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Women’s Lives in Georgian England

The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England
Written by Amanda Vickery

What was the life of an eighteenth-century British genteel woman like? This lively book, based on letters, diaries, and account books of over one hundred middle class women, transforms our understanding of the position of women in Georgian England. These women were not confined in their homes but enjoyed expanding horizons and an array of emerging public arenas, the author shows.

Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (winner of the Longman History Today Prize in 1998) is an outstanding study of a crucial period in modern women’s history. Roy Porter described this book as “the most important thing in English feminist history in the last ten years.” While the writing style at times reminds one of a doctoral dissertation, the book does fill a niche often left underresearched. As one reader noted, “I appreciated this book because it broke me of my misconceptions about any kind of “romantic” life of the women of this “almost leisure” class, as another reviewer called it. They were at the mercy of their husbands, their social situation and fate. Very thought provoking for a Jane Austen fan like myself.”

What would the lives of these women- women like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and even Austen, herself, to a lesser extent, have been like? Readers familiar with the feminist analysis of women’s lives in the late 18th to mid-19th century will find some of the commonplaces of that viewpoint called into question. Rife with personal examples, this history brings Georgian society to life through what Vickery identifies as the “terms set out in their own letters by genteel women.” The seven sections of the book are labeled: “Gentility”, “Love and Duty’, “Fortitude and Resignation” (which includes a noteworthy discussion on pregnancy), “Prudent Economy”, “Elegance”, “Civility and Vulgarity”, and “Propriety”. “Our battles were not necessarily theirs,” Vickery reminds us as she draws a fine profile of these women’s lives and their ways of finding meaning and pleasure amid the strictures of Georgian culture.

Yale Univ Press
ISBN: 0300080026;
Published: September 1999
List Price: $19.00 (paperback)

Ladies of the Grand Tour: British Women in Pursuit of Enlightenment and Adventure in Eighteenth-Century Europe
Written by Brian Dolan

Life in the eighteenth century for women was a strange mixture of education, enlightenment and restriction. The fact that some could travel so freely seems an anomaly given their general position in society legally – yet travel many did – and write about – they did too. Dolan has used mostly diaries and letters of female travellers for this large and well-researched book.

There is a lot of material which sheds new light (for me anyway) on the life of women travelling during this time but he tends to use the diaries and letters of those women who are already very well written about simply because there is such a wealth of material about them so Lady Bessborough, Lady Holland, Mary Montagu, Mary Wollstonecraft and Marianna Starke (to name the main ones) dominate the book. Perhaps there just isn’t the same wealth of material about travel undiscovered and so the main writers are returned to. These women have certainly been used to define this age.

The advantage of this book is it really does illustrate (and very well) the life of the traveller, the difficulties and how they travelled etc – without getting caught up in all the other issues that litter their diaries/letters – so you have travel unadulterated. He has also split the book up into nine topical chapters including travel of Education and Improvement, Fashionable Society and Foreign Affairs – and my favourite chapter – Sea Breezes and Sanity.

There are also a number of good illustrations used – although I rather question some of the captions used – For instance using Vermeer’s picture “Woman in Blue” – a picture of a woman reading a letter – to caption it “A woman absorbed in a letter from an absent lover…” seems to be both pushing the pathos and the aesthetic art interpretation a bit far…. couldn’t it just as easily have been a note from the grocer? …or her sister in the next town….or her mother?

Those niggles aside I think this is a great book to add depth to a library of anyone who is interested in this period.

HarperCollins
ISBN: 0060185430
1st edition, November 6, 2001
List Price: $27.00 (hardcover)

Anne Woodley is an Amazon top 500 reviewer as well as the patroness of Janeites, the Internet discussion, as well as mistress of the Regency Ring. Her excellent page, The Regency Collection is a treasure trove of information.

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