- A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century
Simon Morgan’s diverse and wide-ranging study is a useful contribution to the current scholarship which aims to re-evaluate the public life of Victorian middle-class women. His research has moved the debate forward on several fronts. Firstly, Morgan provides a more nuanced understanding of the ‘separate spheres’ discourse [End Page 314] by accentuating the blurred boundaries between public and private domains. Secondly, he adopts broader definitions of politics and political culture in this period. These definitions soften the distinctions between formal and informal methods of political participation and in so-doing allow for a change of focus which enables female contributions to be assessed rather than marginalised. Thirdly, he stresses the importance of female agency; that is, he emphasises areas where women could and did participate rather than where they were excluded or auxiliary. Lastly (although this is by no means an exhaustive list), he utilises a greater variety of source material and reassesses some of the more traditional resources for political history. Thus the significance of female interventions in shaping the political culture of the period may be analysed more fully. Morgan’s work encompasses all of these approaches by developing the idea of a ‘civic role’ for middle-class women which he argues will counter the established picture of their exclusion or marginalisation. By placing ‘public culture’ at its centre, the study moves beyond the traditional confines of political history and therefore will have much to interest those in all fields of Victorian studies. The book falls into four main parts: a discussion of how women participated in the public development and expression of a middle-class identity; women and cultural citizenship; the role of philanthropy; and women’s political roles.
The focus for Morgan’s study is the emergent industrial city of Leeds. This is a brave choice for it entails confronting head-on the ‘masculine narrative’ (7) of R.J. Morris in his magisterial account of the development of middle-class identity in that city.1 Not content with taking on the work of one authority in the political and social history of the urban middle class, Morgan also critiques the work of other leading specialists, including Frank O’Gorman and James Vernon, who either ignore or actively exclude the role of women in their discussions of civic rituals and political identities.2 Morgan employs many of the same sources as Morris as he carefully recreates the public world of the Leeds middle-class woman: records of charities and voluntary organisations, trade directories, the archives of Leeds educational and cultural institutions and local newspapers. This evidence is enriched by the letters, diaries and published work of the women themselves. The result is an innovative account which adds depth and texture to our understanding of the public life of middle-class women. In particular, Morgan is effective as he marries analyses of the familiar institutions and practices of middle-class life with those which are less well-known. Thus, his chapter on education juxtaposes an examination of the [End Page 315] famous Quaker establishment, The Mount School, alongside that of the Leeds Ladies’ Educational Institution; an important reminder that Mechanic’s Institutes were significant for the education of the middle-class who comprised around two-thirds of the membership. He looks at memorials as well as at petitions as these were less controversial for women to sign. He considers the minor political offices which were open to women and scrutinises the parish electorate which included women rate-payers. In his work on philanthropy and on civic ritual he foregrounds the significant role of the bazaar: a female-dominated space and increasingly a site of gender conflict as the middle-class women organisers defended encroachments on their territory from male businessmen.
Yet is Morgan ultimately successful in re-shaping Morris’s image of the public life of the city...