The Gentleman’s Daughter – 50 Years in 50 Books

Winner of the 1999 Wolfson History Prize, The Gentleman’s Daughter invokes women’s own accounts of their intimate and public lives to reveal what the life of an eighteenth-century British genteel woman was like. Drawing on these accounts, Amanda Vickery argues that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the scope of female experience did not diminish—in fact, quite the reverse.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Amanda Vickery reflects on the research that led to the writing of The Gentleman’s Daughter.

At London University, I was trained as a social and economic historian, revering those like EP Thompson and Olwen Hufton who rescued the humble and forgotten from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ and whose work was markedly humane. Thompson’s ‘Moral Economy of the English Crowd’, Past and Present (1971) still prevails as the perfect analysis of the logic of the riot, and rarely fails to persuade undergraduates. Like many of my generation, I was thrilled by the work of historians like Natalie Zemon Davis and Martine Segalan who drew so fruitfully upon the insights of anthropology to overturn established and often patronizing stories to capture an unexpected way of seeing.   

As I began my research in local record offices in the north of England (seemingly bereft of other graduate students), I was sustained by the example of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Mary Beth Norton, who combined imaginative archival scholarship on fragments with lucid synthesis of wide reach.  It was American research on material culture which raised the possibility that objects, the built environment, spaces and places might pose new questions, and conjure a life lived beyond texts.  As a graduate student I would have said I was interested in mental and material worlds.  I think my own graduate students still are, though they are more likely to talk about ‘embodiment’ and ‘hapticity’ in reaching for some solid trace of how past lives were lived.  None of which is to imply that words do not have titanic power to frame and perhaps create emotion and physical experience, or that fictions are not important to me. If one book inspired my effort to re-imagine a complex, provincial world it was George Eliot’s peerless Middlemarch (1871-2). 

When I embarked on my PhD on ‘Women in Eighteenth-Century England’ in the late 1980s, there were no available models to emulate. The categories I used to organize the messy wealth of manuscripts I encountered in northern record offices – courtship and marriage, motherhood, housekeeping, consumerism, sociability and public roles – seem so obvious in retrospect.  Indeed, I have seen them reproduced since in the chapter structure of a host of subsequent published case studies.  At the time, however, research on the eighteenth century was sparse, though there were large claims emanating from scholarship on the seventeenth century on the one hand and the Victorian period on the other.  The eighteenth century seemed a dull, liminal century, wedged between the excitements of Civil War and Industrial Triumph.  

To frame my research, I tried to take account of two contradictory stories that structured the history of the changing roles of English women. The tale of the nineteenth-century separation of the spheres of public power and private domesticity related principally to the experience of middle-class women. The other story, emerging from early modern scholarship, recounted the social and economic marginalization of propertied women and the degradation of working women as a consequence of capitalism. Both narratives echoed each other in important ways, although strangely the capacity of women’s history to repeat itself was rarely openly discussed.  The difficulties I had reconciling the dominant interpretations of gender led me to write ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres: A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’, Historical Journal, 36, 2 (1993), pp. 383-414.  

I published the book of my thesis as The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England. Most gratifying for me was the reviewers’ appreciation of the subtleties of the categories over which I had struggled, and the recognition of the effort of recreation from the archival medley.

Examples of those reviews: ‘From such fragments, carefully tabulated, meticulously documented and shrewdly read, always with an eye to the conventions of the day, Amanda Vickery has recreated a whole world’ commented Jenny Uglow, on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Book of the Month’. Throughout Amanda Vickery uses the women’s own categories not ours to describe their lives, employing abstract terms that paint an evocative background like faded wallpaper or threadbare chintz:  gentility, fortitude and resignation, prudent economy, elegance, civility and vulgarity, public propriety’.  

Judges of the Whitfield Prize: ‘In The Gentleman’s Daughter, Amanda Vickery unfolds with grace and sympathy the lives of a network of gentlewomen, across the length of the eighteenth century. Drawing on amazingly rich collections of diaries and letters, she probes deeply into the intimate detail of these women’s daily lives — in bed and boudoir, in the home and on the estate, in the shops, assembly rooms and pleasure gardens — and reconstructs not only a way of life, but a whole structure of feeling. The result is a vivid picture of one stratum of eighteenth-century society; but it is also an historical argument about the permeable boundaries between the public and the private, about the roles and sensibilities that men and women shared, and about the roles and sensibilities that kept them apart.’  

About the Author:

Amanda Vickery is lecturer in modern British women’s history at Royal Holloway College, University of London.

About the book:

The Gentleman’s Daughter
Women’s Lives in Georgian England

Amanda Vickery

Based on the letters, diaries, and account books of over one hundred women from commercial, professional, and gentry families, this book transforms our understanding of the position of women in Georgian England.

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Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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