Friday, March 25, 2011

Behind Closed Doors - Amanda Vickery

I loved this book. Behind Closed Doors is a fascinating look at Georgian domestic life. As Amanda Vickery writes in the Introduction,

This book takes the experience of interiors as its subject, staking claim to and uncharted space between architectural history, family and gender history and economic history. It brings hazy background to the fore to examine the determining role of house and home in power and emotion, status and choices.

Amanda Vickery has unearthed diaries, account books, wills & letters of the period & has used the research beautifully to look at all aspects of what home meant to the Georgians.  The period covered is the long 18th century, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the end of the 1820s. Some of the most poignant chapters are about the desire for a home. Servants & apprentices who lived with their employers were lucky if they had a locked box to keep their belongings in. If they had a room, they probably share it & they may not even have had that. They may have slept on the shop floor or in the kitchen. For these Georgians, their box is their home, the only private place they have to call their own.

Then, there are the young men living in lodgings. They may pay for their room & board but they often have as little real privacy as a servant. Their landlady may snoop under the guise of changing the sheets or keep the key to their room in her own pocket. For these young men, marriage & a home of their own was something to aspire to. We often think of marriage as the goal of every young lady of the period but these young men desired it too. Living in lodgings meant being dependant on a whole range of suppliers of goods & services. If they were studying or working, they had to present themselves in clean clothes every day & find their own meals. The dream of a home with a loving wife as companion & provider of all domestic comforts was a very common one. Professional men needed a wife to run their household as well. The college or club was only a substitute for all the comforts of home. There was a lot of pressure on men to have a home fir for a wife.

Women also craved their own home. Women who did not marry often lived as dependants in the homes of relatives or in cheap lodgings. Their status, like that of the young bachelors, was much reduced by the lack of a home of their own. Marriage meant becoming the mistress of their own house, managing servants & creating a home for their husband & children. Very few single women could afford their own home. Widows were the only women thought really respectable if they lived alone. Amanda Vickery tells the stories of many women yearning for a home. Gertrude Savile was an especially frustrated spinster, living in her brother’s home, but miserable & discontented. Gertrude’s diary is an outpouring of frustration at the humiliations & privations of life as a dependant. Her physical surroundings may have been quite luxurious but she felt herself to be a prisoner nonetheless, ...the baseness of my dependency upon my Brother: neither father nor husband. Nature makes the dependency upon the one, and choice upon the other, easy... She finds a measure of happiness with her sewing & her cat but no real contentment until a legacy allows her to finally afford a home of her own.

Mary Martin is one of the most likeable & certainly most capable women we meet in the book. She was engaged to her cousin, Isaac Rebow, for years while her aunt, & future mother-in-law, came to terms with the prospect of stepping aside from her role at the head of her son’s household. Mary was a very determined young woman & patiently & persistently made herself indispensable to Isaac. He was in the militia & Mary became his deputy in many respects throughout their engagement. She oversaw the refurbishments to his London house & her letters to him keep him fully informed of all her efforts on his behalf,

Your Room was in a fair way of being finish’d to Night, but fortunately I went up this Morning to see how it look’d & behold they have Painted it Stone Color instead of Dead White, which I think was by no means your intention as it looks so totally different from ye Dining Room & ye Cornish so I posted away to Mr Snow & have frighten’d him out of his Wits for he thinks he has certainly shall be done White tomorrow & shall be finish’d quite tomorrow Night without fail.

The definition of taste that we have today which was a concept that began in the 18th century. The definition of good taste was really created by the Georgians. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is about wallpaper & how the wallpaper you hung in your house reflected on your taste. By the early 18th century wallpaper was taking over from fabric hangings as a wall covering. It was cheaper & could be replaced when it started looking shabby. The letter book of Trollope & Sons, wallpaper retailers, is a wonderful source of information about who was buying wallpaper & what they wanted. The significance of patterns (size & type), colours & price are explored through these letters. In 1799, Dr Ferris wrote to Trollope & Sons,

I saw the other Day at our Friend Mr Pigous some very pretty papers your Man was putting up and Mrs Pigou recommended me to your House. I am in want of a paper for a very small Room which must be paper’s immediately...Pray...send a few of the cheapest patterns proper for Halls, Staircases & Passages for a Parsonage House I care nothing about fashion if they are neat & clean.

Neatness & cleanliness were characteristic of good taste. Small, pretty, delicate patterns were preferred over big, blowsy ones – unless you had large rooms that could take them. Vickery goes on to describe the kinds of wallpaper available, the importance of colour & pattern, all illustrated with quotes from the letters of prospective customers. This is just one example of the fruits of her research. I could go on quoting forever but I can’t resist sharing a couple more examples of the delights of this book. In the chapter on women’s craft, Anna Larpent uses her sewing as a means of avoiding the conversation of boring guests, “Mrs Webb, & Mrs Lake chattered here an hour, ribbands, gauzes, this, that, flip, flap. I worked.”

Retired army officer John Byng’s diaries give his opinion on many aspects of 18th century life,

He admired rural simplicity, venerable old mansions, magnificent cathedrals, the treasures of antiquity, libraries, good inns, family fare, comfortable beds and ‘very large portraits in the true taste of full wigs & naked bosoms.’ He disliked spa towns, scenes of alleged elegance and refinement, Chinese wallpaper, festoon curtains, flesh-coloured stucco, gilding, whimsical carving, modern glazing, ladies’ fancy work and anything French – in most of which he saw the triumph of women and the enfeeblement of men.

Behind Closed Doors is published by Yale University Press & it’s gorgeously produced with lots of plates & illustrations in the text & heavy, creamy paper. A beautiful object worthy of its contents.

I also have the DVD of the TV series Amanda Vickery made based on the book, At Home with the Georgians. I’ve watched the first episode & enjoyed it very much. I loved seeing the people in the book brought to life in their own words & seeing their houses & portraits was fascinating. I was also intrigued to see Amanda Vickery whip out her iPad at every opportunity to show us a print (which she enlarged with a touch to the screen to show details) or a document as well as lots of more traditional documentary scenes of her lovingly unwrapping diaries in various libraries & archives. Seeing poor, frustrated Gertrude Savile’s diaries with their crossings-out & miserable scribble was very poignant. I’ll be watching the other episodes over the weekend.


  1. What an intriguing read that appears to be, thanks for the review Lyn. Enjoy your weekend.

  2. Just the sort of non-fiction writing I can't get enough of! Not dry at all with all sorts of interesting tidbits to keep you turning pages. I bought this book when it first came out and dip in and out when the mood strikes me.

    Thanks, Lyn, for letting me know about the DVD's! It was frustrating to know Amanda has a program through iPlayer but I wasn't able to access it.

  3. Great review! I've happily dipped in and out of this book several times now without having ever settled down to give it the attention it deserves. I never get tired of reading about the Georgians (Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter is absolutely fascinating) and am really looking forward to eventually reading this straight through!

  4. I picked it up one day & just started reading & before I knew it, I'd read 80pp. It's made me want to read more 18th century fiction too. Rose, I hope you can get hold of it if you're interested in the 18th century. Darlene, I'm really glad I bought the DVD of the TV series. I read a few good reviews in history magazines etc but it is excellent & really reinforces all the points AV makes in the book. Claire, I only read GD a couple of years ago but I enjoyed it very much.