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Dear friends and readers,

Over on C18-l  (a listserv community devoted to discussing the long 18th century, 1660-1815), someone has asked, Where would YOU fit in eighteenth century society? It was quickly pointed out already several fallacieswere  afoot here. Still, i was among those who quickly answered this amusing (in the 18th century sense of provoking thought) question.

The dream fantasy:  Darcy shows Elizabeth and the Gardiners Pemberley park

Given who my ancestors were in Poland (serfs on the Catholic side, desperately poor disenfranchised Jews in a town), I would have been a migrant laboring girl; from the other (ditto) a very low status servant. If I count my connections to my husband's family (who I somtimes playfully call the Admiral), I might have aspired to work in a shop for a while or been a slightly higher servant, or I could have ended up (as they so charmingly put it) on the streets. My "master" would have chased me, probably gotten me to have sex, and well, there it is.

Upshot: I'd be dead, long dead: I would have died of a hemmorhage from a miscarriage before my mid-twenties. Miscarriages were common and there was no effective contraception. (My own medical history and two miscarriages in my twenties come in here as I imagine this.)

A 1998 movie called The Governess -- she's not in for anything good I fear

I (as a type) rarely appear in any of the 18th century books we usually read, and hardly even (or to take Mary Crawford's defintion of "never") never sympathetically.

Other people came onto the thread and over the course of 24 hours some 30 plus postings had been sent to the list.  One person commented about how if we go back we multiply grandparents upon grandparents. This is a point made in a book I do regularly with my students in Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Technologies (junior level course, one must have 61 credits to take it): Steve Olson's Mapping Human History.  Another who didn't want to reveal his earlier background I suppose, likened his present niche in life (a professor) to a printer.  Immediate objections were made to this equation, even supposing a printer to be a reading person, intellectual, surely it'd be a bookseller.

Charlotte Smith had twelve children by her gambling, violent, promiscuous abusive husband -- went on to write to support herself and them

But it made me think again and post another equivalent:  many of us were extrapolating from what we knew of the farthest ancestors.  As far as I can tell from my great-grandparents (whom great-aunts and two of my grandparents told me about), they would have been serfs in Poland -- or very lowly Jews.  Hence my very low status servant or woman in the streets, and the death rate was very high from pregnancy, miscarriage, and in prostitution disease.

Then I fast forwarded to think about myself as an adjunct lecturer.  My own parents have no equivalent in 18th century England: they got jobs with the US government through filling out a 171 and were clerks.  My grandparents included a man who aspired to be a tailor but coming over to the US ended up in a factory working 5 and 1/2 days a week, long hours, and died young of sickness; also a seamstress in a sweat factory who was matched with someone and quit as soon as she could.  But my husband, being English, did have some equivalents in the near past.  Not surprising.  I own a very old little book (in miserable condition, no titles on the outside) written out by a servant in a house in the 19th century: the writer seems to be a woman and it's filled with recipes, bits of information about marketing, food, clothes, notes to self about sewing.  Jim's male near ancestors were sailors.  Not something I could be as a woman.  One was a worker in shop.   But my mother-in-law, having been really bright, was somehow or other educated and became for a while a lower governess in a great house. She really loathed it and as soon as she could gave us this "great opportunity" as she told me her great aunt (or some such person) told her and went to work in Woolworth's when such jobs emerged.  She had free time!  She was her own person on Sunday and her half day off. She made some real money.

Jane Fairfax at risk of becoming a governess, as presented in the 1972 Emma, a wallflower until the generous Mr Knightley comes over to talk

But lower governess in a great house seems to be about as close as I can come to adjunct lecturer in a state-supported large university.

All this has many fallacies of all sorts -- it's like talking about how Mr Darcy would have spent his 10,000 a year.  Won't work for real, fantasy but of interest as all of us are interested in ourselves.

Someone who had accused people of shownig their "modern concerns" by their "race to the bottom suggested I lacked imagination, surely there were clerkships in the navy, army, working for lords and high offices. To which I replied:  one had to have connections to become a clerk in the Treasury or some such place. Hardly a GS-5 in government where you take a test and show a high school diploma; the taking of tests to get such places begins in the later 19th century and was very controversial at the time. Trollope fought it tooth and nail -- and he was not alone. The way he got his position in the post office (where he did work for 37 years and among other things helped set up pillars in the streets) was his mother (Frances, the novelist) went and nagged someone she knew shamelessly for days, early morning to late at night, pressured and pressured on the basis of family relationships and something he owed her personally, and finally the man gave in.  Other pointed out how education would be needed and only those known to the appropriate circles (patronage) would get you in.

