Review: "Behind Closed Doors" by Amanda Vickery, 2009, Yale University Press.


Only one of Vickery's ten chapters is about wallpaper. More about that in a minute, but first—this is a very accomplished book. That is not a reference to the traditional patronization of ladies' "accomplish'd" hair-, feather-, and shellwork. Vickery spends many pages exploring and rehabilitating that genteel work.

Her goals, laid out on page three: "this book takes the experience of interiors as its subject, staking claim to an uncharted space between architectural history, family and gender history and economic history. It brings hazy background to the fore to examine the determining role of house and home in power and emotion, status and choices."

Only a bold and ambitious writer would tackle the vast canvas of domestic life in England in the Georgian period (roughly 1688 to 1830 or so). The case studies and reviews of scholarly literature alone prove prodigious research. The prose is not always crystal clear but it's muscular. She weaves a convincing tapestry of what life was like for her cast of diarists, letter-writers, widows, spinsters, apprentices and shoppers.

The approach is unusual. Equal parts E. P. Thompson, John Cornforth and Jane Austen, she skips from social and folkway history to entertainments in great houses to imagined conversations in parsonages, all of this to bring out how people lived and why they lived that way. Her conclusions do not add up to a consistent world-view, but do they need to? The book is studded with wise observations.

The conventions and prerogatives of household control have long been marked by misogyny, prejudice and exploitation, and these faults have been explained away or perpetuated by later commentators. Sharp reappraisals of family life from a feminist or radical perspective, though useful correctives, are themselves sometimes off the mark. It is not yet clear what historic family life meant, and what it can tell us about how we should live today. This troubled history supplies an abundance of fat targets for her darts, which are well-placed and effective. She is also expert at fitting quotes into her text, and this helps to  sustain interest throughout what is really a small encyclopedia of Georgian life.

Some may find this an emphatically feminist reading, but this criticism overlooks an important point. If the long ago voices she employs are almost always female, and if her conclusions occasionally stand male/female relations on their head, it is because of three things: 1. her research found that men couldn't be bothered to keep domestic journals; 2. on the evidence, they refused to apply the dictates of the Enlightenment for greater equality, freedom and so on to their home kingdoms: "I have yet to encounter a single gentleman musing on whether it might be possible to reconsider his domestic rule in the light of the new political ideas" (pg. 185); and, 3. domestic life for the period surely was strongly marked by sexism, and it takes neither a female nor a scholar to recognize that.

She deflates fond notions and sheds new light, employing a sort of swarming offense that never lingers long enough on any point to erect a scaffold for a larger theory. Which is perhaps just as well. The way that this iconoclastic book cheerfully pulls down tottering assumptions is enough of a reward. More theory would have weighed it down, reducing appeal to the elusive educated lay reader toward whom it seems well-directed. One definition of a good book must be that it forces us to consider how we live today. After completing this book, I felt profoundly grateful that my household's daily linen and cooking needs don't condemn anyone to hours of arduous toil.

She talks often of decorum and found a decorous way of integrating strains of thought by introducing the reader to the themes of scholarly work ("Cohen has found...", "Bermingham suggests..." and so on), but then suppressing the discussion to a footnote. This is wise because if she had lingered on these debates, there would have been no room for the news that "by the 1750s pans outnumbered pots by two to one in thefts of furnishings from humble London lodgings" (pg. 266). Similarly, I guess I suspected that the "nobility were a peculiar minority" but I did not know that there were just 350 peers by 1832 in a population of over 18 million (pg. 130). Nor did I suspect that the typical marriage around 1700 lasted only ten years (pg. 208).  The nitty-gritty information gleaned from cases at the Old Bailey is especially valuable and her chapter on locks, boxes and keys is surprisingly profound.

I was baffled, amused and educated by the Brittishisms that popped up now and again. "Spirits were as firewater with him"; "Of a different kidney altogether was Sylas Neville..."; "The householder...paid scot and bore lot". Dilatory builders and decorators are not hassled by customers but "chivvied"; James Boswell "could not help wondering if his landlord would tick him off for nocturnal naughtiness" but here in the home of Yale University Press "ticked off" carries an entirely different meaning. Renting out an extra room was a "financial makeweight", and in the same vein a sensible husband allowed his wife to spend money, because "there was no making bricks without straw".

It must be wonderful to be able to describe the Georgian period in what sounds to an American ear like Georgian language. The chapter on wallpaper bears closer examination and will be reviewed in an upcoming post.

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