Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Noblesse Oblige or Regency Duty
Duty was the watchword in the Georgian and Regency eras. Everyone had his or her place, and every place had its duties. Even noble families were not exempt. A nobleman’s duty was to his line, his country and his church. His sons fulfilled these obligations.
The duty of the first son, the heir, was to his family. His obligation was to protect and increase the estate and to marry and produce a legitimate male successor who would inherit everything. All those Regencies that have the heir buying an army commission and going off to war are anachronisms. The social pressure for the heir to join the armed forces has existed for only about the past one hundred years. Two hundred years ago and earlier, the first son’s obligation to continue the line made him too valuable to waste on a battlefield where life was cheap. His duty was to survive and procreate.
The second son fulfilled the family’s duty to the country. He joined the army, usually as an officer by buying a commission. While some second sons bought places in the militia where there was little chance of dying, others lost their lives on various battlefields. I always wondered why a nobleman would go to great lengths to assure an heir and a spare, and then earmark the spare for such a perilous occupation. Regency England was already a dangerous place. In a world with poor sanitation, no antibiotics, few painkillers, and no understanding of germs, an infected cut could kill you. Why court death in war?
A nobleman also had a duty to the church, which the third son fulfilled by joining the clergy. A man did not necessarily have to be religious to become a clergyman. If this son’s family was rich and titled, his father likely controlled several livings, and he could give all of them to his son. (Note, the giving of multiple livings to one clergyman would be declared illegal later in the nineteenth century). The son could hire curates to do the actual work, and he could take the money from the livings and do as he chose. If the spare died in battle, the third son, with a relatively safe profession, was the spare spare, and could inherit. But only if there was a third son and the heir had no sons.
Of course, there were always exceptions. As an example of both the standard and the exception, we have Earl Spencer, ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. He made his heir enter Parliament, sent his next two sons into the navy, and the fourth became a clergyman. Why the navy? Earl Spencer was Secretary of the Navy. None of the boys had any choice. The second son hated the navy, but the fourth son at least was bookish. The second son in Mansfield Park became a clergyman, and many younger sons entered politics, especially if their fathers had money and connections.
Any more sons were superfluous and were on their own. Their father may or may not have given them allowances. If not, they were likely on the lookout to marry heiresses. If they couldn’t snag one, or were modern and forward looking, they sought that dreaded of all things to a gentleman–work.
While the Regency was still a time of tradition, the era was also the time when our modern world began. Not every son played the game according to the rules. In my Regency comedy, An Inheritance for the Birds, the hero, Kit, is the second son of a baronet. He loves the land, and wants to work as a land steward. He worked with his father’s steward, and plans to take over when the older man retires. But at the old steward’s retirement, Kit’s father, a traditionalist, hires a new one and cuts off Kit’s allowance, thinking to force him to join the army. Instead, Kit’s older brother, who had wanted him as steward, finds him a job as a nobleman’s secretary. That job sounds fairly good until Kit finds out what he has to do. And then he receives the letter informing him about his chance to win his great-aunt’s estate. Maybe he can still fulfill his dream of caring for the land.
An Inheritance for the Birds, Blurb and excerpt here.
Available at The Wild Rose Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, All Romance Ebooks and other places where ebooks are sold.
Thank you all,