The discussion teetered off as people who were not European (white) in race or Spanish people had been made uncomfortable because their total exploitation (slaves for example) not brought in as yet.  No one had identified that way. Jim had (probably) shown hmself tactless when he wrote:

"My first reaction was (like Ellen and Ted) I'd be dead.  Actually, about half of us would be, if my estimate of our age distribution is anywhere close.  Life expectancy, even among the rich, was much lower than now.

But there is a deeper fallacy at work here.  I, it is true, live better than Jefferson did:  Monticello didn't have air-conditioning; I have a bigger library than he did; I have more leisure, since I do not have to spend time driving slaves.  But it does not follow that in the 18th Century I would have been even his equal."

Then another person asked what would you love to have been. In effect, wish fulfillment fantasies.

So I returned to my real underlying theme:  to coin Fanny Burney's subtitle for her The Wanderer, female (ahem) difficulties. What I have been struck with in all the postings on C18-l is how gendered are all the responses. Men and women in the 18th century could not do the same things; women's life choices were severely restricted.

Well, there are two ways to amuse (in the full 18th century sense) oneself with this one.  If I still keep the terms of a woman's existence biologically and socially, not much, or no choices on offer unless it be that 1) I imagine myself unable to get pregnant; and 2) some kind rich person offers me independence, as in the case of Kitty Clive Walpole did -- as I recall later in life he gave her a house to live in on his estate.  While an actress could make some money, most of them didn't and had to resort to male protectors or died young (back to pregnancies, miscarriages, venereal diseases and early death or crippling once again).  

Dora Jordan, on stage, she had 12 children by William IV, and helped support him by staying on the stage; late in life he dumped her with a minimal pension

If biologically and socially I keep up the usual terms, until the later 19th century there is no effective contraception, no access to higher education such that I could get a decent job, and wife-beating allowed (1890s was the first case where a judge decided a husband could not force his wife to return to him, and when her family did help her out, the neighborhood apparently did all they could to make life miserable for that family, but they did hold out).

The choices were marriage and again the usually endless pregnancies; if I survived until my later forties (avoiding now thinking about the hardships of said pregnancies and pain and miseries of childbirth very real before medicine and forceps), no much time left for myself -- statistics about death from middle-aged causes kick in here. Or I could be dependent on my family and male relatives.  Probably not much fun (see women's letters who endured this).  There was being a lady at court (and then like lower or under governess -- late yesterday I remembered the term my mother-in-law used was under governess -- I must avoid sex, seduction, rape) but like Fanny Burney and Jane Austen (who has a letter on this telling Clarke I believe for her it would be a death in life), no thank you. I've read French women's memoirs about life at court, and again, no thank you.  Anne Finch's poems from her early youth (especially one anonymous one I have on my site), no thank you.

Grisoni, a masquerade, mid-18th century

The other way to amuse oneself is the one many of us may take as we read novels, whether of the modern historical type or those written in the 18th century.  Even the most supposedly probable follow decorum (certain things not mentioned) and have dollops of fairy tale and fantasy, so one now has an array of pleasant roles and circumstances imagined for different characters along the way and at the end.  The big prize is in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the super kind intelligent gentleman with 10,000 a year who stocks his library. Lesser prizes are found in Austen's other novels.  As Mrs Gardiner says, a little phaeton to go round the park twice a day . Just the thing.  

(Kind here also assumes he will find ways not to inflict the usual pregnancies.)  Very important is that kind rich husband or partner (if I didn't marry but not it's not as safe so, like today in the US, if I were a lesbian I'd have no choice I wanted).

Boilly, a Game of Checkers (1803)

Still I think I would find life dull with the same little band of so-called friends (and Austen does say at the close of S&S that it was no little merit that Marianne and Elinor and their husbands could and did live in sight of one another without falling to real quarrels) and much prefer London (Moscow of the age unless it be Paris) and imagining some interesting occupation which rules would be waived so I could have. Emma Donoghue's heroine in her Life Mask is getting me there now or perhaps one of those delightful French concoctions of novels which win the Prix Fémina -- though they too have very limited nostalgic fantasies (as in Chantal's Adieux a la Reine).  Fun is had by Trobadora Beatrice in her life as told by her minstrel Laura in Irmtraud Morgner's recent picaresque novel, The life and adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as told by her minstrel Laura, as translated by Jeanette Clausen, but to tell the truth even Irmtraud doesn't manage it, for Laura has problems with day care and a layabout husband (doesn't work, doesn't provide child support, disappears periodically, she does all the bills &c&c), and Beatrice keeps getting raped.

