Sexual Whiggery

Blair Worden

  • The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in 17th-Century England by Antonia Fraser
    Weidenfeld, 544 pp, £12.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 297 78381 5
  • Family Life in the 17th Century: The Verneys of Claydon House by Miriam Slater
    Routledge, 209 pp, £10.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9477 9

The history of women has become a lucrative subject. No historical topic offers a better hope of publishers’ contracts, or even, in the United States at least, of academic appointments. Yet if the market is wide, the pitfalls are deep. Some of them have been created by the very forces which have made women’s history fashionable. Just when other forms of Whig history have become discredited, sexual Whiggism has become almost compulsory. Women’s history easily becomes sectarian history: an enterprise in which the past is studied with the purpose less of enlarging present horizons than of fortifying present prejudices.

Certainly there are historians of women who have resisted that temptation and who have brought distinction to their subject, although more of them are at work in Continental than in English archives. But even the best women’s history confronts grave problems of evidence, at least in a century like the 17th, which both these books address, and which regarded sexual matters – like so many aspects of private life and feeling which our intrusive age longs to recover from the past – as too intimate or too trivial or too complicated a subject for written commentary. The evidence we do have is much more revealing about society’s top women than about its bottom women; and the varieties of social opportunity and experience in the Stuart age indicate the difficulties posed by Antonia Fraser’s subtitle, ‘Woman’s Lot in 17th-Century England’. A better choice might have been ‘Meetings with Remarkable Women’, for her book has little place for the ordinary or for the silent. In some ways, it is true, 17th-century women did have a common lot. Whatever their class, they were held to be inferior to men, intellectually, morally and spiritually. Institutions and the law, as we would say, discriminated against them. Yet in society they shared little beyond their formal disadvantages. Historical inquiry which treats people as members of a class – a class, moreover, which constitutes a rather sizable proportion of the population – does not always make them more interesting.

We need a more elastic and less anachronistic vocabulary. We talk of ‘attitudes to women’ – and invite the phrase to cover not only abstract statements about female characteristics but the full range of unfathomable personal feeling. The ‘attitudes’ we identify prove often to belong to a broader mental context from which they cannot be separated without distortion. Thus Fraser says that the 17th century had ‘a distinct feeling of guilt’ about ‘romantic love’. Women and men alike ‘shuddered away from the concept of love’; ‘ever with love came guilt.’ But her examples are of people feeling guilty not about loving each other but about disobeying their fathers, to whose acknowledged authority over female and male alike there were few bounds. Fraser’s evidence cannot tell us anything about attitudes to affection until we have established what it tells us about attitudes to patriarchalism. There is a confusion, too, in Fraser’s identification of ‘love’ with ‘romantic love’ (compounded when she muddles ‘romantic love’ with the cult of ‘platonic love’). What the 17th century ‘shuddered away from’ was not love, on which it set a high value, but the human inclination to mistake emotional intensity for depth. Fraser’s examples are helpful only when we set them in the context of the period’s mistrust of ‘the passions’, of which sexual passion was only one.

How do we give a history to sexuality, a subject which in our own lives is so continuously capable of confounding our reasoned certainties? Where self-knowledge is inevitably precarious, historical knowledge is unlikely to be secure. To learn about the formal status of past women is not necessarily to learn much about the operation or the balance of past sexual power. A major surprise of Fraser’s book is her decision to draw so little on the imaginative literature of the time. Simple and obvious questions ask themselves. Why is there so large a gap between the depressed condition of women apparently prescribed by sermons and by social commentaries and the authority which women exert in Shakespearean or Restoration comedy? And why, if romantic love was so alien a sentiment, was there so large and avid a readership for romantic fiction? Literature is not life: it may draw on the unfulfilled wishes of life, but unless its social and emotional premises can be recognised from life, it will be unintelligible.

Even if we dismiss imaginative literature, there remains the evidence of diaries. There, as Keith Wrightson has observed in an excellent discussion of the family in his English Society 1580-1680, we can find enough surviving accounts of marital companionship and conflict and shared decision-making to make us wonder whether public theory can have borne much relation to private fact. It is hard to see how the generalisations now sometimes advanced about the emotional limitations of 17th-century people could be made by any historian acquainted with the period’s manifold expressions of the pain of enforced marital separation and of the grief of marital bereavement. Whatever the mistakes of Fraser’s book, that scowling error is not among them.

