Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
Powerful Georgian Women
The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England
By Amanda Vickery.
Yale University Press, 1998, ix + 436 pages.
67 B/W illustrations. Hardcover, $40.00.
Reviewed by Judith Fiedler.
The Gentleman s Daughter is based on the letters, diaries, and business accounts of members, primarily women, of an interlocking group of families living in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the second half of the 18th century. These women are part of the "gentry," the social class comprising the wives and daughters of lesser landholders, merchants, and the professional men who were becoming increasingly numerous as trade, manufacturing, and specialized knowledge rose into greater prominence in the north of England--women referred to as the "proper and prosperous."
Vickery's thesis is that, despite a predominance of published opinion about the period, the social role of genteel women during the 18th century was not one of declining authority and effectiveness. Rather, she sees evidence in the records of their lives that they retained and even increased their power. She cites the many publications of the 18th century which specify the proper role of women, but notes that these were essentially management-training manuals, preparing women for their designated functions in marriage.
Based on such writings, as well as the words of women themselves, she finds little support for the "domesticity thesis." Here, she challenges the work of other writers, who assume a decline in the status of women from an earlier position of real, if unstated, economic and social equality to become the passive, cherished ornaments of later Victorian society.
Whether Vickery is convincing in this endeavor is difficult for the lay reader to determine. Without access to the large number of sources and experts she cites, it is impossible to evaluate her success. Reading history from original sources is fraught with difficulties. Only some writings by a limited number of observers survive; the degree to which these individuals and their work are representative is a matter of chance and can always be questioned. There is no way to determine how complete were the archives Vickery used, or her implicit procedures for selection of significant materials.
Adding to the problem is the inconsistency of her time boundaries. Citations range from the 17th through the 19th centuries; both Mrs. Samuel Pepys in 1660 and a Lancashire housewife in 1810, for example, had problems in retaining servants, but there is little about how society and the role of women at those two dates might differentially affect the issue.
The book is densely footnoted, and contains a detailed biographical index, tables of family relationships, networks of correspondence and social interactions, and even a list of purchasers of a rabies medicine made by the principal diarist. It is not completely clear how all of these details further the author's argument, but they testify to dedicated research in often obscure archives.
For the general reader, the value of the book will lie in the 294 pages of text and direct quotations from letters and journals. Vickery allows her characters to speak for themselves, and their candid words present a fascinating view of domestic and public life in a time, region, and social class not often studied. It is a book which repays browsing as well as more disciplined reading; the more so because it is not easy to tease out a consistent and logical argument which addresses the author's thesis. Beyond frequent assertion, the case is not clearly proved.
Finally, in addition to historian, an author of a book such as Vickery's must also be a writer. In this task, Vickery does not shine. The pages in which she lays out her thesis and its documentation are ponderous and thick with jargon, containing a number of word assemblages that do not quite amount to sentences. When Vickery turns from argument to narrative, her style shifts abruptly into a casual voice, utilizing flippant terms such as describing aristocratic hunters as hot shots. It is not elegant writing. Some words, such as elite, are vastly overused, often as adjectives, sometimes as a singular, and sometimes as a plural noun, while several terms, such as sorrily appear to be unique.
But for the most part, Vickery allows her "gentleman's daughters" their own voices. What they tell us opens a fascinating window into a world where challenges common to both our lives and theirs find very different responses, and where the satisfactions of 18th-century society can be thoughtfully compared with our own.
Judith Fiedler is a dedicated reader of social history and an avowed opponent of fuzzy thinking. Her career in sociological research trained her to detect bias and abuses of logic. Her intolerance for graceless writing she owes to Jane Austen and her peers in literature.
JASNA News v. 15, no. 2, Summer 1999
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