Turn Nun?  Putting aside that I'm an atheist and would have to live a lie, but then lots of people do even in fantasies, I'm confronted with with another Theodora, one of my favorite memorable modern characters, in Italo Calvino's Il Cavaliere Inesistente (Nonexistent Knight). I find myself remembering this passage (as Englished by Archibald Colquhun):

"I who recount this tale am Sister Theodora, nun of the order of Saint Colomba. I am writing in a convent, from old unearthed papers or talk heard in our parlor, or a few rare accounts by people who were actually present. We nuns have few occasions to speak with soldiers, so what I don't know I try to imagine. How else could I do it? Not all of the story is clear to me yet. I must crave indulgence. We country girls, however noble, have always led retired lives in remote castles and convents. Apart from reli­gious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, har­vesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, we have had no experience. What can a poor nun know of the world? So I proceed laboriously with this tale whose narration I have undertaken as a penance. God alone knows how I shall describe the battle, I who by God's grace have always been apart from such matters, except for half a dozen rustic skirmishes in the plain beneath our castle which we followed as children from the battlements amid caldrons of boil­ing pitch. (The unburied bodies that remained to rot afterwards in the fields we would come upon in our games next summer, beneath a cloud of hornets!) Of battles, as I say, I know nothing ..."

Hogarth's famous Shrimp Girl, mid 18th century

Rien a faire. Like Uncle Vanya, I cannot delude myself with dreams of Moscow.



( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 19th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
Trobadora Beatrice ... her minstrel Laura ... their author and her translator
Irmtraud Morgner's book connects the past to women's present; the post-modern playfulness at the heart of it is the realities and limitations of women's gendered past [based on these limited documents) and present.

Jun. 19th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Sister Theodora
Sister Theordora is wonderful!

She reminds me of how, in both grade school and high school; and some University as well, I always got along great with the Nun's, who could at surprising times, be very candid and reachable.

Thanks Ellen!
Jun. 20th, 2010 10:50 am (UTC)
A provincial English Merchant's daughter?
From Diana B on ECW:

"I'd love to be able to answer this question but have no idea how, my ancestors coming from such disparate places. My father's family in England, named Eaton, were supposed to be collateral descendants of Isaac Newton, and were respectable merchants in Macclesfield. But my great-grandfather Edward Eaton married an English educated Chinese woman named Grace Trefusis and brought her home to Macclesfield, only to be thrown out by his family, so they emigrated to Canada, where my novelist grandmother and great-aunt were born. And then my mother's family in New York are Lithuanian Jews. I know about them in some detail because they were a line of famous rabbis and scholars going back 12 generations in Slobodka and Vilnius. (Perhaps Rob Lapides and I are relations!)

To sum up, in the days when Jane Austen was walking the earth, I might have been: a provincial English merchant's daughter; a Shanghai woman performing as a circus tightrope artist; or waiting hand and foot on my rabbi husband in the shtetl. So today the final result is me, who am pretty much all these things combined, now that I come to think of it."
Jun. 20th, 2010 10:53 am (UTC)
Nothing available then that's crucial today
From Richard:

"Wow, what a blow! To state the conclusions first, my life has been crucially dependent on societal mechanisms which didn't exist in the 18th century. I don't see how I would have survived then; I am not tough enough.

How would I have been educated? I would have had to rely on being spotted by one of those kind persons who crops up throughout literary history and sponsors the education of some bright kid. Don't know whether I would have made it as a sizar. I would have done OK at school if I were not
so rebellious at arbitrary authority among the students. At least I would have learned Latin and Greek.

In this world, my father was a pharmacist, so I might have been apprenticed (but this would have been at the age when in the previous paragraph I would be attending school) to an apothecary or druggist. An awful life and I would have to have entered the business world to survive. What else could I have done? When young, no skill at social contacts required to get a position as a nobleman's librarian or tutor to his children. In this life I had the luxury of being a physicist, a position which did not exist and which even Newton did not hold. My parents gave me a copy of the Principia on my 13th birthday, which I read in my 40's--don't think I would have been good enough to read it in those days, say in 1727 when Newton died forty years after he published it. Perhaps by 1827.

Since I can't write, I would probably not have met any of the literary figures of the day. If I could go back, I would like to have heard Coleridge ramble on, or earlier, heard Johnson at his club.

In this life I have the luxury of being able to retire--fat chance in those days! No social security, Medicare, safety nets for ordinary people. And I have had a second career as a computer software designer working for
museums. Of course there were no computers, but there were also very few museums. Now I go to 4 or 5 concerts a week; there was nothing like that available in London, though there was a lot of theater.

