In the spirit of a round-up of the year ... This is a (brief) account of the books I listened to (read aloud) in my car on CDs all fall, and a summary and commentary on Amanda Vickery's Behind Closed Doors. Those lucky enough to live in the UK and see the film adaptation, At Home in Georgian England, might be glad of an account of the book's fuller content and actual themes. I include a brief account of Vickery's earlier Gentleman's Daughter as a comment.
Hogarth, Furnishing the House, from Vickery's Behind Closed Doors
A passage in the images of people decorating their houses is the abve of a cat sitting crouched to the side watching warily the changes made in the room. What I love is how Hogarth has conjured up that cat in a very few lines.
CDs recommended and critiqued:
During the fall term driving to and from GMU, I listened to Donada Peters' reading aloud of Emma and Pride and Prejudice, went through Lorna Ravier's reading aloud of Wharton's Age of Innocence (at long last) and began Juliet Stevenson's reading of Mansfield Park.
All modern CDs.
Peters's reading of Emma deepened the book for me. By treating it realistically, in the early parts of the book she brought home the intense damage Emma was doing which then made the Jane Bennet story (with Frank there as potential betrayer) very moving. The reading 'worked' throughout, including the dropping of Harriet Smith. Emma was humanized thoroughly to and by the end one could feel for her but not forget she represented the Miss Bingley types of Austen's world. A real achievement in this way. It fit Sandy Welch's 2009 film adaptation which (alas) I've had to put down where the bringing in of Mr Knightley as narrator and the back story to the front is a similar interpretation.
Her reading of P&P on the other hand showed how complex the book is. Realistic intonations just didn't work quite. One lost the ribald and hard wit and comedy. Some of the characters are caricatures. Peters's needed a tone which encompassed much more levels of meaning. Irene Sutton who I previously listened to did manage this: she was a once much-respected actress.
Lorna Ravier on Age of Innocence was a revelation. Throughout hard and jaundiced tones towards Newland Archer's world and towards him a good deal of the time brought home and anger of the implied author. It became a book comparable to the Custom of the Country. It suggets how "off the mark" is Sorcese's film which turns the story into one about a depressive male who misses out on his long-lost erotically enthralled woman. Ravier was not having the erotically enthralled business either, but rather someone socially desperate, and thus connected to Lily in House of Mirth. I recommend this reading.
Last: I've started Juliet Stevenson's MP. Startling: she reads it in an austere ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek droll way. She has all the levels of tone of Sutton and somehow manages when she needs to to suddenly become psychological inside a character and also convey the cruelty of Mrs Norris (as well as her blindness to herself): the coming of Fanny to MP in the first two chapters makes the reader feel a slight dread for this child -- lines like Sir Thomas's about how vulgar the child will be, and then when she's called stupid. Without ever being sentimental in tone she has conveyed the full direness of the situation as it might be experienced by a puzzled frightened child. I usually resist coming at Austen through the comic, but this one is a genius level doing of it.
And over this past fall among other books talked about and read on my three lists, I did read and weekly write comments on Amanda Vickery's Behind Closed Doors. Here then is an account of this book which gives a real sense of the world Jane Austen physically inhabited. Here first are three blogs on the film adaptation, mentioned above:
It's a better written book than her first, The Gentleman's Daughter which although exemplary in detail is more stilted, more academic in style. Vickery's style has loosened up, not so academic in feel, much more relaxed and therefore more fun to read. Her idea is to put into print the interior world of lower to middle class UK people and really value interior activities, things, domestic life, which, as she rightly says, is still regarded as an inferior, not so important area to study: the way for example, as she quotes Woolf to this effect, war is. She had to go to a large number of archives and be ingenious in what she looked at to discover the kinds of things she wanted to unearth. This is not just a female world for men lived in it too -- though they often tried to delegate all the work to the women including of course their clothes, their meals, their comfort.
In this opening chapter she goes into attitudes towards home. How important to English people was setting up a separate home for the young couple and how this was not common across Europe, much less elsewhere, but that being a householder did not mean you owned for the most part, only inhabited. The valuing of living in a full house separate rather than a "flat" is shown, and how it allows for social and personal life literally to go on for real. Sine qua non. She also really gives as examples of what's to come a real feel for daily life in a household over the washing and keeping of clothes, the seweing of them. Austen longed for ready-made clothes; Emma Donoghue's heroines hate sewing.
