Magazine article The Spectator

Women of Character and Endurance

Magazine article The Spectator

Women of Character and Endurance

Article excerpt

Women of character and endurance

Jane Gardam


by Amanda Vickery

Yale University Press, L 19.95, pp. 436

A part from one fascinating observation that women in Georgian England cared more for their fathers' good opinion than for their husbands' and brothers', this brilliant book, which scholars are already saying is `humblingly, amazingly good,' seems to have strayed from its title. 'I am a gentleman's daughter,' Elizabeth Bennet famously informed Lady Catherine de Burgh. `But who was your mother?' the creature famously replied. Vickery has examined 100 families living in Georgian Lancashire and West Yorkshire from the time when women were upholstered like furniture, with their hair so high they had to sit on the floor of their coaches, to the slender shifts of the Regency. The end of the century was a time in the North West when industry, especially the textile industry, was supplying the new `upper gentry' with `glorious wealth'. Sons went away to school and to learn trades in London and some girls of the patriciate made the journey to Lancashire armed with dowries and 'connections', but the women of the families travelled very little, not even to a son's wedding. Boundaries were easily crossed between trade and the professions but there was no mingling with the nobility, which anyway was thin on the ground in Lancashire. There was still hob-nobbing with shopkeepers and small tradesmen, who continued to 'oblige' in one way and another and were in return invited to the new, formal afternoon tea where the new damask was laid on the new mahogany table from Gillow of Lancaster (Vickery has found the account for it) and the best new china brought out to grace the splendid dining room which had usurped the parlour as the heart of the house. Husbands still roistered now and then below stairs.

The portraits that emerge are of women so typical of that downright, confident county, so very 'Lancashire' or `West Riding', adjectives still used in the rest of the north (accompanied by meaningful looks), that they surely could not be representative of the country at large. They are still very much themselves. (In the 1970s I was asked by an old lady in Southport whether the autumn brocades had arrived in London.) One wonders whether a survey of gentlemen's daughters in Cornwall or Suffolk might have revealed different things?

But it could not reveal a more rewarding and robust set of women, nor women with a wider range of correspondents. Where better-educated women like the glittering set of sisters in Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats wrote voluminously but mostly to each other, these northern girls, wives, widows, dowagers and impoverished spinster aunts kept in touch with a huge straggling network of 'kin'. The writing of such letters was part of a conventional, middle-class (a term not yet used) woman's daily life, making lifelines for pent emotions, secret vengeance against cruel husbands or exasperating servants. The most intimate matters are recorded, badly spelled and punctuated - for few of the women had been to school - and written mostly alone in surroundings of apparent material paradise. There are some terrible stories of women's subjugation. One wife was made to eat with the servants, another was horsewhipped by her husband. Horrocks, the cotton magnate, is said to have paid his sisters, who worked on the shop floor, with the promise of a new dress when they asked for a minimum wage. But there was also married love and the sharing of griefs especially over the frequent deaths of children. …

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