And what would my religious views have been then? Would I have been a Deist? or kicked out of school like Shelley? Presumably my small stature would have kept me out of fighting under Marlborough at Blenheim, but if I
were not careful, would have ended up pressed into naval service--could have seen Trafalgar first hand.

To say nothing of my surviving infancy, when I had an operation at age 18 months. And more medical stuff through middle age and into seniority. I would have been killed off at each age, or left non-functional.

In short, the more I consider the question, the more lucky I feel to live in this age, in this society, as bad as it seems when compared with what one could hope for. From what I feel lies ahead though, I don't think our epigones in the next couple of generations will have it so good.

Jun. 20th, 2010 10:56 am (UTC)
Geographical position
From Linda:

"I thought this an intriguing question--but adapted it to where I would have been in the 18th century, not necessarily in 18thC society.

Since both my parents were born in Ibiza, a Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain, I can imagine I would have been situated there in the 18thC. I had a large clue when I visited in 1963 as to what their lives were like. My relatives had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Very little furniture. Everything sparse and rural.

But a beautiful climate--probably somewhat like Hawaii. And the endless ocean nearby--so they would never starve. They were fishermen as well as farmers. Very unmaterialistic society. Very slow paced. Even the center of town was unpaved. A village well in the center of town. It was a visit to another era. It had probably been that way for 500 years. There was still no mandatory
public school in Spain at that time.

When I returned in 1987 it was quite different. Now everyone had televisions and telephones, not to mention all the other modern conveniences. The future had

So I would have been a farmer's wife or a fisherman's wife, and we would have made do with very little--but we would not have minded. Like my grandmother's sister, I would never have set foot off the island. It would have been a languid and slow paced life. I might have many children, but not neessarily. I would have lived to my mid-eighties, which it seems everyone there did--unless an
unusual illness killed me off. I might have a year or two of school with the nuns--but probably not. I would be illiterate--never knowing what I missed. Music, wine, food and family would be my world. It would probably have been a
nonstressful and contented life.

An interesting mental exercise.

Jun. 20th, 2010 10:58 am (UTC)
Best hope the clergy
From Carlo:

Where would YOU fit in eighteenth century society?

Well, I am of mixed Italian ancestry: Tuscany, Piedmont, Liguria. But everywhere carters, potters, fishermen, shoemakers, peasants (most probably illiterate). Hmm...
Had I been a very very smart boy, most probably I should have entered the clergy, as the only way of getting an education. An enlightened parish priest or monk? Well, why? Maybe I should have been grateful to the Establishment and a defender of Ancien Régime. Maybe not, and I should have given up my frock. It depends: which 18-C? The first half or the revolutionary period?

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:00 am (UTC)
Love of children
From Christy:

"This body I was born with(average height and weight-not prone to illness), seems to have inherited the strength of a true *breeder*; as I would've had all four of my children in a barn, and everything would have been fine!

I have a great love of babies, children and even teenagers. Yet, I must say that I'm thankful that other forces(destiny?)kept me un-pregnant until the right man came to me. My first husband,refused, my second love, refused. So this cumulative negation, kept me off *breeding* until I was 29; and only with my third love, and husband of thirty years, did this *inclination* finally have it's way.

I have to say we both feel that it is just fine and perfect that we didn't meet sooner, or we might have ended up like his parents, "Oma and Opa" with 10 children!

With regards to the family status of birth in this 20th c, and taking it back to the 18c.:

My husband Fritz was born and raised in the Netherlands until 10, when his entire family of 12 immigrated to the US -Fresno, CA-in 1957. Physically, he is the largest and strongest of his family. so he probably would have fared fine in the 18th c.

He is still very strong, and is a Viet Nam Veteran of the Marine Corp. He is very talented with the agrarian and building worlds, and is still able to do quite a bit of physical labor on our few acres.

My Parents were born(f.1904-84,m.1912-2005)in other countries, to a wealthy Spanish/Catholic class, with governesses,private schooling, tutors, and of course, servants.

As soon as they could, they left their familial enclosure for America. They had a great desire to be free to be able to create their own lives far from the constant-smothering-very-Catholic-overseeing control, which had been the
mark of their earliest years!

And if taking this to the 18th c., probability is low that my mother and father would have left Northern Spain, where there respective family's originated from.

I am first, and only of their generation and immediate family-line on both sides, to be born in the USA(S.F.CA) in 1951 and an only child.

So being born the only child, in a very Catholic and constricted environment in the 18th c., would have only left me the choice of spinsterhood; or if my parents were inclined to wanting grandchildren, a husband, most likely would have been chosen for me."

