Legitimacy, Appearances, and Pedigree: Hypocrisy Among the Upper Classes

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Highlighting facts behind the fiction with Jude Knight and her Melting Matilda

The premise of my novella Melting Matilda is that an earl, the head of one of the upper ton families, could not consider a mesalliance with someone of humble and scandalous birth. Certainly, those same ton families had many scandals of their own to hide. But ‘hide’ is the operative word.

My heroine has two counts against her. First, everyone knows that she is the illegitimate child of the Duke of Haverford. That isn’t an insurmountable problem, since no-one has acknowledged the fact. Many aristocratic families had cuckoo chicks in their nests, and—as long as nobody was forced to acknowledge it—they were accepted as full members of the family.

However, at least affairs between those who dwelt in the rarified heights of Society produced offspring that were well-born on both sides. Matilda faces a second challenge. She is the image of her scandalous mother at the same age, and her mother was the pretty Irish daughter of a peasant family who came to London to make her name on the stage as an actress, and enjoyed a brief and public liaison with the Duke of Haverford.

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Born on the wrong side of the blanket is one thing, and can be ignored if no one talks about it. Birthed by a peasant, and an actress and courtesan at that? For Society, that is what marks my heroine as unfit for marriage to a gentlemen of title and means.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Many great English houses owe their origins to a woman who was mistress to a king and bore him a child that he graced with a title. Even leaving aside the question of illegitimacy, the British aristocracy came largely from enobled merchants, and intermarriage with trade and merchant families, while frowned upon when it happened, continued right through history.

The great-grandfather of the Regency Earl of Darnley was an Irish grazier called Bligh. Lord Hollands great-grandfather had been a footman, and the Earl of Radnor had an ancestor who was a Turkish merchant. The 3rd Duke of Northumberland had an ancestor who was a London draper. His grandfather changed his name from Smithson to Percy, as other noble families did to hide their humble origins, seeking a Royal Licence to choose a name that sound more Norman and more important. Green to de Freville; Wilkins to de Winton; Hunt to de Vere; morres to de Montmorency.

They might not have a pedigree going back one thousand years or more, but they felt no need to advertise their less illustrious ancestors.

The American author, Price Collier, writing in the mid-Victorian era, thought that such ancestry made the House of Lords more democratic.

It is not a house of birth or ancestry, for it is composed to-day to an overwhelming extent of successful men from almost every walk in life. No one cares a fig what a man’s ancestry was in this matter-of-fact land if he succeeds, if he becomes rich and powerful.

His list of families who had their income from trade is long, and he said that “antiquity and birth are needless here: ‘Tis impudence and money makes the peer.”

From contemporary accounts, however, in the Regency, the Polite World was driven by the notion of propriety, and propriety is all about appearances. It was perfectly proper for a gentleman to purchase sex in an alley off Covent Garden Market, but not for him to spend even one minute alone in the company of a lady of good birth. It was perfectly proper for a family to descend from, and to continue to make much of their wealth from, mills or mines or plantations. But not to discuss such matters in public. And it was proper for the illegitimate children of kings and princes to take their place in Polite Society, for that had always been the practice. And for a man, if he so chose, to acknowledge as his own the children of his wife by another man, even though all of Society guessed the truth.

But my daughter of an Irish courtesan is watched, every moment, so that those who judge by appearances can decry her inevitable fall.  

Melting Matilda

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Can the Ice Maiden soften the Granite Earl?

Her scandalous birth prevents Matilda Grenford from being fully acceptable to Society, even though she has been a ward of the Duchess of Haverford since she was a few weeks old. Matilda does not expect to be wooed by a worthy gentleman. The only man who has ever interested her gave her an outrageous kiss a year ago and has avoided her ever since.

Can the Granite Earl melt the Ice Maiden?

Charles, the Earl of Hamner is honour bound to ignore his attraction to Matilda Grenford. She is an innocent and a lady, and in every way worthy of his respect—but she is base-born. His ancestors would rise screaming from their graves if he made her his countess. But he cannot forget the kiss they once shared.

Melting Matilda is a novella in the series The Return of the Mountain King. Chronologically and by publication order, it comes after To Mend the Broken-Hearted, published in March, and before To Claim the Long-Lost Lover, available in July.

Melting Matilda is released on 25rd March 2020, and is available in print and ebook formats.  https://books2read.com/MeltingMatilda

Note. Melting Matilda was first published in Fire & Frost, a Bluestocking Belles collection.

About Jude Knight

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Have you ever wanted something so much you were afraid to even try? That was Jude ten years ago.

For as long as she can remember, she’s wanted to be a novelist. She even started dozens of stories, over the years.

But life kept getting in the way. A seriously ill child who required years of therapy; a rising mortgage that led to a full-time job; six children, her own chronic illness… the writing took a back seat.

As the years passed, the fear grew. If she didn’t put her stories out there in the market, she wouldn’t risk making a fool of herself. She could keep the dream alive if she never put it to the test.

Then her mother died. That great lady had waited her whole life to read a novel of Jude’s, and now it would never happen.

So Jude faced her fear and changed it–told everyone she knew she was writing a novel. Now she’d make a fool of herself for certain if she didn’t finish.

Her first book came out to excellent reviews in December 2014, and the rest is history. Many books, lots of positive reviews, and a few awards later, she plans to keep publishing until she runs out of years.

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Contact Info

Caroline Warfield, Author

Email : info@carolinewarfield.com