I was a bit bothered by the way Vickery did for most of the chapter seem to be talking about life as a series of performances. As networking, and she espoused the conventional philistine ideas about socializing and so on; she was using satirical prints and texts and yet taking them at surface value, gravely, ignoring that many people might not subscribe to these class-laden, rank-based, narrow-definition of success values. Nick and I had talked earlier this week about how academics can take on this attitude towards life based on their career. She does do this a bit too much, subscribe to believing in sociability, familiarity as somehow always pleasant, successful, what's wanted and what gets ahead. It isn't and doesn't often.
On the other hand, her problem is where can she get sources for information but precisely these kinds of texts which value these things as indexes of life's meaning.
And then she did turn around at the close of the chapter to say many people did not in fact live in these conventional householder nuclear family arrangements, and went over one lonely widower who when his wife died went to live in lodgings with another woman and four children, how he had three female relatives whose occupations were things like grocers, milliners, mercers, and she ended on lone women spinsters and how they lived isolated difficult lives. I thought these last two paragraphs of the Introduction moving and beautiful:
"The difficulties of those who fell outside the family household emphasises its signal importance to a successful existence. When Ellen Weeton's marriage failed and she reverted to spinster mode in scanty lodgings in Lancashire in 1825, she felt her marginalisation most sorely: 'I have been passing my time in almost total solitude ... So it is with all females of small incomes who have no families and relations; if forced to live in lodgings, they are shut out from domestic comforts and a social fireside.' Ellen was spurned even by the butcher when she asked cor a tiny cut of veal. 53 A bitter choice between domestic humiliation and social . alation faced many lone women.
The possession of a home of one's own was a universal goal. If her prayers for ,her future life were answered, versified the single poet Mary Chandler, then she would be the happy holder of'A Fortune from Incumbrance clear, About a Hunired Pounds of year; A House not small, built warm and neat, Above a Hut, belowa Seat'. Independence was a pipe dream for most spinsters who were forced to shelter under the roof of a kinsman, carving out a corner to roost in, and to arrange their small stock of personal treasures. Failing the possession of room of one's own, then a locking box to preserve the things of one's own was the last redoubt of individuality. Some measure of control over space and time, however minimal, was necessary to make a house a home. All too readily, house lost the warmth of home, generating only cold discomfort, petty trials and humiliations, and in extreme cases tyranny and psychological torture. Utter powerlessness invariably meant that the victim felt their subordination always and everywhere, leading them to seek out a corner to cower in, and to long for
little Cott' to call their own, or even 'a cabin' if it were 'exempt from the Domination of a man'. A house where an inmate has nil autonomy is a prison. What then is home? Is home the household of birth, or the place you chose for your self or the citadel for which you long? For the powerless and marginal, home had to be be a locking box, a collection of treasures and a consoling dream.
I feel I'm in the world Crabbe knew. The reader will see in the above that Vickery buys into "successful existence" norms but also that she qualifies and sees beyond this.
Vickery, Chapter 1: Locks & Keys (Thesholds and Boundaries at Home)
The themes of this chapter are manyfold. On the one hand, Vickery gives you a strong sense of how beleaguered middle class people felt, how desperate. They chained their doors, they continually were locking things at night. I remember how Dr Johnson's house in London boasted a huge chain around its original front door and other iron appurtences to stop burgary and robbery entrance.
We no longer have to do this. I am aware the few times I've put stuff out on the street during the time the city comes round with large garbage trucks to pick up huge amounts how many car loads of scavengers suddenly turn up to take, take, take. It's a little scary to think these people are out there and only custom keeps them outside our magical boundaries of a lawn and fence (a thin ranchy looking one).
She reads and discusses what she found in the Bailey records of crimes to ferret out this level of daily experience. People in enlightenment cities were still scared shit of one another when they came to "shutting up time."
She talks of house-shaming customs still in effect then -- I suppose this happens in neighborhoods where people put garbage on other people's lawns and threaten them in this insidious way.
She worries over the concept of privacy. Was there such a thing? Given her predilection for finding reality in social life, she is dubious but finally comes down for it even in earliest times. How else explain all these efforts at securing private space - in boxes, in rooms, in houses, alongside strips of space in houses.
Here she gets to keys and how important they are as a symbol. They still are. Who has the keys to the house. In 19th century novels when a woman is given the keys to the house she is given respect and power. Bribing someone for an apartment in NYC in the 1950s was called "key" money. I see something that could have fit into my paper: "despotic husbands ilke to play the gaoler, locking women in our out in campaigns of abuse" (p. 43).
