Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Gentleman's Daughter

As I mentioned in a previous post about the books I took to France, I really enjoyed two historical non-fiction books, each written by women who have made BBC television series.

Amanda Vickery's book, The Gentleman's Daughter, draws mainly on the correspondence and ledgers of a woman, Elizabeth Parker Shackleton, who lived in the early 1800s, in Yorkshire.  Vickery seemed mostly interested in determining how much independence women of the gentry had during that time.  Did they run their homes?  Make decisions about spending money?  Go out in public alone?  In spite of the fact that women had no right to own property in that day - their husbands owned all - what did society expect from and given them expectation of?  I'll leave you to read the book to find the answers to all those questions, but there were some details I found fascinating.

Women tended to have household accounts which detailed all expenditures.  A good housekeeper - this referring to the management of the home - also had an inventory of the contents of her home.  Dishes, linens, furniture, you name it, went on the list and most homemakers could and did document the source and cost of all these items.  This was also the practice in Georgian America and served as an aide when Tories loyal to the British cause applied to the crown for a type of disaster relief following the revolutionary war.  Men tended to 'list' land, house and 'sundries'; they needed the women of the house to fill in the details.  

Vickery described how Shackleton bought entire bolts of linen and sewed men's shirts, made table clothes and other household items with her own hands.  If she wanted other than plain white, she sent the fabric to Manchester for professional dyeing.  Even in a well-to-do homes of the gentry, fabrics were used over and over, cut down into smaller pieces as they wore out.  A couple furnished their home when they married and this tended to be their furniture for life, particularly as the well made pieces were of a quality to be handed down over generations.  

I'd always thought that it wasn't until the industrial revolution or even World War I that the servant shortage began, however even in the 1800s there was a very high turnover among servants.  Even then, members of the working class objected to the amount of work expected of them for small wages.  Young women also found it difficult to maintain the subservient demeanor expected of them to demonstrate they 'knew their place'.   The longest serving members of staff in Elizabeth Shackleton's house were two of the men, with eleven and eight years.  Female servants generally left within a few months.  Vickery seems to conclude that Shackleton's difficulties weren't that unusual, based on the exchange of information, between her and many other women of the district, concerning servants.

Given that country households had to be largely self-sufficient, making everything from butter to laundry soap, labour shortages were a big problem.  Shackleton had a variety of arrangements from live-in staff to people she brought in by the day or to do a specific piece of work.  Having servants sounds somewhat luxurious, but managing servants sounds like my kind of hell.  Far from never lifting a finger, the woman of gentry had to have knowledge of a great many processes involved in house work, in order to train staff and to be able to judge the outcome.  

This book is lauded as an important contribution to social history in general and to English feminist history in particular.  It convinced me that keeping house was no simple task, even with an army of servants.

By the way, if you are a Jane Austen fan, you might enjoy Amanda Vickery's exploration of a Regency ball.  This programme shows a recreation of the dance, the clothes, and the food, etc., at Chawton House, the home of Jane's brother Edward.  Enjoy! 

No comments: