous, then we must have some way to manage her.” Did he really need to call out the obvious?

“I plan to call upon Mrs. Jenkinson and the housekeeper tomorrow to discuss what might be done to make Lady Catherine more … comfortable.”

“Perhaps you might have a few words with Colonel Fitzwilliam? I think he could benefit from your advice.”

“If you wish. Just pray, let not Mr. Collins be informed. He is uncomfortable with me meddling in the affairs of my betters. The notion that Lady Catherine must be managed agitates him. Whilst I can bear his anger, Charlotte cannot. Her condition is fragile. She should not be taxed.”

He took her hands and pressed them to his chest. “How do you always seem to know what everyone around you needs? I may be steward of the land here, but I am quite certain you are steward to all the people.”

“Do you disapprove?” She bit her lower lip.

“I approve very much.” He leaned down and kissed her, gentle, chaste, controlled. His lips were dry and warm, a little rough from traveling.

Her heart fluttered, just a mite, restrained as much as he. Was it wrong to wish she could give it free rein to soar? Soon, very soon, they would be wed. Perhaps it would be different then.

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About the Author

Maria Grace

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband and one grandson, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, is starting her sixth year blogging on Random Bits of Fascination, has built seven websites, attended eight English country dance balls, sewn nine Regency era costumes, and shared her life with ten cats.

Connect with Maria Grace via Email: author.MariaGrace@gmail.com | Facebook | Google+ | Twitter | Random Bits of Fascination | Austen Variations | English Historical Fiction Authors | Pinterest

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Giveaway

Maria is kindly offering an ebook copy of A Less Agreeable Man to one lucky reader, open internationally. To enter, please leave a comment with your email address. We’d love to know what you enjoyed most about the guest post and excerpt. This giveaway will close on Sunday, September 24, 2017. The winner will be chosen randomly and announced in the comment section of this post. Good luck!

And thank you, Maria, for being my guest today, and congratulations on your new release!

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