Joanna Martin is already author of two books, Fox Talbot and Glamorgan and A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen. She is also an extremely talented professional genealogist. In her latest book she applies the scrutinising eye of a true professional to an interrelated group of families, focussing on the lives and loves of their female members.
Women have been neglected by history for centuries. The last decades have seen a massive refocusing of interest, thanks not least to the rise of women in the previously male-dominated world of publishing. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published in 2004, made headlines, correctly, for including many biographies of women in its previously very masculine halls of fame. Throughout history, it was women who looked after households, from cottages to stately homes, including the Wessex mansions, Redlynch; Melbury; Bowood and Lacock, that feature prominently in this book, and in its beautiful illustrations.
It was women who brought up children; hired and fired servants; nursed the sick and dispensed charity. As Joanna emphasises too, it was they who wrote voluminous letters concerned to no small degree with family affairs. But these writings also ranged over the vastly more intellectual areas, including the latest books; gardening techniques; remedies and political gossip, all traditionally supposed to be the realm of men.
Where archives of such records survive, historians and genealogists alike can have a fieldday. So it is here with the records of the great Whig dynasty of Fox Strangways. Under the shadow of the Earls of Ilchester, a host of women lived their lives and left wonderful records for posterity.
The interconnected families Joanna studies are famous for its men, including Charles James Fox the radical politician and William Henry Fox Talbot the pioneer of photography. But if ever the phrase `behind every great man there's a great women' were proved true, it is here. And who better to study a group of interconnected families, and understand and explain how they intermarried and what significance their alliances had on themselves and the world about them, than an experienced genealogist?
Ultimately this book goes way beyond the `narrow' boundaries of the families on which it focuses and tells us all a great deal of relevant information about the social history of the Georgian period. There's a great deal here worth reading simply for its interest and amusement. Joanna is wonderful in her treatment of diseases and cures in her subjects' writings. Did you know that, in the 18th and early 19th century, `delicate' children were deliberately infected with measles to toughen them up? One of the Talbot boys, Kit, survived this extraordinary practise, though he later wrote that the after-effects of measles `nearly carried me off'. Amusing too is Thomas Talbot's reaction to a home-remedy of burnt cork mixed with quince marmalade for diarrhoea. It worked at first, apparently, but then the complaint returned with a vengeance. `I don't mean to try any more experiments', he commented ruefully, `unless absolutely needful'.
If your ancestors were not themselves great Georgian hostesses, they probably worked for them or were married to their tenants - or suffered from their remedies. There's lots here for everyone.