02/12/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Parlor Games : A Woman Without Means

The women of Downton Abbey have a family fortune to provide them with the creature comforts of life. But what were the options for Gilded Age women who didn't have a legacy of wealth to fall back on? In a word -- few. And what of those who came from poor beginnings -- such as May Dugas, protagonist of Parlor Games -- and wished to better their financial circumstances? Even fewer.

Women of the post-Civil War period generally sought economic security through marriage, but the boundaries between social classes were rigid and marrying across class lines was rare. To be sure, employment opportunities expanded for women during the Gilded Age. After the Civil War, schools of nursing sprung up in the States. Across the pond, nurses had tended to wounded soldiers since the Crimean War -- à la Downton Abbey Lady Sybil's work with the Red Cross in World War I. But nursing, like teaching, was ordinarily a temporary position for young unmarried women.

The development of the sewing machine opened up careers for women as dressmakers and milliners. Burgeoning businesses and corporations of America and the UK advertised for women to fill clerical posts. In Downton Abbey, the housemaid Gwen attends typing school and triumphantly lands a job as a secretary for a telephone company. That position may have held more appeal than working for the Crawley family, but it certainly wasn't an avenue to wealth and luxury.

Furthermore, women of the era had few political rights or legal protections. A married woman's rights were generally subsumed under those of her husband. However, unlike married women, single women could own property and make contracts. And, ironically enough, the prevailing paternalistic attitude toward women allowed them a few legal advantages. For instance, a woman whose fiancé revoked his offer of marriage could sue for breach of promise.

So is it any surprise that the poor but beautiful May Dugas, heroine of Parlor Games, should seek to employ her considerable talents to scrape her way out of poverty? May Dugas is no invention. She left her Menominee, Michigan, hometown in 1887 to find fortune in Chicago. Along the way she also attained fame, notorious as it was. She began her career at a famous "home" in Chicago -- Carrie Watson's bordello, reputedly the best of bordellos in all the city, patronized by Chicago's richest politicians and patricians. But she stayed only long enough to meet the son of a wealthy banker. He swooned over her and proposed marriage. But a certain Pinkerton detective, hired by her fiancé's father, thwarted her plan and broke up the engagement. Was May daunted? No, she threatened to sue for breach of promise, bribed a tidy sum out of the banker, and launched her career as courtesan to wealthy men.

If you found yourself in May's position, what would you have done? Toil away as a teacher and, if you failed to find a husband, bear the hushed imputations of "spinster?" Settle for a lowly clerical post? Resign yourself to nursing at a hospital in hopes of marrying an established doctor? Or try, like May Dugas, to extricate yourself from poverty? Parlor Games asks this question, and, in the end, only the reader can decide what he or she might have done under similar circumstances.

Maryka Biaggio is the author of the new book Parlor Games.