The strongbox again (or tiny space) again emerges as a "refuge of identity." She hurries to re-assure us she doesn't think that "individuality" is only "forged in seclusion and solitude .. social interaction and public performance were crucial to building and enactment of identity, especially" In this time of hierarchy and communal belonging (where did that come in?), yet she admits from things she finds and records there is this drive to have a locking box, and then she catalogues things people would gather to have an identity.
Feckless people of course went down the drain. I doubt people are feckless if they can be otherwise; the feckless had better have been called the weak who had no decent family group or place to turn to to be in.
And she ends again on someone near "destitute" who "had little choice but to regret and renounce."
The book seems to be arguing with itself. What she finds is at odds with her 21st century ideas about what life is about or what counts and then she collapses into pity for those who couldn't get up the necessary privacy and safety (this chapter) or socializing [pseudo-] companionship and its access to daily necessities (last chapter). One problem I'm seeing with Vickery's book is she is fighting her own sources: her own sources value the private life, the self apart from social life quite intensely, move into an exploration of subjectivity, and influenced both by the kind of sources she has for domesticity interiors and our own obsessions today that the self doesn't somehow exist on its own, she struggles to contradict what she finds.
The 18th century is the first time we see this kind of public celebration of strong social rebellion; it leads into romanticism.
I don't altogether trust Vickery. The one text she has dealt with that I've read is Trollope's autobiography whose depiction of his boyhood she calls "hilarious." she cannot understand it if she thinks that of the first half of the book. Maybe she did laugh. I didn't. Or only a grimace or saturnine smile at moments.
I forgot to mention one throwaway line about the use of locks and keys and space in 18th century houses. Vickery remarks "despotic husbands liked to play the gaoler, locking women in or out in campaigns of abuse" (p. 43), Another detail which suggests that Catherine Morland's supposed wild imaginings were not so wild after all.
Vickery's Ch 2: Men Alone: How Bachelors Lived
This is an excellent chapter. I was beginning to have Doubts about Vickery. she fights her own sources which value the self apart from social life quite intensely and also subjectivity. She called Trollope's depiction of his boyhood in his autobiography "hilarious" - about as skewed a reaction as I can think.
But she retrieves herself here. One of her major sources for the life of a young bachelor is Trollope himself and she does read accurately and candidly with real insight his evasive account of his years in London.
She might better have called it how bachelors were driven to marry by social pressures and their own needs, which included the sexual and social. Men needed wives more than they do today, not just for taking care of their house, but sex, companionship, respect, joining in on important patronage networks. She tells five different stories with humane insight into the difficulties, anxieties, failures and successes these men had as bachelors, married men, widowers, pursuing women and failing to win a bride, or winning one and the complexity of the relationship afterward.
I don't have room to include full details, only to emphasize also she brings home how different were conditions -- social and sexual within the same classes then, the middling again especially -- which made marriage so attractive. Yet we do find the life-long bachelor about whom Trollope writes with sympathy as he was such a fringe man for years
Elegantly furnishing your house
Vickery, Chapters 3-4: Women in Charge in the home
I feel the underlying point of these chapters is to show women in charge because they are controlling the way the house or rooms look -- at least as she interprets it. I'm not sure she persuades me. Female financial management is what she's projecting. Maybe but after the basic decisions of where to live and how the man is to make money have been made.
I do love some of her reproductions of older houses.
Chapter 5: his and her: Accounting for the household; Room at the Top & O'Carroll and Tillyard's Aristocrats
Vickery's Chapter 5 is a mine of information again (as were Chapters 3 and 4); this time she has gone beyond the account books as well as delved them to show how women spent money. We see also how they spent their days: for example, making, sewing, sorting and sending on, the men's linen. She makes the important point that men had as many vanities and shopped as mightily for objects they wanted daily and as part of their identities (say having to do with horses, carriages, wines) but they were not made fun of for this, while the women were mocked for their shopping for their clothes.
There are some good pictures again and I tried to share one this morning, a photograph this time of a real standing building, Cotonhouse in Warwickshire, which while it shows the renovations and additions of the 19th century, still reveals to us the actual size and contours of a rich person's house which is not a palace -- what Jane Austen probably meant us to imagine for most of her upper class gentry houses, say Mansfield Park. The problem with the picturesque drawings is just that: they are picturesque. Alas, the image didn't want to go through this morning.