In any case, for every orthodoxy there is a heresy. Fraser recites the unkindnesses of that dashing and unscrupulous womaniser of the late 17th-century Court, Henry Sidney. But neither she nor any of our sexual Whigs mentions Henry’s brother, the political Whig Algernon Sidney, whose essay ‘Of Love’ has been in print for more than two centuries. There Algernon berates ‘great pretenders to wisdom’, who think of women as

only light creatures, fit to satisfy the senses, maintain our species, and quench our natural desires... How great an ignorance is this!... It is true, that women have not those helps from study and education as men have, but in the natural powers of the mind they are no ways inferior. They exempt themselves from the trouble of those knotty sciences that tend nothing to the framing of the understanding; and, instead of this, they have a pleasantness of wit in conversation very much beyond men, and a well-composedness of judgment... and unto whatsoever they apply themselves, either learning, business, domestic or public government, show themselves, at least, equal to our sex... Let not any man, then, through a fond and impudent presumption of his own merit, despise that sex.

Algernon, it is fair to say, was hopelessly in love at the time. But his remarks cannot be explained away as the effusions of a soppy or eccentric liberal: the same man believed that gentlemen had an inalienable right to fire their servants at will and to shoot poachers on sight.

Could Algernon Sidney’s comments on women have been written a century earlier? Did the 17th century bring changed perceptions of womanhood? The expanding range of diaries, private letters, biographies and autobiographies – the material which makes Fraser’s book possible – reflects a growing interest in human observation and in individual psychology. At the same time, the scientific revolution modified or modernised traditional opinions. By the end of the century it seemed harder to think of women as witches, easier to explain menstruation in medical than in Biblical terms. Yet on the subject of change Fraser offers curiously little help, even though she gives her book a chronological arrangement. Tentatively she suggests that parents became less strict in imposing marriages upon their children, and that marriages across the classes were on the increase: but her evidence seems decidedly thin. Nothing in the book prepares us for the account in the epilogue of a wedding sermon of 1699 in which the preacher, having ‘trotted out all the old reproaches towards womankind’, ‘admitted that his views were by now largely old-fashioned’. When had they become old-fashioned, and why?

One of Fraser’s problems about change is her difficulty in locating its relationship to improvement. For while she can write with a Whig’s untroubled confidence about attitudes ‘so obvious to us now, so revolutionary then’, she does not believe the path to emancipation to have been a straight one. It seems that ‘the graph of female progress, far from ascending in a straight line from the death of Elizabeth to the accession of Queen Anne, rose during the middle decades’ of the century, only ‘to dip again with the restoration of the old order in 1660’. From that ‘cyclical pattern’ Fraser draws a contemporary lesson. Were vigilance now to slacken, the process of ‘liberation’ might be reversed, and ‘the darker days of repression’ might come again.

Yet can the graph be plotted quite so easily? Fraser sees the Civil Wars as a period of relative emancipation, when circumstances required and enabled women to demonstrate qualities of courage and initiative which were supposedly male preserves. But the adventures of her Civil War heroines were, as she acknowledges, unrepresentative. For most women as for most men, the Puritan Revolution was probably a wretched time. Among the rich, as Miriam Slater observes in Family Life in the 17th Century, it brought chaos and contraction to the land market and so to the marriage market. Among the rest, war brought severe hardship. In straitened times women proved useful in suppliant roles. Men sent women to plead for them before the Roundhead committees which confiscated royalist lands. Slater cites the gentleman who sent his niece before the Parliamentary Commissioners on the grounds that ‘women were never so useful as now,’ and that ‘their sex entitles them to many privileges.’

Sometimes women supplicated in large groups. They formed a massive peace march in 1643, and in 1649 petitioned the Commons on behalf of the imprisoned Leveller leaders. When told by MPs that ‘it was not for women to petition; they might stay at home and wash the dishes,’ they replied that hardship had left them with ‘scarce any dishes to wash’. During the deprivations of the Dutch War of 1665-7 Pepys recorded the siege of the Navy Office yard by women ‘clamouring and swearing, and cursing us’. Such episodes may seem to us historical echoes of recent feminine protests against defence policy, but there was no self-consciously feminist impulse behind them.

