Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Technically, the Georgian era begins in 1714 with the accession of George I and ends with the death of George IV in 1830, but the author prefers to focus on what is sometimes called the “long 18th century,” from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament took over the reins of government, to the Reform Act of 1837. This is a culturally distinctive period, also called the “century of taste,” when classicism was dominant and society was determinedly polite.

There are a number of good books on English domesticity in the 19th century, but they tend to fasten on the gender limitations of what later was called Victorianism. Vickery, on the other hand, examines the home life of the previous several generations in terms of the world of men and the world of women, and how they overlapped under the same roof. Also, unlike many academic treatises, in which the author concentrates on abstract dissections of source material based on predetermined theories, Vickery delves into a wide variety of sources in the construction of extended anecdotal examples and case studies. The result is a narrative that reads like a story and is never, ever dull or boring. But it should also be noted that most of the surviving records deal with prosperous merchants, the gentry, and upwards. This is not a study of the nation’s poor, or even of its shopkeepers.

Prefatorily, the author notes that in English law as well as in cultural tradition, the home was a microcosm of the state, a man’s “castle.” And, unlike on most of the Continent, independent control of a house was the ambition of every adult. Extended families might share a residence in France or Italy without a qualm, but in Britain, a man was expected to go out on his own and establish his own household. Until he did so, he wasn’t really an adult. (This is the social model the U.S. generally adopted, naturally.)

Vickery follows a topical plan, with separate chapters devoted to the bachelor lifestyle (almost invariably as short as an unmarried gentleman could manage, since having a wife also was a mark of adulthood and success), setting up the household after marriage (a shared endeavor even at this period, to a perhaps surprising extent), the division of domestic life into “his” and “hers” (with an interesting analysis of surviving household account books, which give a truer picture of family dynamics than cultural tradition), architecture and the actual building of a house (usually a multi-generational undertaking), interior decoration (rather too much discussion of styles in wallpaper for my taste, but this is apparently a particular interest of the author), the lives and trials of dependents in the patriarchal family (wives, children, and less-well-off members of the extended family, as well as apprentices and servants), the culturally restricted existence of spinsters and widows, even when they have money and social status (the former were regarded as failures and the latter, often, as objects of pity and charity, even when it wasn’t needed), women as craftsmen and entrepreneurs (creating something for the home was an expected “accomplishment” but doing it for sale was usually another matter, except in the lower economic classes, where it might be a necessity), and taste and aesthetics in the home’s furnishings and accoutrements (sometimes a struggle between masculine things and surroundings and feminine).

All in all, this is both an entertaining and an instructive volume on what could easily have been a dry subject. Moreover, the author is an expert in this period, and so there is also a thorough academic structure beneath it all which will lead the student to a good deal of additional reading.

Published in: on 11 February 2014 at 8:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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