Why Darcy would not have married Elizabeth Bennet

Linda Colley

  • The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Victorian England by Amanda Vickery
    Yale, 436 pp, £19.95, May 1998, ISBN 0 300 07531 6

The experience of reading this book is a paradoxical one. Innovative, expertly researched and luminous in style, it nonetheless seems at times almost eerily familiar. The reason for this quickly becomes evident. Those who know their Jane Austen well have been here before. There are echoes of the novels even in some of the characters we encounter in Amanda Vickery’s volume: the clergyman’s wife from a commercial background, for instance, who – very much in the manner of Mrs Elton – addresses her spouse as ‘Mr R’. More important, though, are the similarities in method. Austen claimed to have derived inspiration from the closely observed antics of a narrow sample of comfortably-off county families. Unable to spy on her subjects over the card table or across the assembly room, Vickery has instead haunted the Lancashire Record Office at Preston and pored over all the letters, diaries and account books there written by privileged women between 1730 and 1825.

The comparison is not a facetious one, because this research strategy has resulted in an image of English society very similar to that on offer in Austen. Here, as in the novels, the vocabulary of ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ classes is absent. Instead, the crucial divide is that between the polite or genteel, as Vickery calls them, and the rest, what Austen’s brother styled ‘nine parts of all mankind’. In many respects, this version of Georgian society is salutary. As Vickery points out, divisions between 18th century gentry and commercial families, between land and trade, have often been exaggerated by the tendency of scholars to concentrate on one of these sectors. By selecting instead to explore both in tandem, she is able to demonstrate, just as Austen does, that lesser gentry, urban professionals, successful manufacturers, even the superior ‘trades’, regularly appeared at the same social events, met each other on the commissions of peace, and intermarried. She shows too that, at this level, it was rarely a case of wealth earned from trade serving as a once-and-for-all springboard into landed status. Many families straddled the land-trade divide, members crossing and re-crossing it over the generations.

I am less convinced than Vickery is, however, that this composite genteel sector can be characterised as England’s ‘governing class’ without a great many qualifications. Clearly its menfolk played a vital part in local administration, as JPs, as militia officers, sometimes as deputy lieutenants. National government, however, was a different matter. One of this book’s many virtues as social and not just women’s history is that it conveys some of the divisions operating within the landed class. Its prime gentry heroine, Elizabeth Parker of Alkincoats, later Elizabeth Shackleton, is shown moving among a wide array of lesser landed, trading and professional acquaintances. But, as Vickery points out, she was ‘not on visiting terms with noble families, not even with the holders of lesser titles’. Yet it was precisely this more exalted sector which commanded the majority of Parliamentary seats, places at court, positions in the Cabinet. It was this split in function within the landed classes that helped to nourish Christopher Wyvill’s economical reform movement in the 1770s (based in Yorkshire, just adjacent to the Alkincoats estate). Here, as on other occasions, lesser gentry combined with mercantile dissidents in a critique of the 18th-century state because, at the centre, the former were conscious of not being synonymous with the governing class.

Again this point was fully understood by Austen. She took it for granted that her contemporaries would appreciate (as late 20th-century readers sometimes do not) the extent to which Pride and Prejudice, say, was a deliberate essay in fantasy. An Eliza Bennet, fetching daughter of a small country gentleman, niece to a Cheapside attorney, might well be invited to a one-off county ball given by a Mr Bingley with a rented house and £5000 per annum. But a Mr Darcy with an inherited landed estate of £10,000 per annum would have been most unlikely to seek her hand for a dance, much less for marriage. Indeed, real-life Darcys would scarcely have wasted their precious bachelor youth on rural Hertfordshire. London, with its indulgences, its political life and its marriage market offering more eligible future wives even than Miss Bingley, would have been the automatic draw.

Vickery’s purpose is not of course to corroborate past literature but to employ concentrated local research to undermine certain prevailing scholarly generalisations. Among her more predictable targets are older historians such as Philippe Ariès and Lawrence Stone, who claimed for the 18th century the emergence of a more companionate style of marriage among the prosperous, and a kinder, gentler way of bringing up and perceiving children. She shows, as others have done, that there was in fact no straightforward retreat of patriarchal marriage in the face of‘modern’, romantic alliances. Patriarchy persisted in the sense that all the women she investigates ‘took it absolutely for granted that their husbands enjoyed formal supremacy in marriage’. Moreover, women of this class trapped in bad marriages continued to have very limited means of redress, particularly if male kin were unwilling to help. Elizabeth Shackleton’s 39 volumes of diary convey both her utter disillusionment with her second husband and the degree to which her only outlet was this strictly private confessional. ‘He shits in bed with drinking so continually,’ she complained; and on another occasion: he ‘farted and stunk like a pole cat’.

Yet the majority of the marriages Vickery analyses appear to have rested on a sensible recognition of mutual duties on the part of husband and wife, mutual needs, and mutual affection. Patriarchy and companionship were not always incompatible. As for children, new cults of parental tendresse were less striking than the continuing tenacity of the grim reaper. Fond parents William and Anne Gossip of Thorp Arch watched eight of their 11 offspring die, four of them before the age of two. If they nonetheless picked themselves up and kept going, this was not because familiarity with the fragility of life bred impassivity. Rather, bereaved parents endured because this was how life (and death) was, and fortitude was a recognised virtue strongly founded on religion.

