The real history behind 'Poldark' series three: episode six

As Winston Graham’s Georgian-set drama returns to BBC One for a third season, historian Hannah Greig considers different aspects of the real history behind each episode of Poldark. In the sixth instalment of a new series for History Extra, Hannah considers Aunt Agatha and reveals what the character can tell us about the position of a lifelong, single woman in the 18th century…

Poldark. (Image Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)
'Poldark' character Aunt Agatha (left) draws our attention to the often-ignored figure of the 18th-century spinster, says Hannah Greig. (Image Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)

 

Aunt Agatha (Ross and Francis’ great aunt), played so brilliantly by Caroline Blakiston, is one of my favourite Poldark characters. Acerbic, ancient and fortune-telling, Aunt Agatha has been guiding us through plot twists since the first episode of series one, and she’s been locking horns with George throughout this series. Her sharp reflections routinely make me laugh when I read Debbie Horsfield’s scripts and when Blakiston delivers them so skilfully on screen. I am also a fan of Aunt Agatha, however, because she draws our attention to a figure whose place in 18th-century society is all too easily ignored – the lifelong, single woman. 

The term ‘spinster’ originally meant a woman who spins. By the 18th century, it was the legal definition for an unmarried woman and had also come to take on some of the negative connotations of the more derogatory term ‘old maid’. Estimates suggest that between 10% and 20% of the female British population remained unmarried in the 18th-century. Spinsters, then, were a minority but they were not exceptional within most communities.


Poldark. (Image Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)
 

The stereotypes of spinsterhood were certainly brutal. In 1786, with vitriol typical of many commentators, The Rambler’s Magazine defined an “old maid” as: “the pest of society, a hypocrite amongst men and women, a Pharisee in the eye of Heaven and a rank putrid abomination to the deity.”

Women who stayed single throughout their lives often left few records to tell us about their experiences and so have remained in the shadows of history books. Unsurprisingly though, what evidence historians have uncovered reveals a far more complex reality than derogatory stereotypes alone allow. Single women have been found to have run their own successful businesses as innkeepers, brewers, shopkeepers, dress makers, print makers and more. Some lived with members of their extended family, some on their own. They managed households and even occasionally headed up estates. They were governesses and teachers but they were also poets, philosophers, novelists and actresses. 


Morwenna Chynoweth is governess to the Warleggan family in 'Poldark'. (Image credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Robert Viglasky)

 

The reasons for their single lives were as varied as the lives that they lived. Some actively chose independence; others were jilted or simply unlucky. There were some who regarded themselves as married but could not or did not achieve legal recognition of their union. Heterosexual common-law partnerships, for example, are rarely recorded in surviving documents and homosexual partnerships never were. Notorious Yorkshire landowner, Anne Lister (1791-1840), would be classified as a ‘spinster’ in official records. She never married a man but her coded diaries (discovered by historian Helena Whitbread) reveal long relationships with women and a ‘marriage’ to Anne Walker in 1832 that lasted until Lister’s death. Lister’s contemporaries, Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) – the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ – were similarly committed and openly lived together for over 50 years.   

What kind of life might Aunt Agatha have led were she a character from life rather than the page? We know little about her, except that she is the great aunt of Ross and Francis. Born in the late 1690s, she is toothless, deaf and approaching 100 years of age when the Poldark drama unfolds. Had she run mines? Had she been a family helpmeet and housekeeper? Had she hoped for marriage but been heartbroken, by a man or a woman? Or was she always so determinedly independent? Perhaps we need a prequel that puts Aunt Agatha and the story of the spinster centre stage.

Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.

Missed the real history behind episode five? You can read Hannah's article which discusses conditions at France's Quimper prison here…

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