The Wandering Young Gentlewoman; or Cat-Skin

London: J. Evans, [1795].

Rejected before her birth, a young woman seeks to carve out stability for herself in a system that privileges men

(Item #5469) The Wandering Young Gentlewoman; or Cat-Skin. Broadside Ballad, Gender and Inheritance.

The Wandering Young Gentlewoman; or Cat-Skin

London: J. Evans, [1795]. Early edition. One of several iterations printed in broadside format between 1750 and 1800. Measuring 380 x 240mm printed to recto only. Trivial wear to edges; long closed tear between columns three and four with no loss to text. A lovely example of this scarce broadside, depicting a young woman rejected by her father on account of her sex, and the life she builds for herself within the patriarchal marriage economy. ESTC reports copies of this impression at four libraries; no copy of any edition has appeared at auction, and the present is the only example in trade.

On the surface, The Wandering Young Gentlewoman is a fairytale of meritocracy. The second daughter of a gentleman, the protagonist is roundly and fully rejected by her family: "In twelve months time this woman we hear, Had another daughter of beauty most clear. And when he knew it was a female, In bitter passion he presently fell." Railing at his wife, the squire demands that this second child be cast off into the country. There she is educated and clothed on her father's bill, but is denied family affection or even a name that would allow her to find safety and advance her own circumstances through marriage. On coming of age, she casts off her father's silks, clothes herself in a cat-skin, and goes out to make a living of a scullion maid; however, she attracts the attention of a knight's son who asserts that her "beauty is thy portion" and together they plot to accomplish their marriage despite their difference in means. Her father reappears at the end, having lost his wife and first daughter, and he calls upon his newly wealthy daughter to forgive and accept him.

The broadside's message, under the surface, is much darker and more tragic; indeed, it highlights the dangerous contingency of women within the system of primogeniture. Before being born, the protagonist is devalued by her father and rejected by her mother -- a woman who needs to ensure stability for herself and her firstborn child. Educated and clothed like a gentlewoman, she nonetheless will not have access to the class from which she was ejected; and it is through a combination of cleverness and luck that she is able to avoid being forced into sex work in order to maintain her class. Instead, she opts to leverage her good looks to enter the "honorable prostitution" of marriage to a young man silly enough to value her fleeting beauty over anything else she can bring to the union.

ESTC T206996.
(Item #5469)

The Wandering Young Gentlewoman; or Cat-Skin