Tuesday, May 4, 2010

NHG Library: Behind Closed Doors

Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Loretta reports:

I’ve been dying to talk about Behind Closed Doors because it’s a perfect Nerdy History Girl book, loaded with all kinds of fascinating details about life in bygone days.  In this case, the days belong to what author Amanda Vickery calls “The Long Eighteenth Century”— from about 1688-1832 (the Glorious Revolution to the Great Reform Act).  While this includes early to mid-nineteenth century, an era I’m more familiar with, she’s surprised me again and again, and offered the kinds of historical tidbits (aka fresh history gossip) Susan and I delight in.

One shocker was the attitude toward marriage.  We Regency writers learned early to refer to marriage as “parson’s mousetrap,” and to assume that a man happily sowed his wild oats until a clever girl came along and stole his heart.
But here’s what Vickery has to say:  “the intensity of men’s longing for marriage and domesticity is the overriding impression their diaries convey, a desire not just for sex and services, but also for a continuing of female companionship and a centred domestic life.  Domesticity for bachelors was fragmented and effortful, while their manhood remained in suspense…A common male fantasy was a home with a woman in it, generating interior warmth and sociability, the cradle of personal happiness and a platform for social success.  Far removed from twenty-first-century fears that settling down extinguishes virility, establishing a household was believed to give it full reign.  In marital domesticity, bachelors expected to puff out their chests, lift up their heads and hit their stride.”

Still, for every picture of domestic harmony (and she offers many examples) we can find the opposite, as Gillray famously illustrated.  In Jane Collier’s 1753 satire, The Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, she “advised husbands bent on torturing ‘a very careful prudent wife…who by her good economy confines all the expenses under her inspection fairly within her appointment’ to stint her funds: ‘part with your money to her, like so many drops of your blood’, lecturing her ‘on extravagance for every necessary that is bought into the house’, meanwhile ‘sparing no expense for your own hounds, horses or claret.’”

These are only two tidbits.  Susan and I will have more to say about this delicious book in weeks to come.  Meanwhile, here’s a proper review.

And here, in accord with some FTC rule or other (which probably doesn’t apply to us, since we're not reviewers, but never mind), you need to know that, unlike the majority of books referred to in this blog, which Susan and I buy with our own hard-earned cash, this one came gratis.

Caricatures:  Harmony Before Matrimony  and Matrimonial Harmonics, by Gillray, 1805.  Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA


P. M. Doolan said...

I have been meaning to read this book. Now I am determined to.

Heather Carroll said...

Love love love this book! It was a great read.

Lady Burgley said...

Most social histories such as this focus entirely on the upper classes, and their dynastic arranged marriages. Ordinary people who fall in love and marry are seldom covered. Thank you for finding and recommending this book; I will definitely be looking for it.

Margaret Porter said...

This is a really enjoyable and informative book and a great favourite of mine. Very well done. I, too, wholeheartedly recommend it.

baroness said...

This is on my list. The NY Times Book Review headlined their review "Bed, Bath and Beyond." Clever. I keep hoping my local library will acquire it. Thanks for your info!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks once again for a great book recommendation. I hadn't heard of this one, but I'm so pleased to learn of it!

LorettaChase said...

"Most social histories such as this focus entirely on the upper classes, and their dynastic arranged marriages. Ordinary people who fall in love and marry are seldom covered." Absolutely right, Lady Burgley. The grand families left extensive records for posterity. It's much harder to find information about the less glamorous gentry and middling folks, but Ms. Vickery has dug into letters, ledgers, diaries and even wallpaper suppliers' records. I became an admirer of Ms. Vickery when I discovered "The Gentleman's Daughter." Her books are always eye-openers.

Amanda said...

Having listened to Vickery's radio series The History of Private Life, and being fascinated with all the inticate details of life, this book is going to be on my wishlist for certain!

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