First of all, make sure to check out the choices for the next Slaves of Golconda group reading — everyone is welcome to participate!
I have now finished the second half of Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, and I found the second half at least as interesting as the first (which I wrote about here). The second half contains chapters on “Prudent Economy,” “Elegance,” “Civility and Vulgarity,” and “Propriety.” Some of these chapter titles don’t fully make sense to me, as the chapter on propriety is about all the public entertainments that were available to women at the time and doesn’t analyze the word propriety at all, but that’s a small quibble.
The chapter on “Prudent Economy” was particularly interesting as it was about women’s duties as household managers, and it emphasizes the point that maintaining a household was seen as a prestigious and important role, and women were determined to enjoy what power that role gave them and not let men encroach on it:
As the mistress of a household, the genteel bride tasted of administrative power and exuded quasi-professional pride.
Now, of course, being able to manage a household would be small comfort to a woman who wanted to do other things and couldn’t, but Vickery’s point is that many women did take pride in this work and it did require considerable management ability.
One of the hardest parts of this management job was dealing with servants; when people complained about a “servant problem” it wasn’t just idle and privileged complaining. Vickery points out that servants’ wages rose throughout the 18C and opportunities for other kinds of work, in factories for example, became more plentiful. So genteel women were constantly having to replace their servants, particularly their female servants, who were much more likely to leave than their male counterparts. Vickery makes the job of managing servants sound complicated:
… in its staffing the household functioned like most eighteenth-century commercial enterprises. In the acquisition, coordination, and direction of a range of different workers, the managerial effort of the genteel mistress-housekeeper was akin to that of a putting-out master or gentleman farmer, and far removed from the received picture of the unruffled lady of the manor.
Hiring servants was one part of the problem, but maintaining authority over them was another:
The construction and maintenance of a mistress’s authority over her servants could not be taken for granted; a point reinforced by the detailed printed advice on the preservation of supremacy and widespread warnings about a lack of innate deference in the servile.
Now this makes me wonder what the experience of the servants was; I’m pretty sure I can’t blame them for running away so often, but Vickery’s focus is specifically on the experience of genteel women, so I’ll have to find out about that in another book. She does say that women servants seemed not to worry much about whether they could get a good reference or not and that they were “strikingly independent and mobile.”
The chapter on “Elegance” covers women’s experiences with fashion, particularly clothes and household furnishings. Vickery’s argument here is that shopping was considered a “form of employment” and was not a frivolous pursuit as some historians have assumed; women were not simply consumers buying up the latest fashion in order to compete with their neighbors, but rather shopping functioned as a way of establishing networks among women who would help each other get information and make decisions:
Beyond its instrumental role, the exchange of information ‘in the fashion way’ had wider implications for feminine culture. Filling their letters with ‘fashions, flounces, and flourishes’, women shared doubts, advice, and experience. Basic to female relationships was the exchange of consumer services.
The last chapter is particularly interesting, arguing that the possibilities for entertainment outside the home increased dramatically over the course of the 18C. Vickery goes through many examples of what was available, including the theater, various kinds of musical entertainments, and other spectacles such as militia reviews, ladies’ processions, firework displays, magic shows, and trials, which were public. There were also assemblies, masquerades, ridottos, musical parties, and routs, as well as pleasure gardens where people could gather and experience a greater degree of freedom (and also potential danger) than they found elsewhere. Women also participated more and more in charitable institutions, as well as other kinds of clubs devoted to literature or science. Many of these social opportunities were available in London, but increasingly they were also popular in outlying cities.
There is so much to learn from this book. I found it highly readable; it is an academic book, so she spends a good bit of time discussing what other historians have argued and arguing against their conclusions, but it’s interesting to learn about the debates that historians have engaged in about the time period. Overall, it’s a great description of what women of the genteel classes in the 18C were likely to experience, and a good example of history that is a pleasure to read.