The 18th century was a time when even the most urgent business could seem to take forever. In 1747 the trustees of Frederick Mullins's marriage settlement dawdled and delayed in coming to negotiations, leaving him fuming that they were "not so eager for a f-k as I am". Even so, his courtship was over in a trice compared with that of Robert Parker of Alkincoats Hall in Lancashire. Eighty-one tormented letters and seven long years separate his first respectful intimacies from the final enjoyment of his prize. "For God sake, Parky, write & Comfort my spirits", he wrote in the midst of it, trying to arrange a secret midnight tryst, but foiled by uncertainty as to which was Parky's chamber. Hugh Kelly warned, in 1767, that no period was "more dangerous" to an eligible woman than that "between her acknowledgement of a passion for a man, and the day set apart for her nuptials". Elizabeth Parker's family regarded him as a somewhat dingy prospect and manufactured umpteen problems. But at last, as her blossom started to fade, and he remained steadfast, they relented. It was, she said, a case of "ambition surmounting difficulties".
Amanda Vickery's book, The Gentleman's Daughter, likes to address such issues in order to map out in detail the lives of upper-class provincial women in the 18th century. With detailed chapters on "Gentility", "Love and duty" and "Elegance", she seeks to replace the conventional notion that the lives of merchant's daughters, solicitors' wives and gentlemen's sisters were a polite comedy of visiting, tea-drinking, crochet and cards, superimposed on a basic plot of child-bearing. By extensively analysing the letters of a small group of women, primarily in Yorkshire and Lancashire, she renders visible something that has only existed as an afterthought to the history of the time, namely the lives of the women. Her conclusions - that these women were "seemly" and "conventional", are less surprising than might seem to be the case; but its virtue lies in the fact that it is based on fact. Poets of the period may like to beguile us with Belinda's piteous lament for "Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!" and novelists may choose to scandalise us with Miss Howe's "little reptile word OBEY". But Vickery eschews such literary models and analyses only the letters that the women sent and received. Prov-incial ladies of the period were more limited, perhaps, but certainly more down-to-earth. 'We do not waste even a cabbage stalk," Mrs Bishop boasted in 1810. This is a book which puts together false hair ("if it was cut off t'woud Serve instead of a Wool-Pack in the House of Peers"), cabbage stalks and mahogany furnishings to give some substance to that provincial notion. As one lady notes "To be mistress of oneself was paramount".
The lives of a small number of families provide Vickery with her raw material. Elizabeth Parker did marry Robert Parker at least, but he died early, at the age of 38, leaving her with three sons under five. Thereafter she spent an agreeable seven years of widowhood before giving way to a lamentable whim called John Shackleton. He was a handsome wool merchant of just 21, she was a mature 38. Family and friends were horrified, but she took no heed. The match took place in a whirl at Gretna Green. Alas, the idyll did not last and the marriage proved disastrous. Shackleton was a drinker and he took to boozing in the kitchen with the servants, while upstairs she consoled herself with her diary: "Mr S: so corss, so rude, so inhumanly ill natured as wo'd amaze, swore most horribly indeed at me." It went on like this for 16 years, with Shackleton's anger frequently expressing itself in outbursts with his fists, a horse-whip, or worse: "he ****s in bed with drinking so continualy."
By contrast, Elizabeth's cousin Bessy who had, according to her husband, a big bottom, terrible handwriting and a distaste for bathing, lived a life of serene satisfaction. She had not married till almost 40 and her husband, the bachelor Ramsden, was ten years older than her. For them marriage was a great performance and they played it for all it was worth. She referred to him as "lord and master", and he responded in kind, calling her "saucy Hussy" and "Baggage". He was careful though to see to it that this Baggage's stipulations were sacrosanct: "I dare not complain," he breathed.
Bessy Ramsden had four children and happily breast-fed them all, but motherhood was a lottery, as Vickery's findings show. The "average" mother in this period bore six or seven live children. Thus Eliza Whitaker was in ecstasy at the birth of a daughter. But the daughter sickened and died, leaving the mother miserable: "How little we know whether the attainment of our wishes will bring us happiness."
Anne Gossip's labour, in 1739, of 49 and half hours, seems heroic in itself, but it was for a dead baby, who had to be torn apart within her uterus and drawn out in pieces. The description, by her devoted spouse, is stoical in the extreme. Servants were another problem, forever taking liberties, being insubordinate and having to be sacked. Between 1660 and 1669 Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys engaged at least 38 servants and Vickery's research reveals that they were not particularly choosy. "Nobody left as a woman servant in this house," lamented Elizabeth Shackleton in 1780. "God help me, what will become of me."
The final chapter, "Propriety", extends this minute analysis into the reaches of fashionable society. Vickery surveys various instances of female behaviour at Vauxhall and Ranelagh, at theatres, pleasure gardens and trials as well as such examples of feminine emancipation as books, cards and enlightened tourism. Yet this chapter is rather too hurried and for once we feel the strain of seeking to link a whole century of female development into just a few pages. There are few inspirational hits, like her noting the prodigious size of Englishwomen's feet, (foreigners put it down to a lamentable taste for hiking). But too much is attempted in too little space to be of great value.
The more valuable parts of this extremely scholarly book (there are 100 pages of footnotes and appendices) are those in which Vickery has taken the time to establish in great detail the simple facts of the genteel Englishwoman's life in the 18th century. Here are the Ramsdens in the 1760s: "On my left hand sits Madam darning stockings, on my right is our heir apparent reading the News; Betsy is making a Cap for her Doll, Tom and Dick are playing at Marbles on the carpet. To say more of Ourselves will be needless." As Richard Steele wrote in 1710, "To manage well a great Family... is as worthy an Instance of Capacity, as to execute a great Employment...".
David Nokes is professor of English literature, King's College, London.
The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England
Author - Amanda Vickery
ISBN - 0 300 07531 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 436