You are currently browsing the daily archive for December 18, 2010.

This series has been throughly thought-provoking, and the  final installment was no exception.

It  realigned the balance of the series towards the other side of the seductive Georgian coin, and threw more light on the lives of the poor, the  dispossessed and servants in this era.

It is all too easy to  imagine that most Georgians lived in fine Palladian homes or wonderfully proportioned town houses or rectories,as we have seen in previous episodes, when, in fact, the urban poor lived hugger-mugger in the garrets and cellars of these  houses, some fine, some  distinctly not, and the  rural poor lived in hovels, almshouses or, if they were desperately unlucky, in the dreaded workhouse with its dehumanizing system of operation. This programme was a discussion of mainly two parts: what were  the  property-owning Georgian ideas of  privacy, what rights did these privileged property owners have, and to what  lengths would they legally go to  defend their homes?  Second,  what sort of privacy was allowed to the poorer members of society? How did they protect their property, such as they had? It demonstrated how the elegant architecture of the era  reflected this strongly hierarchical society and its richer member’s new desire for privacy.  And how servants and the poor had few resources open to them to maintain their dignity and property rights.

The lack of an effective police force and dependency on the watchman meant that many urban(and rural) homeowners defended their homes every Englishman’s Home was his Castle- to the nth degree. They used every legally defensive measure available to them,shutters and iron bars to secure their homes…

and  the now thankfully outlawed mantraps, as used in the grounds of surburan villas in Kensington…

now in the collection of the Museum of London where they will do no more vicious harm.

And despite this being the Age of the Enlightenment and the rational  age of reason, many homeowners were still afraid of the supernatural and the unknown enough  to  use charms and votive objects  for added layers of protection( we think immediately of Mrs Norris and her use of” charms” in Mansfield Park!).In this Surrey household  slippers and shoes were used as a supernatural lightening conductor to ward off evil…

The programme  made a wonderful visit to one of my favourite “museums” (I search in vain for the right word to describe this place..an instalment…an experience?) Denis Severs House in Spitalfields,London.

A filmmaker’s dream,every still looked like a Chardin still life….

Even the dripping  washing hanging in the Hogarthian garret was picturesque….

I shall restrict myself to only to three images…..but the point was made that the hierarchical Georgian society was reflected in these elegant buildings -the most remote and poorest accommodations available to only the poor and to servants….

The trusty iPad was again in use, here showing the degradation of life in garrets,where a whole family would eat, live and sleep all using the same communal “Jordan” or chamber pot. Squalid indeed.

A visit to Erddig House in Wales famous for its benign treatment of servants, was used to demonstrate the differences between servant accommodation and accommodation for their employers.The use of corridors,bells, separate servants wings , innovations of the 18th century, all combined to make servants lives more remote from their masters and increased their employer’s privacy…

(did you spot the spectacular sugar loaf in the kitchen at Erddig?)

Servant’s lives were prescribed not only by the architecture within which they lived, but by the rules imposed by their employers….

The ideal employer respected his servants privacy to certain degrees-they were still expected to obey the rules of the household within their own shared accommodation, but affairs with servants were seen as immoral and disquieting. The story of Benjamin Smith a Lincolnshire lawyer and his affair with his maid was pitiful in every respect.

We were shown a wonderful French secretaire dating from the 1770s which encapsulated the Georgian society of the time:beautiful but hiding its many secrets in hidden drawers- “for dirty diamonds and love letters”- all kept away from the prying eyes of servants ,whose ability to gather knowledge of their employers doings was feared, especially in Crim. Com and Divorce proceedings…shades of Mrs Rushworth senior’s maid,who had exposure in her power…..

The pocket collection of the Victoria and Albert museum was accessed, the theft of a pocket begin analogous to rape ,so intimate was this pice of clothing used to hold a woman’s most necessary and private articles…

The gilt was most definitely  stripped from the gingerbread of Georgian elite women whose privacy was not respected by their husbands, the jealous husband of Ann Dormer of Rousham  in Oxfordshire (famous for its magical landscape gardens designed by William Kent) made her life one of unbearable misery and torture. She was under surveillance every minute of her life…..

…her lack of privacy was a constant mental torment to her, her sad state likened to living under a not-at-all benign dictatorship.

We were taken to Professor Vickery’s home , to see in Virginia Woolf’s words, her ‘room of her own‘ -her study- which she felt was essential for her to complete her work. And she sympathised with women such as Ann Dormer who never attained the peace and contentment their own small private space would have afforded.

