The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England

Published in History Today

The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England

By Amanda Vickery

Yale University Press, xi + 436 pp. £19.95, ISBN 0-300-07531-6

This scholarly, self-assured work is both a major contribution to the study of women in eighteenth-century England and a delight to read. Based on archival work on the records of women in northern England, Vickery's volume rejects the notions of 'public and private' and 'separate spheres' in order to suggest that the public profile of privileged, provincial women was important and advancing.

This then is a major study, one that is ambitious in its intellectual scope, rather than aiming simply to tell an entertaining tale. Vickery seeks the typical, not the exceptional, and for this reason among others her book has more to tell us about the female condition in the period than studies of brilliant meteors such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Vickery's research is based on an examination of all letters and diaries that survive for privileged women between about 1730 and about 1825 in the Lancashire Record Office at Preston, irrespective of whether the family's wealth came from land, the professions or business. Equivalent material was examined in other northern archives, in order to follow up the non-Lancashire friends and kin of the Lancashire families and to provide a broader perspective on the experience of genteel women in the north. In order to prevent too narrow a focus, Vickery also examined a selection of London manuscript sources. This both provided a fuller picture of the lives of genteel women in the metropolis, and counteracted any tendency to ascribe excessive autonomy to northern developments that were in fact national.

Propriety emerges as a defining feature, and in the context of the age this entailed accepting the symbolic authority of fathers and husbands. Yet, as Vickery ably shows, masculine authority was managed, and this was assisted by the rise of politeness. In the Tatler and the Spectator, Addison and Steele fostered and glamorised heterosexual sociability, thereby raising the prestige of those terrains which offered women a place beside their men, and the profile of the cosmopolitan gentleman who could do a woman honour.

Far from being abstract, Vickery's account is carried forward by a series of case studies, especially that of Elizabeth Shackleton who is shown as overcoming any idea that the walls of the house constituted the frontier between public and private worlds. Women are followed through courtship, marriage, motherhood and bereavement; they are seen as wives and mothers, employers and consumers, making their devotions, and taking their pleasures. There are, of course, omissions. The sources say little about spirituality and sex. It is also unclear how far men 'internalised' the politeness that they apparently valued in public. Any stress on politeness and on restraint in behaviour and attitudes has to address the question as to how far it was deliberately inculcated in order to cope with a very different way of life and expression. A contrary account to politeness can be found in many male sources. The manuscript diary of John Thomlinson, a young cleric, includes passages not in the published edition in Six North County Diaries, for example:

'3 March 1717. Sir John Brownlow's Lady abused other women with her clitoris etc ... Burgess one rainy day complained in the pulpit of the absence of the ladies, saying they were afraid of spoiling their fine clothes etc. And so indulged themselves in bed ...'

'24 December 1721 ... Arthur Grey condemned for burglary - his plea was that he got in drink and had a mind to see if Mr. Burnet was not in bed with her ... it was proved by all the servants that he often stayed till morn ... She is niece to the Duke of Atholl.'

This then was, like all others, a complex age. Any attempt to reduce the human condition to some new theorem is flawed. Vickery is scarcely to be criticised for her concentration on her subject – women, although her acceptance of 'politeness' can be queried. She is much to be congratulated for producing a bold, well-grounded and interesting study. It would be instructive to see her carry her account forward in order to explain why many nineteenth-century women became dissatisfied with their position and found propriety constricting.

Jeremy Black is the author of Britain as a Military Power 1688-1815 (UCL Press, 1999).

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