The Foundling is rather an oddity amongst GH's Regency romances - in that it is barely a romance at all. The hero proposes to the heroine on the orders of his uncle in about chapter 3, and we then see nothing more of the heroine until the final section of the novel, in which she shows support to him by offering to buy some substandard hats. This makes him recognise her worth and they indulge in a bit of affectionate chitchat. Damerel and Venetia it isn't - though the depiction of Gilly and Harriet's relationship is touchingly realistic.
In some ways The Foundling is a reworking of The Corinthian: rich young man is ordered to propose to suitable family connection, rebels against his ordered life and controlling family and goes off on an adventure. Just like Richard Wyndham, Gilly encounters various criminal low lives whom he thwarts, and a couple of silly young things whom he helps. I find GH's comedy criminals rather irritating - Liversedge has his moments (especially at the end when he turns out to have immaculate butlering skills) but it's not very believable that he would offer to do away with Gilly for payment from his cousin Gideon, and even though Gilly is apparently at risk of his life at one point the reader never doubts he will come through.
Tom Mamble is fun - one of GH's many spirited adolescent boys - but Belinda is so airheaded as to be utterly dull, and the subplot (pinched wholesale from Emma) about her devotion to a taciturn farmer is rather unconvincing. Similarly, Gilly's cousin Matt is a cardboard cutout Silly Young Man, and Harriet and her oppressive parents feel very familiar.
The redeeming feature of The Foundling, however (for me anyway), is Gilly (always referred to by his Christian name rather than his title, unlike other noble heroes) himself. Quite unlike most GH heroes (except perhaps Adam in A Civil Contract), he is young, short, skinny and no more than nice-looking. His kind, shy nature makes it very hard for him to stand up to his numerous well-meaning but overbearing relatives and retainers and the core of the novel is his quest to become a proper grown-up and assert his own opinions and boundaries. His character develops convincingly throughout the novel, whose climax is not The Clinch but the point at which Gilly finally tells his Uncle Lionel to shut up and let him make his own decisions for once. It's very reminiscent of those fantastic MN threads where the OP is dreadfully put upon by her dominating mother/ neighbour/SIL and after much encouragement finally finds her backbone and tells them where to go.
The Foundling will never be one of my favourite of GH's works - and I suspect GH recognised its weaknesses, which is why she reworked the plot in the (for me) more successful Sprig Muslin. But thinking of Gilly and his triumphs still makes me feel all warm inside.
I don't think Charles is transformed as such -- it's clear from what his family members say about him that the Charles they all knew from the past is, pretty much, the same Charles that Sophy has restored by the end of the book. The stress of dealing with the family's calamitous financial situation has temporarily made him the more forbidding figure we (and Sophy) encounter at the beginning of the book.
I get the feeling that ratafia was too sickly sweet for the men - the contemporary equivalent of alcopops perhaps? As opposed to proper drinks like Burgundy or brandy - there is a lot of smuggled brandy in the 1800-1820 books!
I have drunk ratafia and of course you can get the biscuits easily. Orgeat is also available. I think they come from Spain, which would make sense given the wars. if not, Italy. But I saw them in France.
I also agree that JE is a feminist novel and so it was perceived at the time, v shocking, and yes, she turns down st john which would have been security until an early death, turns down Rochester until on her own terms.
But the reality for women of that period is that unless you had your own income the only alternative to marriage was drudgery or living with relatives who didn't want you. Elinor and Kate have no alternative. Nor will Eleanor and Marianne once their mother and her income die. Mary Bennett has governess written all over her, just as Lydia has tart, unless her older sisters make good marriages. Fanny is dumped on relatives, Anne suffers. Fanny could not have been a governess, Anne should not have been if her father had been competent.
Abigail, Ancilla, Venetia , Selina can live albeit in circumscribed circs because they have their own money. Kensington and blue stocking society sound quite fun to Venetia. Emma Wodehouse is an heiress so she can live by herself or with a companion once her father dies. Phoebe is the one who does plan a career future, although she should have had some money from her mother, presumably though her father is useless with money.
But the fear of being Miss Bates, and ultimately starving to death, looms large. Miss Beccles says she never has anything to eat mid day, when Carlyon is driving her down to Elinor. It is hanging over Frederica that she will be a pain to Harry once he takes over the estate.
This position changed little for the middle classes until post war, once men had come back from the First World War. My granny thought that neither DSis nor I should be educated as it would get in the way of marrying well. (And it, or something, did.) GH would have been writing for her generation. If you read the novels of DE Stevenson, the same is broadly true there.
I think it is the Scots female novelists who have women going off to make careers, there is one by either the findlaters or Mrs oliphant where the ain't goes to become a successful milliner.
Dickens deals with the lower middle classes who were less circumscribed, so really does Mrs Gaskell (Miss Matty and her shop).