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Biography 23.2 (2000) 391-393
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Amanda Vickery's thoroughly researched book on the lives of Georgian women in England focuses on members of the gentry residing in the north of England. Her definition of gentry is wider than that used by other social historians. She includes not only those with incomes of at least £100 derived from land, but also those in the "genteel trades" that required some capital (for example, bankers, manufacturers, merchants). She concludes that, contrary to much established opinion, women did not necessarily have "declining options" as the eighteenth century progressed. As she sees it, Georgian women never lamented a lost "golden age of prestigious, highly profitable and wide-ranging female work" (5), but they also did not live so exclusively in the domestic sphere as many historians have argued. The genteel women whose letters and diaries Vickery examines interacted extensively with kinfolk, tradesmen, landowners, and even the aristocracy. They lived multiple roles, not one--daughter, wife, mother, consumer, manager, hostess--and revealed through their writing "the possibilities of lives lived within the bounds of propriety" (12).
Vickery draws on material in the Lancashire Record Office at Preston, and to avoid the danger of limiting focus and drawing class lines too rigidly, she examines all material in the archive written by privileged women between 1730 and 1825, supplementing her research by looking at similar material in other northern and in London archives. In some ways, the sheer volume of material introduced into the book is overwhelming, but Vickery makes a very convincing case about the actual role of these women in provincial Georgian society. [End Page 391]
The experience of Elizabeth Shackleton (1725-81) dominates the study largely because Vickery had access to thousands of letters and thirty-nine diaries that chronicle nearly twenty years of her life. Born into a family that hybridized the gentry and the textile trade, she married Robert Parker, a genteel second cousin, and was widowed at 32. Seven years later, she eloped to Gretna Green with John Shackleton, a wool merchant eighteen years younger than she. From her letters, a picture of Georgian life emerges. We learn who is on visiting terms with the family and who is not, with the line being drawn, not between the "landed" and those in "trade," but rather between those in the professional/commercial classes and the retailers and shopkeepers below them.
Her two courtships also serve as a corrective to ideas that we may have garnered from reading novels. Robert Parker spent years melodramatically courting Elizabeth, against her family's approval. Many of his letters seem modeled on those in fiction: he pleads for clandestine meetings, he threatens her with a rival, and he pours out his heart. She, on the other hand, is clearly torn between her heart and her duty, but she nonetheless sides with duty. She wants Robert, but she feels uneasy about offending her father, who thinks Robert beneath her. Her letters reveal circumspection and caution. Eventually, after seven years, all sorts itself out, the marriage settlements are drawn up, and they marry. Her next marriage proves less felicitous: Elizabeth never gains the approval of her family this time, but she marries her young man just the same. After about seven years of marriage, her second husband takes to drink and abuse. Since her family cast her off when she eloped, she has no support system and must endure her husband until her own death releases her.
Vickery examines the progress of several marriages as revealed in letters, concluding that the best ones shared a division of roles mutually agreed upon by both husband and wife. Also, the wives saw themselves as dutiful, and even prided themselves on being dutiful as long as their husbands, whose patriarchal authority both took for granted, did not push the limits. A successful marriage was very much a "shared endeavour" (72), but also depended on a husband'...