Vickery’s other main target is the argument, advanced most recently and influentially by Catherine Hall and Leonora Davidoff, that the political, social and economic changes of the last third of the 18th century contributed to a widening separation between male and female spheres, between public and private. I share many of her doubts on this score. Yet this book is at its richest and most original not when it hammers at (already gaping) doors in the fortress of academic dispute, but when the author sets herself free to develop and expand what she herself thinks important in prosperous women’s lives in this period. Her chapters on ‘Prudent Economy’ and ‘Elegance’ are particularly brilliant in this respect, advancing her thesis that home for women of this class meant more than merely the private sphere, while concentrating on setting out new material and agendas for future research.

Vickery uses the servant tax returns to demonstrate that her sample of genteel Yorkshire and Lancashire females employed on average between five and ten domestics. This meant that there was rarely in these households an executive division of upper servants to manage the rest. Instead the job of selecting and running the staff of what was essentially a small business fell to the dominant female of the house, whether she was a wife, an eldest daughter or the mother or sister of a bachelor landowner. The notion, then, that a growing servant class permitted privileged women of this kind to become fragrant, futile ladies on a pedestal with nothing serious to do is roundly and rightly dismissed. Vickery describes how young girls consciously prepared themselves for a position of power. She shows the value for historians of ladies’ memorandum books as a guide to the wide array of household tasks these women had to monitor, and their own roles in provisioning, sewing and rudimentary medicine. And she describes how the organisation of hospitality within the house – to tenants, or neighbours, or tradespeople, or voters – connected these women to worlds outside the house.

She is also particularly good at describing the significance of the period’s growing consumer culture. It is the private response to objects she stresses, rather than public display as an advertisement of status (though the ubiquity of the future firm of Waring and Gillow’s mahogany dining tables is a recurring theme). A vital expression for Elizabeth Shackleton of her acceptance of old age, for instance, was leaving off ‘my old stays and put[ting] on my best stays for good’. There was now no likelihood of future great occasions for which it was worth reserving her best corsets. But lingering lovingly over objects bequeathed to her by her dead father, or passing on cherished items to her sons were private rituals which clearly gave her much comfort, reinforcing her sense of family continuity and reassuring her that some part of her would endure.

This kind of rich detail abounds in Vickery’s book, lending it a depth and complexity that are still rare in English women’s history. The only major drawback of The Gentleman’s Daughter is indeed partly a by-product of Vickery’s scrupulous investigation of localised and individual lives. ‘The rise of companionate marriage’, ‘the growth of the affective family’, the development of ‘separate spheres’ are, as she demonstrates, too crude as stories adequately to encompass upper-class women’s lives. But at least these stories had the virtue of suggesting that women’s lives changed significantly over time, that women had a history. By contrast, and as Vickery herself seems to recognise, her own version of women’s lives in Georgian England savours at times of the static. As she admits, ‘this sketch of gender distinctions amongst the provincial élite could do service not only for the 18th century, but also for the 17th and perhaps even the 16th.’ So why bother to analyse them further? Does it really advance us much to know that some women (then as now) breastfed, but some did not? That ‘hot drinks were drunk at any time of day,’ and that ‘different fashions were thought appropriate for different age groups’?

The only major change that Vickery explores is the growing impact of what Peter Borsay styles the ‘urban renaissance’, the greater availability of books, assembly rooms, libraries, shops, spas, newsprint etc. All this was clearly vital. But there were other massive changes over the whole 1730-1825 period that need also to be considered. The death in 1781 of her richest archival source, Elizabeth Shackleton, has perhaps concentrated Vickery’s mind on the less eventful middle decades of the 18th century, and distracted her from fully considering the tumultuous events of the century’s close. For surely the American Revolution, and still more the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, provoked intense discussion about female roles, some of which must have filtered back to the North of England?

And what about social relations more broadly? It is sometimes hard to remember while reading this book that it is set in the same English counties, Lancashire and Yorkshire, where E.P. Thompson based The Making of the English Working Class. To what extent, then, and in what ways, did Tom Paine and his labouring and artisan disciples alter the worldview of the female genteel? Certainly women of this kind in other parts of the country felt that they had no choice but to react and rethink. ‘I do most sensibly apprehend,’ a Shropshire archdeacon’s sister wrote in 1795, ‘that the bulk of the people have their minds alienated from the present state of things. Not through any political suggestions, but from the circumstance of that reciprocity or rather interchange of good will & benefit that existed between the different classes, being in a great degree destroyed.’ How far, one wonders, did perceptions of this kind put genteel women’s relations with the servant class under strain? Indeed, was the increasing tendency of privileged women to band together in organised charities, which Vickery comments on for the early 1800s, in part a response to fears that individual female benevolence to the labouring poor might no longer be so welcome or so safe as it had been in the past?

All of which is to say that even highly distinguished women’s history of this kind needs to be cast in broader terms. Since women were not in practice confined to a private sphere, women’s history must take on board not just social and economic history, but also political history, military history, the history of ideas and more. Doing so is almost as important as social, economic, political, military and intellectual historians taking on board the history of women.