Women in England 1760-1914
June Purvis reviews two books.
- Susie Steinbach, Women in England 1760-1914: a social history (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2004)
- Joanna Martin, Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House (Hambledon and London 2004)
On January 2nd, 1863, Hannah Cullwick, a working-class domestic servant, wrote in her diary a detailed account of her long and physically demanding day.
I open'd the shutters, lighted the fires & clean'd the hearths. Clean'd 1 pair o'boots. Swept and dusted the parlour & got the Master's breakfast up ... clean'd the parlour things & wash'd up what was dirty ... Went to the Missis for orders and brought her breakfast things down. Clean'd the knives. Fill'd the scuttles & made the kitchen fire up. Got dinner ready. Clean'd away the dirty things ... Wash'd up after & clean'd up the kitchen ... got the supper ready ... Clean'd away and wiped the knives. Lock'd up the doors - put a plate of beer to catch the beetles. Wound the clock up & put wood to dry & to bed at 11.
Hannah was one of countless working-class women mentioned in Susie Steinbach's Women in England, a readable and fresh account of women's lives between the reign of George III and the First World War. The book offers a skillful synthesis of a range of published material relating to women of all social classes - working class, middle class and elite women, including Queens Charlotte and Victoria. The themes explored include life expectancy, sex, marriage and childbirth, religion, education, work inside and outside the home, as well as political activism.
Throughout the period, the overwhelming majority of English women were working class and, like Hannah, led hard lives. If single, most entered the occupation of domestic service while working-class wives had the double burden of raising their children and earning money. In 1760, few could read but by 1914 most were literate, having experienced some state elementary schooling.
In contrast, middle-class women throughout this period were educated in private schools and not expected to work for a living, especially if married. Wives could, however engage in unpaid, philanthropic work, and many did so. During the second half of the nineteeth century, however, some single middle-class women took advantage od increased educational opportunities to enter those professions where women dominated, such as nursing and schoolteaching.
Steinbach emphasises that one force more than any other improved the lives of women during the long nineteenth century, namely the advent, from the 1850s, of organised feminism. Feminists campaigned for better educational facilities for girls and women, as well as access to the professions. They campaigned for better educational facilities for girls and women, as well as access to the professions. The campaigned for the parliamentary vote for their sex, a right that was only granted of women over thirty years of age. They also worked to improve the lot of disadvantaged women in the Empire, despite the fact that many of their practices were shaped by racial, imperialist and class biases.
Steinbacn's broad sweep narrative may be contrasted with Joanna Martin's Wives and Daughters, which tells the story of four generations of women of the powerful Fox Strangways family, headed by the Whig Earls of Ilchester, who lived in their country houses in Wiltshire and Dorset in the eighteenth century. Dense and tightly packed with rich detail, the sources for this fascinating study are the largely unexplored archives that have been left for generations in these houses - diaries, letters, journals and memoirs.
The women wrote about their homes and their families, worried about their children's education, described journeys and visits to friends and relatives, planned the flower beds in their gardens - and spoke of the difficulty of finding reliable servants. Martin claims that the relationship between employers and their servants was one of "mutual dependence, and sometimes of genuine affection", but none of the aristocratic women she cites expressed much understanding of the lives of the humbler folk who served them.
The most vivid portrait is of the rebellious Lady Susan Fox Strangways, born in 1743. Her family were horrified when she ruined her reputation (and by implication, damaged the marriage prospects of her sisters) by having a love affair with an actor, the charming, well mannered and handsome, William O'Brien. When they married secretly in 1764, Lord Ilchester was so outraged that he arrangd for the couple to go abroad. After living in America for several years, Susan and William eventually returned to Dorset. Her gruelling account of an operation to remove a lump from her breast, in 1798, without any anaesthetic, is recorded in the journal she kept for almost sixty years. "My suffering was very great and very long." She states. But she survived the horrendous ordeal, dying in 1827 at the age of eighty-four. The strength of this book is in such minutiae. Its main weakness is a failure to cast the study within a broader context. Martin only attempts a brief assessment of whether, as some eighteenth-century historians have claimed, the lives of men and women increasingly diverged so that they came to live in "separate spheres", men in the public sphere of business and politics, women within the private sphere of the home. Rightly, she finds this claim a gross oversimplification. The aristocratic women in her stufy held considerable economic power and were not without political influence. Patronage was at their disposal too. But while such findings allow us to see a more nunanced history than was previously assumed, a more probing analysis is needed.
Martin's approach downplays the dynamics of class and gender relations. Aristocratic women were expected to marry well, to secure family influence, and could be pawns in the hands of ambitious parents, especially fathers. And while high rank opened spaces for women, their domestic milieu restrained what they could achieve. But above all, aristocratic women could not have lived their privileged lifestyle without the Hannah Cullwicks of their world. It is here that Steinbach's broader canvas adds to the detailed world that Martin painstakingly evokes.
June Purvis is the author of Votes for Women (Routledge, 2000).
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