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:02 am (UTC)
How about a nun?
I realize Christy loves children so my suggestion is not what she would have wanted, but it might have been her fate:

"But you omit a possibility, Christy. Given the strict Catholic background, and the money, so a dowry would have been available, if not married, your family might have made you a nun. A large proportion of younger women in the Catholic countries of Europe before the French revolution (whch put in place laws to stop coercion into nunneries and closed many) were forced into nunneries or went there.

A wonderful book for you in turn; I'm glad I can recommend one: Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter. It's a somber read: she was made into a nun and left about 100 letters. Sobel is really moving, alert and you learn a lot about early modern women's lives and possibilities.

I should mention that a dowry was wanted by nunneries, but it need not be anywhere as high as for marriage. Depending on the size of dowry the family was willing to put up, she got into a better nunnery which would be defined as healthier, thus cleaner, *and more and better food*, better situated, better built, decent guests, less restrictive, and with more upper class women from powerful families.

Alas, Galileo could afford only a small dowry for his daughter's placement in a nunnery.

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:03 am (UTC)
From Elizabeth on C18-l:

"My grandparents were farmers. My family name is Craft, which is a northern English form of "Croft"...so I think I'd likely have been born to a family of farmers living near a very small village.

I would have sought whatever intellectual stimulation there was for women in rural England--possibly becoming enthralled by itinerant Methodist preachers who seemed to be saying something new.

Early, I would have fallen in love with either one of these preachers or an actor passing through. My family would have kept me from marrying either (unless one turned out to be someone originally from that very village--just in disguise.)

I see myself (young) as a version of Lydia Bramble. At my present age (I would have lived to my mid-fifties at least, probably beyond), I would hope to have found a way to channel my intellectual energies. Perhaps I would be teaching a group of village girls or perhaps I would be writing novels.

I would share some traits with Tabitha Bramble. I would have a dog named Chowder, and anybody with a story like Lismahago's would captivate me--but I'd probably want to write it up and publish it!

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:04 am (UTC)
making beds, scrubbing floors
From Judith:

"Those members of my family who were in the Old Countries of France, England, and Scotland would be making beds/scrubbing floors for Jim's ancestors, or at best
paying tenant-farmer rents to them. The publically-funded and very extended education that privileges me now (although not to the level of free wine, I'm sorry to say) wouldn't have been granted to the class to which my families belonged. Those branches which migrated to Upper and Lower Canada in the eighteenth century did so of necessity, and headed for farms, fisheries, mines, and lumbering.

Doubtless my husband's noble ancestors stewed in the highlands and murmured against the English court. My side of the family, however, might have provided rustic "colour," wit, or opportunities for sentimental charity in the fiction of the day. I guess we can look for them in the details but not the plot.

Cheers to new world orders,
Judith Anderson Stuart
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:06 am (UTC)
Black ancestry
"Actually, I thought about that as well, and I figured I might fit into a few categories:

1) Slave in one of the colonies
2) Still in the African continent
3) Mistreated, fetishized servant in a British household who does not live past age 4
4) Dead from 1, 2 or 3
5) However, I'm going to go for a more idyllic option and construct a version in which I am a pseudo-Equiano/Wheatley (or bi-racial/African characters who appeared in the literature of the later 18th century-early-mid-nineteenth century) figure who serves in an upper-class English household in London, receives an education in reading from her amused, yet generous employers, and probably marries another Anglo-African upper-middle-class servant (and I will pretend that neither I nor my husband nor our children pass away due to any number of diseases of the time) -

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:07 am (UTC)
Jewish ancestry
"I don't know enough about what my forebears in Eastern Europe were doing, but as ordinary Jews, they were either living in shtetls (small rural towns), farming, engaged in buying and selling on a small scale, operating small shops, or scholarship -- and sometimes a combination of these occupations. Anti-Jewish laws made it a narrow existence.

On the other hand, my last name means "flame" or "brilliant" in Hebrew, and was originally a first name in Vilna, Lithuania, the intellectual center of Yiddish culture, where my paternal grandfather came from and which suggests my ancestors may have been scholars or at least valued brilliance.

Some East European (Ashkenazi) Jews managed to get to England in the 18C, but the first of my ancestors to do so were my mother's grandparents, who got there around 1870 -- and then twenty-five years later moved on to America. They were shop keepers. But had an earlier ancestor gone to England a hundred years earlier, I can imagine him as one of those grimy Jews Dickens portrayed, someone scraping by as a seller of used goods or perhaps as a fence like Fagin. If he was lucky, he might have found work with one of the Sephardic Jews who were relatively Anglicized and significantly more comfortable. But I find all these roles too unpleasant to imagine myself in.

Bob Lapides"
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:08 am (UTC)
Historical fiction
Another: I think it's more than a matter of some of us seeing a glass as half-empty and the others have half-full -- as has been implied now and again.

I like Elizabeth Kraft's perspective, bringing in historical fiction. Just now I'm having a rousing time reading Winston Graham's Ross Poldark (as I wrote the other day) and am about to start the second novel in the series, Demelza.

Well at the heart of this fiction is the author has chosen to recreate himself to some extent in his hero. He likes the idea he would have been Captain Poldark, and the reader who enjoys this is enjoying the recognition or engagement; the female reader is invited to engage with Demelza. There are class, gender, political and other issues which swirl in and around all this.

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:11 am (UTC)
Fantasizing about the era
From Jim C:

"I spend some time on a board dedicated to Marie Antoinette and when people say they would have loved to live back then, I am the first to remind them that they would be unlikely to have lived the life of the French Court (I have also pointed out that anyone who fantasizes too literally about this should read the description of an operation for breast cancer in the period.)

My own imaginings, and placing of myself among the minor nobility, ironically grew from the fact that many of my own neighbors out here have been Latino immigrants, leading the standard laborious lives such people do. It is
precisely the awareness of the disparity between the simple privileges of my own life (quite minor ones by many people's lights) and the struggles of my neighbors that made me aware of being, more than I might have thought, among the "privileged".

Certainly it has naught to do with my own ancestry, where the only aristocrats are Spanish and in the distant path. My American ancestors were, in fact, indentured servants (from the German Palatinate) when they first came and, yes, I have done the exercise of imagining THEIR lives. But the viewpoint I was suggesting here was more present day than ancestral.

From that viewpoint, I don't think there's anyone in this educated, internet aware group who can't find some equivalent model in our time. But the question was certainly not meant to invite romanticized over-simplifications. The fact that experiences were very different for so many groups only makes the possibilities that much richer."
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:12 am (UTC)
Vendee peasant
"For what it's worth: I would have been an ignorant peasant in the Vendee, or indeed dead, given that my grandfather's cliffside village on the (mid) western coast of Corsica (Ota) was a stronghold of Corsican nationalism against the Genoese occupation of the island into the 1750s
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:13 am (UTC)
a school usher
"I note that most of the people responding to this entertaining thread do so by thinking what their ancestors were doing. On those grounds, I would be a swamp yankee (that is, a small-scale New England farmer). But on the grounds of profession and social status I and many on this list would be school ushers. Neither prospect (or retrospect) strikes me as attractive. Whatever interest the eighteenth century has for me, it certainly isn't nostalgia. In fact, one of its minor attractions is that I can complain about it without getting into trouble.
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:14 am (UTC)
Genteel gentry woman
"I have been working up the nerve to admit that I probably would have been one of many plump, late marrying daughters of the middling sort, less intellectual than fussy, and likely excessively involved in the lives of my plain, plump, late-marrying daughters. Which perhaps says more about my ancestry and political leanings than I wish it did.

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:16 am (UTC)
A farmer
"My family has been active in researching our 17th and 18th century past and it would seem, looking at the generations who populated the 18th I was bred for naught but one thing.

My maternal side were all descended of John and Prudence Frary, founders of the farming community in Dedham MA, farmers from Norfolk England. A branch would move to Deerfield to be harvesting in time for the Massacre. A Frary House still stands in the restoration village later fashioned into a tavern but built as a farm house. Obadiah Frary would lose a foot at Saratoga and return to his own good New England Patriot earth to be buried. Nothing confused with Foxboro. Frarys would move further west to the Southampton MA area where they are to this day on the land. Paternally, Roger Williams and his band of renown form the start, founding and farming the Providence Plantations. The Walker’s kept the connection to New England earth into the 20th century in Foster RI. The seeming exotic would creep in with my grandfathers long after the time we talk about. Mother’s Dad was a Dane – but – a farmer! Dad’s Dad wandered ashore in the British Merchant
Marine from his far away Barbados – son of a planter.

But thinking deeper I ask myself would I, me personally, have taken to the rural life. I have to look no further than the achievement of a lifelong dream two years ago. I bought 137 homesteading acres in Washington County NY (along the VT line). I have since studied scything, "no petrochemical" farming, wattle and daub and stone construction. I find myself back in A Long Deep Furrow (apologies to H.S. Russell).

Thought of yet another way, my farming is all on borrowed time. I have ultimately to agree with Dickens. Were it not for modern medicine the scythe of appendicitis and massive peritonitis would have left this epitaph:

Harvested for the land in the 33rd year of his life in the year of Our Lord 1994

"And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing."