This is a chapter on architecture where the accent falls on a minority of people: those who could afford the mansions that lasted, or to live in the kind of lodgings where the buildings have lasted or the super-rich (the Devonshires at Chatsworth).
Again Vickery's problem is that records are for men who are said to be active in the building and shaping and decorating of the space, and she has to do research (which sometimes leads to fruition) to show how a women were not only active but shaping forces. Now I see the painting by Joshua Reynolds of her which I put up early on is her attempt to hide herself and gain self-respect again.
Since I've been watching Harriet O'Carroll's Aristocrats (again, I just love this series for the slow development of the characters and precisely the situations though I think O'Carroll and before her Tillyard misrepresents how and why Sarah Lennox became promiscuous, then someone's mistress and was finally driven and bullied into returning to her family), watching again I was especially moved by the story of Anne Duchess of Grafton's separation of herself from her husband and how this punished her continually. He could horse-race, gamble, keep mistresses, ignore her to his heart's content, and if she protested or walked out, she was in deep shit. The reason this inner back story emerges is that she tried to influence the building of her mansion.
Joshua Reynolds, The Duchess of Grafton
Finally, the chapter is about the actual people who built, decorated, inhabited, and then used to social advantage the houses, furniture of all types, and prestige items they bought and showed on public occasions. I found myself absorbed by the personal stories of intense fighting between husbands and wives when they split up. I also loved the prints of the beautiful mansions a very few people in England (tiny tiny) liked to show themselves living in. I'll put one of these up tomorrow.
She does prove her point that these interiors functioned personally as well as socially for each individual and were of enormous importance to them. And we can see it's still so when we remember what friends fought over when they got their divorces or separations. That the man could control and take the woman's children away from her totally was very cruel; today both sides have a running chance to use the children against one another
R. Adams, the Estrucan Room, Osterly.
Chapter 6: Wallpapers
In this chapter she does indeed reach that upper middling to middling class she wants so badly to get at. Her problem is she doesn't have samples and since color and taste words are notoriously qualitive experiences, she can't become vivid, and pictorial, but she shows manners, standards, interactions between people. The shop/trade card is revealing (Hogarth did this kind of drawing
Chapter 7: The Trials of Domestic Dependence
In this chapter Vickery drops the theme or pretense of caring so much about the literal things in a house and moves to talk of three lives of women who were in a position of dependence, either as an unmarried sister whose brother was a bully and tyrant and she timid (Gertrude Saville) or wife of a cruel hard tyrannical man willing to use every ounce of authority given him by custom and law: Anne Dormer, endlessly inflicted by pregnancies, hardly allowed ever to go out or have the slightest freedom to live within space that was freely hers, genuinely incarcerated. Vickery is astonished that Anne Dormer's relatives who knew of the situation did nothing. I'm not. I wish I had this case before me in writing of the gothic. If my paper gets published I will certainly add this to the footnotes and put the notes on line. Persuasions does not allow extensive notes but I can put online what was excluded from the paper (which I do to get it published). Another woman, again a wife, was locked out to shame her to obedience (Lady Stanley who could have no friends and wrote her mother who did nothing to help her). We get a Mrs Grenville banished from her home (so homeless).
Then Vickery goes on to describe typical household arrangements of space which show how status was expressed spatially. (This is still true, go to any office in the workplace.) Maps of patriarchal, class and gender oppression are put before us -- real houses which are not anomalies but characteristic. Households are not arranged for underlings; anything but.
It's revealing to me that a number of Vickery's chapters end on contemplating a specific individual who has no private space, no security, no independence whatsoever to get what she wants. This is Vickery's real identification and engagement with her subject. Despite all her detail going over conventional values and socializing and taking the surface of satires literally, it's not in the designs of wallpapers that she'd driven to write this book, but in how they could have provide a (in the chapter before on plainness, neatness, order) space for her to think, write, read, live, in and she's intensely aware she would probably not have had any the way she has today. No false sentimentalizing here.
Rousham, where Lady Cotterell dwelt but as an oppressed prisoner
Chapter 8: Nest of Comforts: the phrase is Fanny Price's for her attic in Mansfield Park.
