Clean Clothes

Rosalind Mitchison

  • BuyScottish Lifestyle 300 Years Ago by Helen Kelsall and Keith Kelsall
    John Donald, 224 pp, £10.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 85976 167 3
  • Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall
    Hutchinson, 576 pp, £25.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 09 164700 2
  • A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Children over Three Centuries by Linda Pollock
    Fourth Estate, 319 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 947795 25 1

The Kelsalls and Davidoff and Hall are worker pairs who have been looking into the family life of a restricted group over a halfcentury or so, using a wide range of the documentation generated by their subjects. Both groups studied were experiencing insecurity. The Scottish families were of landed class, made insecure by sudden changes in politics and in the control and policy of the Church; the English families a century later were of the emerging middle class, busy creating niches in the professions and in the world of manufacturing business. Both sets were, as things turned out, upwardly mobile, the Scottish family of the Homes of Polwarth ending up as earls of Marchmont, the English families establishing what are now household names of useful products – Reckitt, Ransome, Cadbury, Bird, Courtauld. Success could not be foreseen: the promise was not sure, and false steps were dangerous. The threat of trial and execution for treason, which was an elastic concept in Stuart Scotland, forced the Homes into a period of near-penniless exile: the ladders of upward mobility for the new middle class were associated with many snakes – risks of bankruptcy or of relegation to the ranks of manual labour. Failures had to leave a world with a carefully constructed ethos, and become part of the general mass of non-persons. But political revolution enabled the Homes to become part of a new aristocracy in the opening years of the 18th century, joining others newly ennobled such as the Roseberys and the Stairs. A century later, economic success gave permanence to the families making new household aids.

Both groups lived in a society taking Christianity for granted, using it as social cement and interpreting the Christian message as confirmation of existing inequalities. It was religion that justified the gulf in independence and opportunity between the sexes. Women, whose writings provide much of the material for both studies, were a second class of people. They were expected to have administrative ability and manual skills, to be literate and numerate. The emphasis on numeracy for women in the Scottish upper class is particularly interesting. The account books from which much of the Kelsalls’ work is done are exceptional, for very little of women’s account-keeping survives from elsewhere in Britain at this time. The relatively scatty accounts of the Countess of Polwarth are probably responsible for her daughter’s insistence, reproduced by Linda Pollock in her anthology of comments on family life, on a daily dose of arithmetic for her nine-year-old daughter. Women, even of the upper class, and even though aided by servants, were expected to carry out a wide range of manual domestic tasks. From other Scottish sources we have descriptions of them supervising the production of cloth and candles as well as food. The middle-class woman of the late 18th century had much of her time taken up in the physical care of young children and of sickness. Davidoff and Hall show how in the early days of class development the wives helped in shops, trained apprentices, and often kept the accounts. Male manual skills for the upper class seem to have been kept for sport or warfare. The Kelsalls point out from the diary of a lesser laird, George Home of Kimmerghame, that the enthusiasm for gardening and for household tasks meant organising other people to do things: planting, pruning and protecting plants were all things for which orders were given. We are a long way before the ingrained dirty nails of some late 19th-century titled ladies showed that they really worked their own gardens.

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[*] A biography of Margaret Cavendish by Kathleen Jones was published by Bloomsbury on 3 March (A Glorious Fame, 192 pp., £15.95, 0 7475 007 1). This supplies many lively details about ‘Mad Madge’, among them, her account of the charm of French patches: ‘judiciously applied’ to the face, a patch was like ‘the punctuation in a sentence’.