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:17 am (UTC)
Barmaid or sempstress
"If I survived birth, I would probably be an unlettered barmaid or sempstress in the West Country of England (my father's family) or possibly a Methodist (and probably literate) farmer's wife in Cornwall (mother's ancestors). Or, like one of my namesakes in the previous generation, I'd be in service in London.

If I translated to the 18thC my current situation as the wife of a craft brewer, I could imagine myself in the circle of those eying with jealousy the excesses of the Thrales.

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:18 am (UTC)
Bodmin Gaol
"This has been an interesting thread. There are, it seems to me, two approaches to it. The first is sociological. What group in eighteenth-century society most nearly approximates to professional humanities scholars in the twenty-first century? If you are considering the European world, it would seem to me that the clergy or priesthood comes closest in terms of relative size, social status, and wealth. The job - interpretation of text - is similar too. Given that almost all societies around the world have an equivalent group of religious leaders, I suspect this would work for many other cultures as well.

Most people, however, have reflected on what their ancestors were doing in the eighteenth century. Using the convention that a generation is 25 years (a contested number I know, but good enough for this post) I estimate that I would have had approximately 256 direct-line ancestors in 1800 and 4,096 direct-line ancestors in 1700. Even allowing for a certain amount of inbreeding, these numbers render the question fairly meaningless since among those thousands will be people of all social groups. (Following the same logic, the number of my direct-line ancestors becomes larger than the entire population of the British Isles in the early fifteenth century.)

Many of those ancestors have left traces but other than names, locations, and professions, I know very little. The earliest detailed account of any of my ancestors comes from this report in 1841, from a Cornish newspaper. The answer to Jim's question, according to this, is that I'd fit in nicely at Bodmin Gaol.


Best wishes
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:19 am (UTC)
Sailor's Wife
"I've thoroughly enjoyed this thread and have had to work up the courage to reveal where I might be in the 18th century. I'd like to add to John Howell's point about careers in the military in the 18th century. (...[I]t's interesting that none of the men have speculated about careers in the military....)

I would most assuredly have been the wife of a sailor with great professional ambitions, as I am now. I would probably have come from a family of farmers or laborers, hated the physical toil, and done almost anything to be done with it. If I could have avoided becoming pregnant out of wedlock (whether by strong morals or by luck), I might have had a chance at "bettering" my life with a marriage to a successful military man. My good complexion, trim figure, and ample bosom might have helped me out. I could easily imagine taking advantage of his long deployments and salary or prize money to educate myself in any way possible...not too far from my
21st-century life, really. The library in which I am finishing my dissertation is downright medieval.

Jun. 20th, 2010 11:21 am (UTC)
Happily married Scotswoman
"Firmly in the Scottish Enlightenment. My great-great-great-grandfather was William Playfair, inventor of the bar graph, the pie chart, and the scatterplot graph, i.e. the first to create the visual representation of data. Further details in the Oxford DNB. He was also a dubious character given to debt and other failings (the Economist in a recent article referred to him as a "scoundrel"), which were the reasons my great-great-grandfather, who came to Canada in 1812 to fight the Americans, was born on Bread Street in Paris on 1789. William's brother John was the respectable family member who took on the responsibility of the family when their clergyman father died at a relatively young age; John was the well-known mathematician associated (I believe) with Playfair's axiom.

I hasten to add that the mathematical ability demonstrated by both brothers did not descend to me. I also think that considering my own sex and history I would probably, like numerous other female list members, have died of a miscarriage or suffered the long-term effects. I would, however, have borne at least 4 healthy children who would have had a reasonable chance of surviving. My father's profession (he was an Anglican clergyman and an archdeacon) would have ensured a reasonably genteel existence; we have a large family, however, so it would have been under some stress financially. (Actually, for Anglican clergy families of my generation, it is remarkable how little has changed since the 18thC!)

My father would have been unlikely to force me into a prudential marriage, and would have taken care to facilitate a union with a compatible partner, i.e. someone who could fit in with my family (and get the sense of humour). Also, I would have been educated by the good will and encouragement of my father, and would have spent any leisure time I had reading, drawing / painting, and singing.

You know, when I stop to consider, with the exception of the obstetric side my 18th-century life sounds almost better than my current life as a scholar-administrator....especially in deadline season!


Katherine "
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:21 am (UTC)
"To answer Neil's question, "Where would I LIKE to be?" I fantasize myself as a foppish in-law of Elizabeth Billington, most likely one of those prodigal poet or hack types, probably married but secretly (and scandalously) lusting after one of my manservants. I'd use my connection to my musically talented sister-in-law to ingratiate myself into whichever coffeehouse circles I pleased, perhaps even publish some imitations of Horace, Ovid, or Catullus. (Some would be more than slightly salacious.)

