Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, by Amanda Vickery (Yale UniversityPress, 2009)
The ‘long’ seventeenth century (from the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ to the 1832 Great Reform Act ) saw the emergence of many of our own current ways of being at home. It witnessed the first division of furniture and its marketing into ‘For the Lady’ and ‘For the Gentleman’. It developed and cemented the division of the rooms into the functional spaces and spaces ‘for shew’. Parallel to that, hospitality changed: the great hall was gradually replaced by the front of the house receiving area and a variety of withdrawing rooms. The back staircase was added and the separate servant areas began to form. The creation of a side hearth with chimney changed homes and eventually allowed for the separation of the kitchen.
Occupation, not home ownership, qualified men for the franchise and nine out of ten houses in Georgian England were rented. Privacy was a scarce good for all but the most powerful, and servants, apprentices and lodgers often had only a box with a lock as the private space. Once married, woman lost her legal person but gained considerable social credit. Spinsters had to be prepared to change families and their own function within them at a moment’s notice. The reliable sign that a gentleman has serious plans for a lady was his showing her around their expected common home and asking for decorating expertise. (Vickery here lines up all the scenes where this happens in Jane Austen novels.) There were things within the ‘housekeeping portfolio’ that were expected to be decided by the wife and the male encroachment upon that domain was a sign of domestic tyranny. Men spent way too much money and time on horse furniture and servicing poorly functioning clocks and amateur scientific gizmos. Marriage was the confirmation of manhood, not its taming or denial, as in some later eras.
All this and much else is to be learned from Vickery’s study of the private lives of the English Georgians of the genteel and middling classes. She leaves little unexamined: architecture, interior decoration and design, economic history, history of genders, fiction and journalism, art and history of science all report for duty.
Among the most fascinating and dynamic chapters is—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—the chapter on women’s embroidery and similar useless crafts that women, barring extraordinary luck of birth and inheritance, were uniformly condemned to. She opens by agreeing with Germaine Greer’s assertion that the history of women’s craft is the history of “women being kept busy wasting their time” and shows that yes, the woman who spent her time with her needlework tambour was safely kept away from doing anything else: going out, reading novels, conversing, writing, or idly lounging about, all potentially evil. However, Vickery discovered that women managed to inch a little bit of freedom and agency in situations of utter confinement like this. As they were prevented from obtaining any art education and becoming professional artists, women tried their best to develop some expertise in what’s left, the ‘baubles’ crafts like needlework, shellwork and painting flowers. The potential of this kind of work to remedy boredom and all manner of imposed company shouldn’t be underestimated. Nor should the social side to it: this was one of the few legit ways for women to gather and spend hours together. Moreover, handicraft was often “a surreal expression of female intellectual retirement.” (p. 254) Some of the images in the book illustrate this.
Should you read it: Absolutely. But wade around it, sample it here and there. Some chapters will be more interesting to the designers, others to sociologists, and most to people interested in history of genders. Those who’ve been interested in the Georgians since they saw Season III of Blackadder in their teens will have this cake and eat it too.
The BBC made a series based on the book, but the DVD is not yet available on this side of the Atlantic: