Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Eighteenth Century : England

So, having learnt about the exciting background to the Enlightenment and the fomenting of revolution in France, I turned to Behind Closed Doors to learn about life in eighteenth century England.

The tone, as suggested by the title, is quieter and more personal. The eighteenth century was a time when the idea of a polite society began to dominate. Just as in tenth century Japan there were many rules of behaviour, unwritten, but known and obeyed by everyone who wished to fit in and advance up the societal hierarchy.

In some ways it was as though the Enlightenment had not happened. The offence of witchcraft was only abolished in 1736, and superstitious practices continued (e.g. a shoe buried behind the hearth bringing good luck) until 1800.

The first chapter described the general domestic set-up at the beginning of the century. There was little privacy; servants might sleep with children or next to the masters. The landlady kept the keys and was in charge of who went in and out and when. There was a shutting in at a preordained time, and the watch was called at eleven o-clock. Anyone caught out after this was consigned to the watch tower.

The second chapter dealt with the life of single men. Unlike their continental counterparts they seemed uptight about women and sex, regarding passion only as a part of marriage and a means of having children and continuing the line. They dined out at clubs, chop and coffee houses, they carried swords and wore linen shirts, breeches, stockings and waistcoats. They didn't sew unless they were tailors. They danced, played musical instruments and drank tea.

On marriage, the woman generally held sway over the decorating; it was considered bad form for the husband to interfere too much. Decoration usually only occurred on marriage. The housewife then became the manager of the household. The complexities and domestic division of labour in middle-class households was considered in chapters three and four.

In chapter five other living choices were considered as the large house gave way to smaller villa mid-century, and these were decorated with just as much care. Chapter six, my favourite chapter, dealt with the wallpaper and upholstery. An unusual and not very interesting topic you might think, but there turned out to be quite a lot to it. First there was the colour choice; all of these had specific meanings, and as well as being subject to fashion, were regarded as being suited to particular rooms (because of their perceived degree of masculinity or femininity).

Chapter seven dealt with the importance of class and the role of the married and unmarried woman. Following the revolution in 1688, Great Britain had become liberal and more democratic. However this democracy did not extend to the home, or indeed to females. Unmarried women were sometimes expected to take the role of unpaid domestic servant quite cheerfully, while married women sometimes led unhappy lives under a tyrannical husband. But each usually had a sanctuary - either a sitting room or a closet.

One in five women did not marry, and if not taken in by a relative, tended to congregate together in rented accommodation. Some towns and streets were famously dominated by women. They had characteristic furniture and accessories, including the all-important tea-making kit which had recently become popular. On the continent such women would live together in a convent, where they would entertain and be entertained by male visitors according to John Julius Norwich in the History of Venice, but in non-conformist England these institutions were viewed with suspicion.

Another contrast with the continent (or at least France according to the book What Life Was Like During the Age of Reason) was the attitude of society to women and science. In France it was acceptable for a woman to be interested in science ('What? And leave behind my microscope?' exclaims a young woman when her lover suggests an elopement in a French play), whereas in England science was regarded as purely the province of men ('A woman makes a ridiculous figure , poring over globes , or thro' a Telescope...' opined a character in an English play of 1730).

Instead women were expected to indulge in craftwork: embroidery, featherwork and shellwork, even pictures made from dried seaweed. A woman was expected to always have her 'work' alongside her; it was thought to keep ennui at bay, which if left unchecked could result in melancholia and suicide. However, kitchens were also the site of women's expertise, and by the end of the century these were separate places, sometimes they could be considered laboratories of experimentation in themselves.

The evolution of the smaller, more intimate meeting place was a big feature of eighteenth century life - in England as well as on the continent. Salons and dinners were where issues and ideas of the day were discussed, and the seeds of revolutions - both dramatic and more quiet - artfully sewn.

Behind Closed Doors is a useful and interesting accompaniment to the TV series. Thanks to Yale University Press for the review copy. My apologies for taking so long to get round to reading it.


Anonymous marly youmans said...

Clare, my house had concealment shoes in the oldest chimney--there was a man's shoe and a child's shoe in a doctor's bag, along with an 1808 newspaper.

This reminds me of Mr. Bingley in "Pride and Prejudice," exclaiming that all young ladies seemed so accomplished, what with their painting of tea tables and crocheting purses and so on...

Fri Nov 25, 06:07:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

What an exciting find! You must live in a lovely old house, then. The addition of a newspaper turns it into something of a time capsule, really, doesn't it?

And Pride and Prejudice was quoted quite a lot in this book. I'd always thought that Jane Austin was early 19th century judging from the empire line of her dresses, but I see from Wikipedia that she is regarded as an eighteenth century writer. I guess her life straddled the two and she wrote about what had passed. Interesting stuff.

Fri Nov 25, 08:43:00 am  

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