I’m really enjoying Amanda Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England; it is a survey of women’s lives in the 18th and early 19th centuries, making arguments about women throughout the country, but looking specifically at certain families in Yorkshire and Lancashire, largely because women here happen to have left lots of letters behind that are rich with information. The book also focuses on a particular class, women of the lower gentry and those connected to the professional classes — wives and daughters of landed gentlemen, doctors, attorneys, clerics, and certain kinds of merchants and manufacturers.
The author critiques some of the arguments and assumptions that previous scholars have made about the time period, including the idea that the 18th and early 19th centuries saw the dramatic rise of the domestic woman enshrined at home and kept from all contamination by the outside world, whereas in earlier time periods, women had a more active role in public life. Vickery writes that many scholars:
offer a narrative of decline and fall, using women’s manuscripts to illustrate a tale of increasing female passivity and ever-tightening domestic encirclement. In fact, it is almost impossible to open a book on wealthier British women between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries that does not offer a catalogue of declining female options.
The actual situation was not that simple, however; the separation between home and outside world was never clearcut, and women stayed in touch with that outside world in various ways throughout the centuries. In terms of the kind of work women did within the home and outside of it, the situation in the 19th century doesn’t look so different from earlier centuries. Scholars argue that the idea of “separate spheres,” public and private, for men and women became more and more important in this time, and yet, Vickery argues, this idea has always existed and still exists to a certain extent today.
Vickery also argues that the category of women she’s discussing tends to get lost in scholarly accounts, that people focus on the aristocracy and also on the merchant and manufacturing classes and see these two groups as separate and antagonistic. They miss, however, a middle group of lower gentry and professionals that connects the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie and that shows how complex social status and family connections could be. Some families have such a mix of people, including landed gentry, professionals, and manufacturers that they are nearly impossible to classify. She’s arguing for a more complex view of status than many scholars have seen:
It has been customary to imagine the gentry, the professions and the upper trades as distinct strata of the social hierarchy. It makes more sense, however, to see each as a thread in the complicated texture of genteel society — a woven fabric or an intricate cobweb being more exact metaphors to conjure social structure and social relations in the provinces.
After an introduction and a chapter describing the class system, Vickery moves to chapters on love and marriage and on motherhood. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff here, including a detailed description of one particular courtship that is representative of the time and that shows what a long drawn-out process it often was. Getting to the altar required a lot of time and patience — all that persuading of parents and the extended family and all that negotiating about money to be done — and involved some danger on the woman’s part: if the engagement ended during the negotiation period, the woman’s reputation would be damaged, so once she accepted a proposal, it was in her best interest to finalize the marriage as quickly as possible.
Vickery also argues that we shouldn’t think in terms of arranged marriages versus love matches (one older scholarly account says that the 18th century saw the fall of the arranged marriage and the rise of the love match); instead, most marriages were a mixture of the two — a combination of affection, prudence, and parental approval, and that people could easily find themselves genuinely torn between their romantic inclination and their desire for parental approval.
In the chapter on motherhood, Vickery discusses another common story told about the 18th century, which is that the decline of the midwife and the rise of doctors to oversee births is evidence of a decline in women’s power. At one time, the story goes, childbirth was an entirely woman-centered event and a manifestation of female solidarity, but then male doctors began to intrude on this women’s space and to establish their own power there. Vickery argues, however, that women themselves often wanted to have the doctors present, and that women themselves can therefore be seen as responsible for the decline of the midwife. Vickery sensibly points out that when women realized doctors were able to help them in ways midwives couldn’t, they chose in favor of the doctor.
One other interesting thing: in the writings Vickery researched, she found lots of references to the physical discomforts of pregnancy, but very few references to nausea, which is such a common thing to talk about today. She hypothesizes that vomiting was “seen as both normal and healthy given the universal reliance on purging as a prophylactic and general cure-all.” Much greater emphasis was put on “melancholy, aches and immobility of pregnancy.”
I’ve only gotten through the first few chapters of this book — I’m greatly looking forward to reading the rest.