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A cracking read
on 19 January 2018
Review by Sid Astbury,
In the cellar of our three-story boarding house reposed some of the treasures of our childhood: a top hat and, in a fluted silver case the size of a matchbox, some gold sovereigns and half sovereigns. Beside them on the shelf, made safe against the flooding the cellar sometimes endured, were bundled letters, yellowed postcards and a set of silver teaspoons nestled in bright blue satin.
I don’t know when it was, but the pristine teaspoons left their scruffy enclosure to journey upstairs to the kitchen, settling democratically among the less-storied, stainless steel cutlery in the drawer beside the sink. The emptied box, with its filigree brass catch, for a while my sister re-purposed as a makeshift pencil case, its satin and cardboard rudely torn out.
Amanda Vickery’s Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England fuels memories like these of what historians call material culture and we think of as the bits and bobs, the furnishings and utensils, the rooms and aspects, that at once litter and adorn our lives. To a practised eye like Vickery’s, discrete personal heritage becomes a peephole into a common past.
Her focus in this book is domestic accommodation in the “long eighteenth century” from around 1688 to around 1832. The manuscripts she draws on, from 60 different archives, not so much plump out the book but form its core. The scribblings of a cavalcade of characters – among them a drunkard squire, a forlorn widow, a less-than-gay bachelor, a spinster whose needlework and cat seem her only solace against life’s iniquities – give breath to this expertly guided tour of Georgian interiors and the lifestyles they bespeak.
It’s a cracking read. Vickery is a writer that could quicken the proverbial telephone book with her peerless prose. Here is a taster: “Hemmed in by wainscot, femininity is left to bloom in that archetypally female space the dressing room. The brave prettiness of the room is touching but pitiful, pathetic in itself, but also dismal in what it represented for domestic life. To Lady Partlington the oppression of the wainscot implied the oppression of the wife, suggesting the marriage was as gothic as the fittings were antique. Taken as a whole, the marriage like the house looked soul-destroying.”
But back to those treasured teaspoons – does their provenance reach to when my grandmother was in service in Caithness, Scotland? Or keepsakes, perhaps, that my grandfather inducted into the marital home in Ayrshire? It is unlikely (unless they were stolen) that they once resided in the Horwich, Lancashire, hovel my dad was brought up in. He was one of nine children and once told me there weren’t clogs enough for them all to play out at the same time. Certainly, there wasn’t money for frippery like silver teaspoons – even the very small ones that found their way into that Morecambe cellar and which sadly are now lost to posterity.
Vickery tells us that on its arrival in 1660 as the lubricant to convivial visits to the houses of friends and neighbours and to the residences of targeted social conquests “tea was the catalyst of a momentous reconfiguration of domestic space.” The cup that cheers but not inebriates, as the Victorians would come to call it, “gave focus to an encounter, stimulated the traffic and became synonymous with it.”
Tea it was that inducted the parlour (later, the front room) into that part of the property given over to entertaining, to the quest for status through show of wealth. This was not dropping by for a cuppa in the kitchen; it was often a formal invitation to take part in a veritable tea ceremony. The parlour was a function room and had to be reserved and fitted out accordingly.
Vickery’s scholarship punctures the abiding myth that Georgian men were lured into marriage by wily women. True, there were gold-diggers aplenty – how else were young women denied proper education, career prospects and inheritances supposed to get on? But men are shown to be complicit. They were keen for the ease, security and prestige that marriage brought. They were in the domesticity market as enthusiastically as women were.
Bachelors, we learn, not only were looked down on but looked down on themselves. Dudley Ryder, a relatively well-off lawyer who “regarded women with a churning mixture of fascination, disapproval, desire and alarm,” and who would rise to be a judge despite his dreadful diffidence, bemoaned being a singleton. “I cannot but be uneasy to think that my life shall terminate with myself,” he wrote in his diary.
But back again to those teaspoons. They came out in our house in the 1950s when Mrs Ferrand, an old maid, came calling. Mrs Ferrand? Yes, despite never having been married she was credited with that appellation because, we now realise, to have drawn attention to her spinsterhood would have been deemed offensive and cruel.
And here is the rub: in the early years of our present queen, as in Georgian times, being left on the shelf was contemptible. “The spinster and the wife were divided by a chasm of status,” Vickery tells us.
Most of her life Gertrude Saville, sister to a baronet, was ground down by the servitude her status as a single woman forced upon her. Needlework, and her cat, helped preserve her sanity. “Besides I know not what I did to keep me from Madness,” she wrote.
Perhaps because she was the daughter of a grocer, Elizabeth Forth was meticulous in her domestic bookkeeping. She counted her amber beads left to her by her grandmother, noting they were 35 in number. She itemized her cups and teacups, but was less zealous in counting out her cutlery. We don’t know, but likely she had silver teaspoons that she treasured and which were passed on to her children, Frederick and Caroline.
As Vickery’s equally meticulous scholarship tells us “Georgian objects haunted the nineteenth century home. A dead woman’s teaspoons carried her memory into the next century.”
Certainly, I like to think so. I see them now, daintily tucked up in blue velvet, emissaries from a time made manifest in Behind Closed Doors.