One of the blurbs on the back of this book ends by saying, “Serious history is rarely this fun.” I submit that Ms. Foreman of The Times needs more fun in her life.
Don’t get me wrong; this book wasn’t all that bad. But it was not the most fun history book I’ve ever read, even of a scholarly sort. Especially the first chapter — I almost didn’t make it through that one, and if I hadn’t been carrying this book with me on a trip (ergo it was my only reading material), I don’t know if I would have gone on. The first chapter is dry as all hell, as it painstakingly details for the reader how many letters its subjects wrote to family members, how many to families of their own social class, how many to their social inferiors, etc, and it’s a good thing the book picked up after that, or I would not have finished it.
But it does improve, and I appreciated its subject matter, which is the lives of gentry-class women in Georgian England. Its focus is on the broader social community of Lancashire and west Yorkshire, hence different in some important ways from the kind of metropolitan life I’m writing about, but a lot of the topics (such as marriage and childbearing) don’t vary too much with geography. And it’s always good to get a history that digs into the diaries and letters and household account books, i.e. the stuff that usually gets overlooked. In fact, I was struck by a comparison between this and Roy Porter’s book, whose revised edition predates this work by eight years; Porter stated, early in his book, that “compared with men, we know little about what women felt, thought and did.” Lest you condemn him for accepting that limitation too easily, though, I should also mention that the front cover of Vickery’s book has a quote from Porter, calling it “The most important thing in English feminist history in the last ten years.” Vickery is filling in one of the gaps he acknowledged in his own work.
If you find yourself with a sudden yen to research the period, my recommendation is this: skim the first chapter, paying only enough attention to get a sense of who the women are that Vickery will be talking about all book, then move onto the next chapter posthaste. There’s good stuff in here, but you have to get past the dry statistics to find it.