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

The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. By Amanda Vickery (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. ix plus 436pp. $40).

This work concentrates on a group that Vickery considers to have been relatively ignored by historians: those of moderate social eminence, that is, lawyers and clerics; minor gentlemen; merchants and manufacturers. Her sprightly and provocative study delineates the structure of polite society and its concern for propriety, reconstructing the penalties and possibilities of this lifestyle for women. The separate chapters on gentility; marriage; motherhood; running of the household; material consumption; hospitality; and cultural activities contain plenty of new material and stimulating insights.

Vickery critiques the sharp distinction postulated by some historians between freedom and arrangement in matchmaking, She argues that women could resist and could do so in a way which did not threaten their reputation and security, for example by wearing down families with tearful obstinacy. She also sensibly notes that love did not equal equality. Marriage carried the potential both for harmonious licence and for miserable servitude. A variety of goals came into play in the choice of a spouse. Women certainly sought emotional warmth since, not unreasonably, it was felt this would be a reasonable guarantee of considerate treatment; at the same time they wished their choice to rest on more than love alone. What Vickery terms 'a pragmatic choice' ensured that a woman at least maintained her social standing, and was likely to gain the approval of family and friends--as any thoughtful woman realized in the eighteenth-century, it was wise to retain their good favor because these were the individuals a woman would rely on if she encountered marital problems.

In the chapter on motherhood, Vickery provides a sane counterpoint to the prevalent eighteenth-century sentimentalization of the mother. She details the emotional, physical and social costs of childbearing, concluding that there was abundant affection and also plenty plain, gritty emotional endurance: '[s]ubmission to one's natural lot was the keynote of genteel maternity.' (122) In a marked moment of empathy, she points out that the prevalence of the Christian vocabulary on resignation to God's will was evidence of the magnitude of parental grief rather than the reverse. Clinging desperately to Christian stoicism was the only way to prevent the descent into an abyss of despair.

Vickery re-interprets housekeeping as a female management with recognized symbols (such as keys and memorandum books) and ceremonies. She carefully describes the strenuous activities behind the scenes to make sure an orderly, elegant home was presented to the public; and the difficulties in regulating servants experienced by those of moderate social status. The role of a dignified, efficient housekeeper was available to gentlewomen as a source of both personal satisfaction and public credit.

In her investigation of the acquisition of material goods, Vickery takes issue with the depiction of female consumption as a category of leisure and of shopping as a degraded female hobby, preferring to locate these activities within the framework of skilled, though unpaid, work. Genteel women were not slaves to fashion, and evinced no burning desire to have aristocratic possessions; in fact they disdained the absurdity of some high fashion trends. Vickery further enriches the interpretation of consumption by analyzing the manner in which material goods contributed to the creation of culture and meanings.

The last section of the book is devoted to an examination of the potential of public life for polite women in Georgian England. The court, theater, opera, urban culture, fashionable leisure, and charitable activities all brought genteel women into the public arena and expanded their material and intellectual worlds, which, as Vickery notes, is the reverse of the accepted tale of progressive incarceration in a domestic, private sphere.

As the author herself states, this book is decidedly not a study in nonconformity or rebellion. Most genteel women in the eighteenth century were consciously resigned to the symbolic authority of fathers and husbands, the self-sacrifice of motherhood and the burdensome responsibility for domestic servants and housekeeping. Although this was a pattern with a long historical tradition--Vickery dismisses the argument that a commercial or industrial revolution created a new gender order--there were some changes in the eighteenth century: a more sustained, secular celebration of romantic marriage and loving domesticity; the institutionalization of a national marriage market; and the growing public sentimentalization of motherhood. In general, this book successfully refines several prevalent interpretative paradigms, most notably the purported decline of propertied women into indolence and luxury and the rise of separate spheres. Vickery instead reveals the extent of female activity, and that women saw themselves as strong, with great powers of fortitude and self-command. She also argues that the real dichotomy lay between vulgar publicity and polite selection and not between the male public sphere and the female private one of home.

There are a few problems. The book is based on the letters, diaries and account books of over 100 women from the genteel ranks of English society, but the range is narrower than this. The focus is on Northern women, more particularly one Northern woman, Elizabeth Shackleton, whose copious papers encourage a detailed assessment of her activities. Vickery explains the rationale behind her research methodology and did not set out to write an exhaustive account of female experience. Nevertheless, the narrow source base does mean, for example, that it is hard for the author to satisfactorily grapple with the multiple complexities of individual relationships. Vickery argues that the bounds of propriety were wider than historians have been prepared to admit, and she successfully demonstrates the range of options open to women, and their contentment with their lives. This viewpoint has a lot to commend it--not the least that it forces the historian to appreciate the world from the perspective of eighteenth-century w omen--but Vickery's conclusions would have been even more satisfactory if she had given more thought to the mental as opposed to physical limits imposed by the quest for seemliness. Overall though, this is a charmingly challenging study.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Pollock, Linda A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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