For many people, the late 1700’s to early 1800’s is a dark place for women. While they certainly didn’t have many of the privileges we do today, Amanda Vickery shows how women carved out a place for themselves.
Vickery focuses on the genteel middle class, drawing her ideas from several different letter collections. She details the various areas of life that especially interested women and shows that women were more than just “decoration” for the home. In the middle class, women really did have a full time job managing the household. Remember, they were essentially managers for their own business, with employees, a.k.a. servants, under their supervision . Even though there was rarely any formal education available, women still had to be intelligent enough to manage the finances of the household, make sure servants weren’t cheating them, and in some cases, selling their own product (one woman was locally famous for her jams and jellies).
Marriage was also a very sober affair for women. While we see many examples of perfectly happy, wonderful couples (one couple seemed delightful-they clearly enjoyed the use of endearing insults and the husband makes it clear how much he relies on his wife), there was also the darker side. Several poor women who thought to marry for love wound up with abusers, and one’s own family members didn’t want to get involved. Marriage was also very much a financial affair. In one case it took years for two families to come to an agreement regarding the different fortunes. You can certainly see the influence of these ideas in Austen’s juvenilia The Three Sisters, a rather dark little tale of the eponymous sisters arguing over whether or not they would marry the hideous old guy, depending on how much money and how many benefits they would get. The problems with both approaches to marriage are very clearly shown here.
One attitude that particularly struck me was the “stiff upper lip” attitude. It was common to not only write condolences during a tragedy, but also to advise keeping one’s emotions in check. This may due in part to the higher rate of death, particularly among children. Grief was normal, but daily duties had to go on. It was not only tragedies that mentioned this-strange as it seems, post-partum depression was common knowledge, and women wrote back and forth with different advice as to how to deal with it.
While there were some parts that betrayed the author’s bias (in particular, she believes disgust at sex with someone you do not have an emotional connection to was socially constructed as a way to “keep the wimminz at home”), it was overall very informative and interesting.