I’ve been rewatching the new series of Poldark this week – yeah, I know it is a hard life. 🙂 – and thinking about the lot of the younger son of aristocratic England of the 18th Century.
In Poldark, the hero, Ross is the only son of a younger son – in other words, the cousin of the heir to Trenwith – the family pile, the one with the best, more arable land and the most profitable mines.
The younger son then had to make do with a lesser estate.
Unlike the working classes where all the sons might go into their father’s trade – farmer, blacksmith, miner – there could only be one Lord, one Duke, one Viscount.
So what was a younger son to do?
Well if he was from a generation or three earlier, he might have been able to create a very nice little empire for himself in the New World – specifically Virginia.
Most of such early settlers in Virginia were so-called “Second Sons”. Primogeniture favored the first sons’ inheriting lands and titles in England. Virginia evolved in a society of second or third sons of English aristocracy who inherited land grants or land in Virginia. They formed part of the southern elite in America. Many of the great Virginia dynasties traced their roots to families like the Lees and the Fitzhughs, who traced lineage to England’s county families and baronial legacies. But not all: even the most humble Virginia immigrants aspired to the English manorial trappings of their betters.
Some historians argue whether the younger son was expendable in the scheme of things – left to their own devices with perhaps a legacy from a more distant member of the family to start them on their way.
Other historians paint a more optimistic future. Depending on the involvement of the father, younger sons were offered a variety of career paths, the military, law, the clergy although in the end, it did amount to the same thing – they had to make their own way in the world.
In the 17th and 18th century with the expansion of Empire and more widespread trade, rolling up the sleeves and going into a trade was not completely unheard of.
As we have seen, among the early modern English gentry, education and training beyond the level of the grammar school and family centred on three main institutions: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the inns of court and London apprenticeship. Over a third of gentry children in our sample – which perhaps equates to more than a half in reality – spent some time in at least one of these three institutions.
Not that the apprenticeship was on the ground floor. It would have taken the form of ‘management training’ to use a modern term and indeed with a view of expanding trade and managing a business of already significant size.
But what if your heart is set on another course than the one your father has chosen for you?
Do you succumb, knowing that your education and expenses are paid for before you are settled into your new station of make of it what you will? Or do you fight to follow your life’s true calling without financial assistance or even moral support from your family.
That was the situation the hero from Moonstone Conspiracy, the Honourable Daniel Ridgeway, the third son of Viscount Pemberley. Let’s have a little tease ahead of Moonstone Conspiracy’s upcoming release:
“On second thoughts,” Jane was adding slyly, “as you and Daniel are now intimate acquaintances, I’m not sure there is much I can tell that you wouldn’t already know.”
“Darling, we’re not together for polite conversation,” Abigail smiled.
Jane laughed, completely unaware the double entendre was actually a statement of fact.
Daniel was still an enigma to Abigail, as much as he was when she first saw him. She knew little more than he danced well, and was quick-witted and shrewd.
Yet in that strange place where night had not yet yielded to morning, she had caught a glimpse of someone else. The man behind the spy. She knew with certainty there was a richness of character to him, a complexity only hinted at in those shadow hours that drew her.
“…and no one really knows why Daniel dropped out of Cambridge, he was said to be a gifted mathematician,” said Jane, unaware of Abigail’s momentary inattention. “Everyone expected him to be awarded his first class honors as well as become… now what did Thomas say the university calls it? Ah yes, a ‘wrangler’.
“Dear Thomas, he’s a man who wouldn’t dream of betraying a confidence, so he won’t tell me why, but I suspect a scandal of some sort because a friend of Daniel’s had been found drowned just a few days earlier.”
“What happened?” asked Abigail.
“Well, no one really knows with these things. The inquest said it was an accident,” Jane shrugged, “so accident it was. Viscount Pemberley was furious when Daniel disappeared, he–”
“Daniel disappeared?” Abigail asked with surprise.
“Oh, didn’t I mention that bit?”