While away, I read Vickery's chapter on women alone and how they (often desperately) put together a nest of comforts. Every effort was made (no matter how negligently) to leave no room for unmarried women to live alone, so the effort to do it was Herculean, and in comfort achieved only by the very few who inherited some money without having been married; widows were allowed to have an existence. Again, another chapter ends on the image of a specific women who takes her few things with her from place to place: "like the proverbial snail who carried her shelter [her her pride, identity, space] on her own back, the comfort of home inhered in what she could take with her. While her chapter on men shows equally how they found themselves under pressure to marry (everyone driven this way, from the way hospitals wouldn't take anyone in who was simply "isolated" and starving, homeless), she does not continually come back to them the way she does to this single woman. It's her real topic. I say this because it strikes me just as important are the women who have families to support without men, whose men deserted, abandoned, exploited them. Perhaps they didn't leave diaries.
Vickery, Chapter 9: Things Women Made: accomplishments & the tambour too
This is a chapter which defends women's accomplishments. Surely most of us remember well the debate in Austen's P&P over what is an accomplished woman: the reality is such accomplishments were at the time and still are semi-derided, and yet they too formed a home, a space, an identity. This chapter made me re-see the debate in P&P as feminist in the Mary Wollstonecraft sense, for after all Darcy gets the best of the argument in the sense of how to regard making screens; on the other hand, Austen undercuts the idea that we must measure women's worth and understanding by how many books they've read or languages they know. A certain amount of self (meaning her as Elizabeth) comes out here.
Here is much information on the tambour which shows English women (at least among the elite) did use such frames. There's a picture of one being used by a ludicrously (unreal) overdressed lady.
I felt too I was in the world of women as described by Elizabeth Gaskell.
From the film adaptation of Behind Closed Doors, At Home in Georgian England
Vickery, Chapter 10: all about pots and pans; the world (earth) remains round (sort of); gendered household stuff
This is a delightful chapter: all about what is owned in the household and matters a lot: like pots and pans. Where the stove went when people finally had one -- when stoves spread as opposed to cooking in the fireplace. About the spread of things like clocks or watches. Austen is quoted (Mary Crawford). Vickery worries the question about whether a gender taste is attached to certain kinds of decorations, and it does appear some of her witnesses thought that way, but she seems to take this kind of silly thinking seriously.
I finished the chapter, and ironically (to me) Vickery's point is that the way business men began to sell goods more widely was to market them as belonging to this or that gender and deliberately stylize them so as to be fit for men and fit for women. I concede this is probably true: many people do buy goods based on "character" or identity politics the item is associated with. She has an illustration of a man's desk: it looks like mine, very heavy, lots of drawers, a dark mahogany. I've had it since I married Jim (so 40 years) and it's moved a lot and still is strong -- just some of the handles off and stains on the top. It now has a computer on it. Jim put up his nose when I bought it: stodgy and he got himself this "light" Danish desk. One only wanted a large surface. His broke inside two years. Perhaps his would be seen as "feminine" but I'm not sure.
She is much busied with arguing that items associated with women or upper class are everywhere and used equally by men and is trying to argue against misogynistic discourse which mocks women for spending frivolously. Of course I see why but it's hopeless.
I did think she proved beyond a doubt everyone who could had a teapot and huge numbers of English people by the end fo the 18th century looked upon tea breaks as a right. Irony there: there are no tea plantations anywhere on the British isles. She should have mentioned that.
Vickery, Conclusion; tea a home-y ceremony
Tea is a real ceremony in the UK -- having your tea is having a time of rest and recuperation, and it's set up to have dignity and self-respect. Jim keeps it up a bit; we used to do it as a pair in NYC in uptown Manhattan in our Seaman Avenue apartment, afternoons at 4:30 when we were graduate students and adjuncts together So where did this come from?
Basically the conclusion brought all Vickery's major points together and summed up her arguments and contents. The book is a defense of paying attention to interiors, both physical and psychological of homes or space allotted to individuals for living, and it argues how central marriage was to all genders of 18th century people as a way of providing for comfort (well those women who did not in the lottery of things end up with tyrants or die from childbirth, miscarriages, &c). Never said explicitly, it shows how difficult it must have been for homosexual and lesbian people.
She also ends once again on the vision of spinsters, living alone, forced to move from relative to relative, giving little spacial privacy, autonomy or ultimately security and respect. It was "an hopeless goal and ever-receding illusion."
Where then or what then shall we think of Austen? Putting her into this context makes us see some of the reasons for her family re-inventing a sentimental myth about her and their responses to her..
I recommend this book to all. You will grasp and experience a level of 18th century life seriously studied not usually brought out. It's a companion to her Gentleman's Daughter which the reader will find summarized in the comments.