The late 17th century concept of the closet, a small personal, private space where ones religious devotions coud be attended to in peace was taken up by the Georgians and expanded…

…into a small room where socializing could take place,where tea, gossip, chocolate and pornography could be dispensed,and where affairs could be conducted.

The hallucinogenic bargello work on the walls of the closet of Chastleton House in Gloucestershire was used to illustrate one of these tiny, intimate spaces ,where privacy could be assured. The point was made that it was usually the male head of a household  who had the prerogative to withdraw from family life, surely resonant of Mr Bennet (and possibly Darcy when Mrs Bennet came to call at Pemberley)

For the poor or for servants, their only privacy was most likely to be found not in a room of their own but  in a lockable wooden box where their precious  effects coud be safe from prying eyes of employer and /or fellow servants  for it was unlikely that many servants had a “room of their own”.

Hogarth’s series of prints,The Harlot’s Progress, a series with which Jane Austen was familiar was used to illustrate how Moll, the fresh-faced girl up from the country with her box, marked with her initials

eventually came to grief after a career as a prostitute, having her box ransacked by her own maid, while she was dying from some sexually transmitted disease. A metaphor for how low she had sunk in life and death.

The concept of owning property was for the Georgians the key to so many things:respectability, the right to vote, to be a magistrate….but for the less well off in that society what happened when your rights of property had gone, and you no longer had the comfort and respect that derived from owning your own front door? If you were lucky you were cared for in a communal charity like the many almshouses that were set up around the country. Below we can see the almshouses that were a charitable institution established by the Ironmonger’s Company, and form what is now the Geffreye Museum.

And while the living was communal with all its attendant rules and regulations, married couples could still exist in their own Gerogian version of a bedsit, living with dignity, despite having no property to call their own.They were the lucky ones.

The destitute had to fall back on very cold charity: parish relief and the workhouse. The workhouse at Southwell in Nottinghamshire which I have always found to be an almost unbearable place of sorrow, was examined.

Here families were brutally separated and forced to live in a communal way,something that Georgian society found so very distasteful.Husbands were permanently separated from wives and children separated from their parents. The school room of the workhouse,below,with its moralising verses to be learnt by rote…

..had frosted glass in the window panes to prevent the children catching an unauthorised glimpse of their parents,should they be fellow inmates.

This would eventually have been the fate awaiting Miss and Mrs Bates in Emma. Mr Knightley was actuely aware that they were doomed to  fall even futher from the genteel life they once knew in the Highbury vicarage, (a life which terminated socially and financially on the death of the Reverend Mr Bates)should their Highbury friends not support them financially.  Just as Jane Austen knew of such desperate tales. Poor Miss Benn who lived in abject poverty in poor, rented accommodation Chawton  was befriended by her during the years she lived in her Chawton home, a cosy, private, comfortable cottage by comparison, in the company of her mother sister and best friend. No wonder she counted herself lucky to live there on her brother Edward’s graceful charity. And no wonder when the threat of losing that home loomed in her final years, the resulting stress was most likely to have contributed to the cause of her untimely death.

But we ended on a high note……from the  unhappy desperate diaries of Gertrude Saville in Episode One,

the unloved unwanted spinster sister living in sufferance in her brother home on his charity…to the end of her tale, when she suddenly and unexpectedly became mistress of all she surveyed and had not only a room but a home of her own…

This episode ,indeed the whole series, explains and amplifies concepts  that were dear to Jane Austen, notably the search for one’s home, a place of one’s own. She saw the lot of women in her era with regard to this very clearly: the powerlessness or not of women in the search for a home of their own is central to many of her stories. For example, Fanny Price’s conflicting emotions between her Portsmouth  her Mansfield homes;  Jane Fairfax’s terror and bravery when faced with surrendering forever her status as a gentlewoman to become a governess, a servant living on sufferance in someone’s home ;and the deserving Miss Taylor who on marriage finally achieved accesss (and a key) to her own front door. Food for thought.

Professor Vickery has been a knowledgeable, amusing, sensitive and delightful companion though this journey into the Long 18th Century, discussing concepts of home,property and taste, all concepts with which we are now familiar but then were distinctly novel for the newly emerging middling classes.

I have throughly enjoyed watching each instalment of this series and am saddened that there were only three. I do hope it becomes available on DVD soon ,and I do hope that you, my readers from outside the UK will get a chance to view it in way or another ,as soon as possible.

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