In one respect the graph of progress slumped during the Civil Wars, when the agitation for electoral reform omitted to champion female suffrage – even though some women were legally entitled to vote, not as women but as freeholders. Fraser quotes the High Sheriff of Suffolk, the Puritan antiquarian Sir Simonds D’Ewes, normally a stickler for legal nicety, who deducted the votes which women had cast in October 1640, ‘conceiving it a matter very unworthy of any gentleman, and most dishonourable in such an election, to make use of women’s voices, although they might in law have been allowed’. The Institutes of that Whig hero of Parliamentary liberty, Sir Edward Coke, ruled out votes for women; and radicals like John Lilburne, whose tiresomeness as a husband is enjoyably recounted by Fraser, did nothing to restore them, even though contested Parliamentary elections had become more frequent, and even though Parliament came in the 1640s to play a much larger part in people’s lives.

So Parliamentary Puritanism did little for woman’s lot. Even so, the consequences for family behaviour of the Puritan stress on household religion seem worth more attention than Fraser gives them. So do the implications of Puritan theology. Puritan families liked to intermarry. Did marriages flourish when both partners believed the other to be among the elect, and founder when one of them believed the other to be reprobate? In religion, as elsewhere, ‘attitudes’ to women cannot be conveniently isolated. The title of Fraser’s book, a common 17th-century phrase, derives from I Peter 3. 7, where the husband is urged to give ‘honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life’. When Peter urged wives to ‘be in subjection to your own husbands’, it was with the aim not of doing women down but of strengthening the primitive Christian communities. The strategy Peter recommended was the strategy to be so fruitfully employed by the wives of the Puritan magnates of the 16th century: the conversion of husbands to godliness ‘by the conversation of the wives’.

Fraser has read widely: but her references to ‘recent research’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. She has absorbed little that has recently been written on 17th-century women, and for social history she is over-dependent on Peter Laslett’s book of 1965, The World We have Lost, whose warmest admirers would hardly call it authoritative. Even so, Fraser has succeeded strikingly in imposing order and clarity upon a mass of material. She gives us a rich and colourful gallery of portraits, with widows and witches, midwives and wet-nurses, prophetesses and preachers, actresses and courtesans, and a notable array of Quakers. There is a series of real-life adventure stories, enlivened by a spot of whipping here and of wall-jumping there. She is especially interesting on the contrast between the closing of doors to women in activities which required formal education and the ease with which they could operate in the business community – above all, perhaps, in the printing and publishing trades. Here Fraser might have found room for the bookseller Abigail Baldwin, whose eventful life has been described by Eleanor Rostenberg.

But that would have made The Weaker Vessel even longer; and like most of Fraser’s books, it is much too long already. It contains many points, but no argument. As one struggles through her 470 pages of text one begins to hunger for intellectual edge and shape. Still, if Fraser’s prose is not incisive, it at least has qualities of lucidity and vigour. She writes better than the average academic. And she writes very much better than Miriam Slater.

Family Life in the 17th Century is about some aspects of the life of one family during some of the 17th century. The family is the Verneys of Claydon in Buckinghamshire. The Verneys, she believes, were a selfish lot, bound together by selfish interests. When, to her surprise, she comes upon an uncle and a nephew showing ‘genuine concern and affection for each other’, she hails the event as ‘something of a triumph in a society whose values and social modes offered barren soil for the blossoming of disinterested giving of any kind’. The female Verneys had a specially cheerless time, for women were ‘a negative reference group’. Some of Slater’s melancholy findings appeared in an earlier and briefer form in the journal Past and Present, where they were subjected to penetrating criticisms in a rejoinder by Sara Heller Mendelson, which should be read by anyone seeking an antidote of sanity to the jungle view of 17th-century life. Slater does not seem to have learned much from that encounter.

One might infer from Slater’s text that the Verneys are new to 17th-century studies. Some of their papers were edited for the Camden Society in 1853, in a volume Slater does not mention. More of them appeared in a four-volume work which was produced by two ladies of the Verney family in 1892-4 as Memoirs of the Verney Family, and which Slater cites cursorily and inaccurately in her bibliography. That publication was by no means perfect, but it gave much more sense of the content and the variety of family life than Slater offers. Here is the succinct and spirited amateur Frances Verney in 1892:

The passion of love, as it was understood by the knights of old in their high-flown protestations to their ‘ladie loves’, and which in the modern three-volume novel gives the keynote to all intercourse between man and woman, hardly existed at this time with regard to marriage, which was usually a purely commercial proceeding – so much ‘portion’ against so much income. The love of husband and wives, of parents to their children, was extremely strong, but the ordinary falling in love of young men and maidens is not thought of much importance.