Of course, I'm sure the Billingtons would soon grow suspicious of my relationship with my wife, and then disown me for my "buggery" before long. I'd spend the rest of my days exiled in Germany or France, spend the remainder of my funds on gin, and perish penniless in a beautiful city. So many of us soberly reflect on how unsanitary life was back then, so why not live riotously?

Where would I probably end up, though? The clergy, most likely. Male company would be in no shortage there."
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:33 am (UTC)
Bravo, Richard, absolutely unqualifiedly and with many intensives, BRAVO. Who says you can't write though? You were eloquent.

You bring home to us how recent, frail, and even easily removed (for the advantages you outline do not exist in many places on the earth today) our good lives today are.

Jun. 20th, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
"I already know. I would be Rousseau--vain, insecure, annoying, but also passionate and talented. Charles."

From EighteenthCenturyWorlds
Jun. 21st, 2010 11:26 am (UTC)
An Irish fate
am late to this thread as well, but I think I would be the only Irish descendent to reply, so I should contribute.

I would have been a younger child of a large, papist, peasant family of tenant farmers renting land owned by the Duke of Ormond. As Swift said, I would probably have had to "sell myself to the Barbadoes" or enlist to "Fight for the Pretender in Spain." In the former case, I would have been an indentured servant working harvesting sugar cane and would probably have at least one illegitimate mixed race child with an African woman on the same plantation, and I probably would have died of the work or a tropical disease by age 30. In the latter case, I would probably have joined the Jacobite forces in France as a private soldier and been killed in any number of engagements against the English and their allies, probably gut shot from artillery cannister rounds, though perhaps I would have struck up a romance with a French, Spanish, or Italian woman before that.

Jun. 21st, 2010 11:29 am (UTC)
Librarian background
Someone told me of a librarian background, so I replied: "I looked at your librarian background -- after all Jewish middle class people who managed to slide into that at the opening of the 20th century had a history in their families of a stake, investment, history in being middle people and intellectuals. Librarians in the 18th century were people who came from upper middle gentry and had good educations or good enough and connections. They were the equivalent of trophy young people let into colleges (to give them some intelligent students for the professors to teach for real) at the opening of the 20th century.

As you can see there is no such background in my family -- on either side. The Jews were poor ghetto types, who when they came here after the depression finally was over, gradually grew rich enough by becoming accountants. One cousin has a Ph.d. in psychology and is a professor at one of the NY state colleges on Long Island. The Polish Catholics were working class (very poor, joined the military, not long lived, hard drinking), but the generation after mine (my cousins' children) are beginning to rise: a commander in the navy, teachers, and one physician. Jim's people were servants, sailors, and his parents worked for the government (like mine) when in their 30s; his sister is a vicar (but nowadays that's not such a prestigious position and that's one reason it's open to women, the salary is low, you get a free house, but once you retire you are on your own to find another place to live), his brother-in-law a retired teacher. Still most of everything I've said is lower middling to working class milieu highly vulnerable to economic changes -- as our intellectuals, librarians too. Thus Richard's analysis is the operative one.

Those people alive with analogous low places in the hierarchy would have been up shit's creek in the 18th century.

Edited at 2010-06-21 11:31 am (UTC)
Jun. 23rd, 2010 12:10 pm (UTC)
Now a druggist seems the equivalent
Dear Ellen,
Thanks for your kind remarks on my post. It cheered me up, and I even had the courage to go back and read what I had written. I also went to your website and read the whole collection of other peoples' responses . . . My follow up amusing thought for the day was that I could as a druggist have met many literary figures when I sold them their laudanum: Coleridge, Lamb, de Quincey, Wilberforce, etc. plus all those occasional one-time users like Johnson, etc

Richard from ECW"
Jun. 23rd, 2010 12:11 pm (UTC)
What we see tells a good deal about our views of ourselves & our world today
Dear Richard,

Yes I expect you hit a chord. I too when looking back see the perspective politically and bleakly and in my first saw myself as a lower servant, probably coerced into sex and, if not in the streets, dead very young from a miscarriage or childbirth. I do badly with operations. I have some bleeding problem that has never been solved. So on second thought you have yourself a druggist. I know to get a physics degree one must do organic chemistry. Well for me the second thought was undergoverness in great house -- or governess in small one or (if 19th century) schoolteacher in miserable school :) Or maybe I'd marry but then I'd better not have gotten pregnant.

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