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I am a great fan of Amanda Vickery’s books. And I think that they should be required reading for anyone interested in the social history of the Georgian era.
Her previous work The Gentleman’s Daughter was a wonderfully detailed exploration of the intimate lives of women in the 18th century and helped many of us to a greater understanding of Jane Austen’s female character’s lives by setting them in a recognisable historical context .
Her new book Behind Closed Doors : at home in Georgian England once again takes the domestic realm as it subject but details it on a much wider scale.
She does not concentrate on one class of people but considers , in minute detail, the intimate lives of landladies, lodgers tradesmen and women ,professionals and aristocrats living in both London and in the provinces.
Its scale is breathtaking and the detail, delicious.
And what I really adore is that she admits the historical truth of Jane Austen’s writings by including copious quotes from the six novels to illustrate her points. Indeed, she devotes almost half a chapter of the book to consider the way in which the subject of the home is treated by Austen’s heroines and heroes, even going so far as to paraphrase the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Georgian house with a drawing room,French windows and lawns must be in want of a mistress…
It was an irresistible and understandable opportunity ….I dare-say had I been given the chance to play with that famous line, I would not have let it pass either…
While reading Professor Vickery’s descriptions of the lives and experiences of individuals the Jane Austen devotee will find many parallels with the situations in which her characters find themselves. For example, look at this passage on the unenviable plight of the genteel, dependant spinster:
Many, if not most, families exploited their unmarried womenfolk, as unpaid housekeepers, nursery maids and sick-nurses, tutors, chaperons, companions and surrogate mothers. Some spinsters were commended for their pains, and drew satisfaction from their value to the family enterprise. Frances Blundell was ‘one of the best spokes in the wheel on which our fortunes have turned’, acknowledged her brother William. Conversely, a hundred years later in the same county, Ellen Weeton and her widowed mother forwent ‘the comforts, and even many of the necessaries of life, to support my brother at Preston’ training to be a lawyer, imagining that he ‘would repay us when old enough for all these deprivations’. But it was a vain expectation, ‘for like all his sex, when he was grown up, he considered what had been done for him was his right; that he owed no gratitude to us, for we were but female relatives, and had only done our duty’. Lawyer Weeton declined to offer his sister a home because ‘such a kind of family was very unpleasant, causing the most unhappy dissensions’. Some spinsters questioned their lot, but their options for improvement were narrow. ‘Should her destination be to remain an inhabitant in her father’s house’, Priscilla Wakefield intoned, ‘cheerfulness, good temper, and obliging resignation of her will to that of others, will be there equally her duty, and her interest’. Eventually, of course, ‘it will belong to her to enliven, cheer, to amuse the latter moments of her parent’s declining age’.” Dependent women were to adapt themselves to the rhythms and priorities of the household. Self-sacrifice on the altar of family was the sentence of the spinster.
The depictions of Miss Bates, Charlotte Lucas and even the Austen sisters themselves resonate here. And so it goes on throughout the book.
The book is beautifully produced , printed on fine glossy paper and illustrated in black and white and colour with very appropriate and carefully chosen illustrations:
Here , for example , we have two examples of wallpaper circa 1790 taken from a house in Manchester Street, London. The chapter on home decorating (Wallpaper and Taste) is fascinating.
I confess I have devoured this book and read it quickly almost at one sittting.I am going to revisit it over the next few weeks savouring its detail. I highly recommend this book to you: anyone who is keen on Jane Austen’s works will enjoy delving into the minutiae of real people’s lives – especially as many of the lives have telling details which echo in Austen’s works.
Is it too much to hope that this book will soon appear in a Kindle edition?