1998, 436 p.
Don’t let the demure cover deceive you: this is a rather pugnacious book that rattles the commonly-received image of female domesticity during the 18th and 19th centuries. Amanda Vickery points out in her introduction that historians of epoch after epoch have adopted the argument that women’s lives became increasingly marginalized and constricted to the private sphere during the particular period that they have studied. Surely, she suggests, they can’t all be right. Instead of identifying a particular time when women’s experience changed, she emphasizes the continuity of women’s lives across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Her research is grounded in local elites, in particular that of Lancashire. In an exhaustive study, she examined all the letters and diaries of privileged women from the early 18th to early 19th centuries the Lancashire Record Office, irrespective of how that wealth was accrued. By casting her net wide like this, she eschews the view of the gentry, the professions and the upper trades as distinct strata of the social hierarchy. Instead, she sees them as part of a “woven fabric” or an “intricate cobweb” of social structure and social relations that extended both horizontally and vertically. This local examination is then compared with London because there were so many links between Lancashire and the metropole. One of her main information sources is Elizabeth Shackleton, whose detailed diaries for the years 1773 and 1780 are mined for a database of all social interactions in that year.
Again, though, I find myself wishing as a reader, that the introductions to her main informants were not so rushed. One of the things that I admire so much about Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing With Strangers is that she slows down to properly introduce her sources as discrete, rounded characters. Vickery does introduce several women in her early chapters whom we will meet again and again, and who represented a period of over 100 years but I don’t think that I realized while reading it the importance of the wide time-span that her informants operated within. She is arguing for the continuity of women’s experiences across a wide expanse of time, resisting the urge to identify any one period of dramatic change. This is an important argument, but I didn’t pick up sufficiently in her opening introductions to her main informants.
From these sources, she draws out a number of themes that exercised the letter-writers and diarists of her study rather than the interests of twentieth-century historians : gentility, love and duty, fortitude and resignation, prudent economy, elegance, civility and propriety. These abstractions were played out in the lived experience of women’s lives through courtship, marriage, childbearing, housekeeping, material culture and sociability as described by real people in their diaries and letters to each other.
My own work is based on the colonial experience, and I found myself thinking of colonial letters and diaries where these same interests were aired, but in a different setting, far from the density and bustle of English life. For example, Vickery writes of the importance of promenades and walks as a site of leisure for the female world, and I found myself thinking of The Block in Melbourne- a smaller walk perhaps, but one which fulfilled the same function. She describes the way that roles and responsibilities were often mutually agreed, and sometimes bitterly contested, by a man and his wife, and I think of the journals of early settlers in Upper Canada and Port Phillip. She describes the way that genteel families were linked to the world through a multiplicity of ways and I think of the smaller, but equally dense connections between Port Phillip elites and those in Upper Canada. At the end of the book she points out that the sociability of any individual woman’s life shifted according to her progress through the life span- as young girl on the marriage market, mother of young children, then later chaperone of her own daughters. “Women’s lives” are not a static condition- they respond to biology and societal expectations alike.
Why a pugnacious book? It might not seem so from my description, but she shapes up to and wrestles with the biggies of domestic historiography and sociology- Phillipe Aries, Lawrence Stone, Davidoff and Hall, Veblen, Habermas. It is not particularly necessary to be familiar with these scholars and their arguments- I’m not- but perhaps the academic jousting might be a more enjoyable spectator sport if you are. For myself, I was content with the fine detail of the lives she describes so sensitively, on their own terms and using their own concepts, and I found it a useful lens through which to view the experience of the colonial women I am encountering.