Life

I lived like a woman in the 1800s for a week and here’s what I learned

In partnership with
ITV

From dinner parties to husband-hunting, what happens when a 21st-century millennial channels one of the most famous fictional Georgian characters of all time? Christobel Hastings gets into character to find out…

As a journalist, I’m used to delving into history books in the name of research. From medieval queens to modern pioneers, I write about badass women who broke the mould from the safety of my laptop, with a hefty supply of snacks on the side.

That extends to TV and period dramas too, and with ITV’s Vanity Fair currently gracing our screens, I set myself the task of living like the protagonist I’m avidly watching.

That would require turning the clock back 200 odd years and transforming myself into Becky Sharp – the clever, charming and ambitious heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, set in the early 1800s.

Chances are, you know of Becky already. An expert manipulator, she has the sharpest elbows of any literary heroine in the canon, using every social interaction as a means to climb the ranks, forever on the prowl for a man to elevate her status.

But for all of her faults, her get-up-and-go is completely inspiring - identifiable, even. And lest we forget the time she was destined to live in, which was hardly made for those with feminist ideals.

With that in mind, I embarked on putting myself in her shoes. Here’s how I got on…

Day 1: Living like a material girl

In my first day as a 19th-century woman, I found myself with a dilemma that goes across the centuries: what on earth do I wear?

Usually, I’d be reaching for my trusty Topshop skinnies and a Zara shirt, but those are totally off-limits, along with my make-up, perfume and phone, which is flashing ominously at me from across the room. Oh, and my job. 

Determined to be Becky AF, I settle on a maxi skirt and boned bodice borrowed from my friend, who last wore it while drunkenly scaling a table at Secret Cinema’s Moulin Rouge.

It’s OTT (and utterly uncomfortable), but I’m actually feeling myself as I make my way to Regent’s Park for a morning stroll. I’ve had more stressful Mondays.

That said, by the time I reach the park, I’m less English rose, more sweaty Betty thanks to the uncharacteristic heatwave that I’m pretty certain Becky didn’t have to suffer through. 

Day 2: Feeling like a French fancy

In a fit of spontaneity, the previous week I enrolled in a beginner’s French class.

To enquiring strangers I’ll pretend to be cultured. Although truthfully, I’m only doing it because I think it’s hot.

But it does turn out to be an 1800s-esque pastime and I find myself scribbling Becky’s mantra, “I want to be better than today” in my phrasebook as I wonder what on earth I did for five years of French lessons in high school.

Later that afternoon, I head to North London and meet my friend for a walk on Hampstead Heath and suffer in the corset again. God, the heat...

I sit on a bench and wait patiently for Emily, who rocks up half an hour late, and greets my cleavage directly, giving me an insight to how men may have greeted women in corsets back then.

We walk the lake and swap tales of relationship drama, before heading to Kenwood House - no tight top stands in-between a cream tea and me.

All in all, it felt like a wellness day. I took time out for myself and for my friends, and there’s probably something to be said for that. It seemed like a rare treat in our busy world. 

Day 3: Peacocking like I mean it

Like Elizabeth Chivers, a resident of Regency-era Bath who visited London for a whirlwind trip in the spring of 1814, I’m a woman about town, and in the mood for some solo adventuring.

I’ve no chaise to take me into central London, but before long I’m zipping along in my own carriage-in-kind (the Northern line, naturally). Good thing rush hour is over, as I’m committing the cardinal offence of walking v-e-r-y slowly in my long skirt.

I retrace Elizabeth’s footsteps down the Strand, pass by Somerset House, and window-shop my way through Covent Garden, before stopping for tea and cake at Whittards, as people-watching is an important Regency pastime.

Later, I continue my stroll to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where I arrange myself on a bench in the hope of attracting a suitor. But every Londoner is sprawled on their stomach, apparently dying of heatstroke. 

Even if I did have a skein of wool to play with, I don’t think this lot would notice. And I’m not sure how I feel peacocking for male attention, but that’s what Becky had to do. I’m beginning to miss the purpose of work.

Day 4: Friendly chaperoning 

Today I’m calling in back-up in the form of my best friend Tom to accompany me (I’m getting bored of my own company) on a walk through Fitzrovia, where much of the Vanity Fair drama goes down. Turns out Georgians walked a lot and I’m starting to wonder if it’s out of boredom.

Mine and Tom’s friendship has been built on a solid foundation of bottomless brunch and midnight drunkenness. Today, however, I’ve power-dressed in a maxi and tamed my mane into a fancy up-do in the hope of manifesting my inner-lady.

“This must be what it feels like to see London sober,” I remark to my chaperone as we walk around Fitzroy Square arm-in-arm, discussing the possibility of “marrying up” in order to own some London property.

We agree it’s much more likely that we’ll spend the rest of our days together, topping up our tans on cruise ship holidays.

When I get home, the TV hour is approaching but I’m making do with scrapbooking, which is deeply therapeutic even if it looks like a five-year-old me made it.

Day 5: Hosting with hustle

No foray into 19th-century life would be complete without playing hostess, so tonight I’m throwing a small dinner party to celebrate my rise into society.

I’m that confident about it that I’m buying everything from Sainsbury’s and cooking from scratch.

But after one glance at the period recipes in Dinner with Mr Darcy, I’m having second thoughts: pigeon pie, pickled vegetables and white soup made from calf’s foot jelly? Maybe not.

Then I remember Becky’s encounter with curry at the Sedley’s, and I revert to Plan B.

A couple of hours later and a sizeable amount of lamb, potatoes, stock and spices are simmering away in a casserole dish.

My executive decisions mean I can focus on what’s at the heart of my very own dinner party: socialising!

With the wine flowing, I work on distracting my friends with tales of hopeless flirting, employing a Becky-esque mantra on the Monopoly board: borrow, borrow, borrow.

The verdict

I’ve made it through a whole week of living like Becky Sharp, and in the words of Thackeray, “the play is played out”.

While I retreat back to the safety of my sweatpants and social media, I make a mental note of what I’ve learnt. To make time for the things that really matter: culture, socialising, and self-care.

That’s the positive I’m taking from it, but frankly, I’m not exactly sad to be leaving behind a world in which a woman’s prospects revolved around love, society and choosing the right man.

It’s sad that someone with Becky’s prowess had to make her way into the world this way, even though she handled it like a champ. I reckon if she was born today, she’d be a CEO, taking down the patriarchy one deal at a time. 

To delve into the world of Vanity Fair, tune into ITV Sundays at 9pm and catch up now on the ITV Hub