Last night the first of the three episodes of Amanda Vickery’s new BBC TV series, At Home with the Georgians was aired on BBC 2. I will admit that I approached it with some trepidation. I loved her book, Behind Closed Doors, upon which the series is based, and admire Professor Vickery tremendously, clearly therefore, I didn’t want it to fail. So… was I disappointed? I am glad to say, not for one moment.
Professor Vickery took us on an engaging and thought-provoking journey around Georgian England, visiting houses grand and small to discover what it meant for a Georgian man or woman to set up a home. The answer? The goal of a establishing a home meant everything to them.
We were shown archive stacks, diaries, lodgings in the Middle Temple (below), remote Westmoreland farmhouses and grand houses in Essex and Staffordshire and one in Nottinghamshire that became a prison for that unlucky person who was not to be the mistress of all she surveyed. Professor Vickery argues that the evidence to be found in the outpourings of 18th century diaries confirms that what an 18th century man wanted above all was a home and a capable wife. He certainly did not want a silly, pretty empty-headed porcelain doll sitting quietly on an elegant sofa a la Lady Bertram, despite the teachings of the conduct books aimed at females. He needed a capable, active intelligent woman who could act as his deputy in his absence and bring all her talents to the fore, running a tasteful comfortable home, ready to take every advantage of the new consumerism. No wonder Darcy showed no interest in the sickly Anne de Bourgh, whatever his aunt might have wished. The lively and intelligent Elizabeth Bennet was truly the one for him. The 18th century middling sort of man also did not really want a carousing, dissolute way of life, for only with respectability came a place in society and a chance to establish a home and attract a wife.
Charlotte Lucas’ dilemma is set out before us in a very, very clear and unvarnished manner. As an unwanted poor, spinster living on the charity of her not charitably minded-brothers she would have necessarily been unwanted and eventually unloved. The mentally tormented Gertrude Saville of Rufford Hall in Nottinghamshire, whose unhappiness clearly manifested itself not only in the words but in the crossings out of her tortured diary, was a spinster in her brother’s home, without dowry and any prospects of one day finding a home of her own. Her diaries (one page is shown below) clearly reveal her to be a poor ,downtrodden, depressed and oppressed being, seeking comfort in her needlework and her cat, and being at the mercy of her brother’s good graces and the servants spite.*shudder*
Men like George Gibbs of Exeter and Dudley Ryder, a law student of the Middle Temple in London, knew that marriage was the step necessary to provide a home and any prospect of long-lasting happiness. Poor John Courtney of Beverley in Yorkshire who tried to woo ladies ,indeed any number of ladies, in the Assembly Rooms in York, shown below, felt a complete failure when he failed to attract a wife despite having a fine home and income to call his home. No Life, Without Wife, indeed.
We dipped our toes into the consumerism of the 18th century-Professor Vickery managed to visit the Lawrence of Crewkherne’s auction of Georgian gadgets-below is a tongue scraper(YEACH)in the sale- after first reading about it here…
Jane Austen was referenced copiously within this first episode,as she is in Professor Vickery’s book. As a faithful chronicler of what 18th century people desired above all she was lauded. What they wanted was not necessarily a dashing, romantic life, with heart stoppingly beautiful heroes and heroines finding each other after dramatic( or melodramatic) trials and tribulations, but something quieter, more satisfying; their shared home. Home could be the grand palace, as in Pemberley ,but was more likely to be that which was more attainable ; happiness and contentment could be more readily found in the more in humble surroundings of the personages as at Delaford or Thornton Lacey, Fullerton or, yes, even at Hunsford. Home as the reward of virtue was what Georgian men and women really wanted.
Professor Vickery’s glee at being in certain locations was obvious. Here at the Rectory at Teigh, which was the setting of Hunsford Parsonage in the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, she did what many of us have wished to so……posing in front of a certain closet….inspecting the shelves…..
Shelves in the Closet? Happy Thought Indeed
At one point when visiting Chawton Cottage Professor Vickery gave Jane Austen’s writing-table a hug. Austen was, of course, an example of a spinster who had a rich, productive, creative existence once her brother Edward stepped up to the plate and offered her Cassandra and Mrs Austen( not forgetting Martha Lloyd) a permanent home in Chawton from 1809 onwards. I can’t help but think it was a virtual hug to the ghost of Jane Austen herself. Who would, l think have, enjoyed this hour in Professor Vickery’s genial, fun but thought-provoking company.
My dear 17 year-old daughter who, inexplicably, does not have the History Appreciation Gene in her DNA, sat with me last night as a penance,bless her, but was converted and enjoyed every second, squealing with delight at spotting Charlotte Lucas’s closets, and making intelligent comments on the fates of the dissolute George Hilton , and the sadly not -at-all handsome George Gibbs.
This was not a was not a trumpeting, loud programme about great battles in history : it was a quiet, fun but serious and intelligent look at some of the most fundamental questions that bothered the Georgians and still haunt us today: will I eventually find a home and someone to love, with whom I can share it? It was in one world, marvellous. And I can’t wait till next week’s episode. I did smile at little at the product placement- the use of an IPad in many scenes. But having had one for some months now I admit is IS a very useful tool when examining painting and engravings in detail and this is how Professor Vickery used it on this programme ( Publishers of art books take note: publishing e-editions on IBooks is the way to go! )
The series is available to watch again-sadly only for those of us in the UK, I think,- on series link,which means there are 20 more days in which it enjoy this first episode. Go here to see it.