Bed, Bath and Beyond
“He allows me not the prviliedg to place a Table or Stool but where he Fancies,” Lady Sarah Cowper complained about her husband, Sir William Cowper, in 1706. He treated her, she insisted, “as a Concubine not as a Wife,” by refusing to allow her to pick out wallpaper or decorate the drawing room. This was more than just a dispute about interior decoration. Though bound by their husbands’ authority, 18th-century women were expected to be the domestic managers of their family’s affairs. By not consulting his wife in these matters, Cowper revealed himself to be an “absolute tyrant.”
The pages of “Behind Closed Doors” are filled with such squabbles. Amanda Vickery, a reader in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, finds them in fashionably decorated Yorkshire mansions and dirty London lodgings, in downstairs kitchens and gilded parlors and gloomy garret rooms. She opens resolutely shut doors and peeps into the private lives of servants, aristocrats and the “polite and middling sorts” — merchants, clergy members, doctors and lawyers. “Behind Closed Doors” examines what privacy meant in 18th-century Britain and how people negotiated both their domestic space and their domestic relationships.
Vickery’s greatest achievement is to upend the notion that the home was divided into separate spheres in which men were responsible for brick and stone while women ruled over domestic life. Instead, Vickery brilliantly shows that these boundaries were fluid and mutable. Lady Sarah Cowper’s husband meddled with the curtains in the drawing room, and Jonathan Swift was smitten with porcelain, claiming to “love it mightily,” while James Hewitt, the mayor of Coventry, spent happy hours matching wall colors to patterned curtains and upholstery fabrics.
There is a plethora of studies about male patronage of architecture and the decorative arts in the Georgian period, but it may come as a surprise that bachelors, husbands, widowers and brothers had such obsessions with the home front. “Those who are incapable of relishing domestic happiness can never be really happy at all,” one husband declared after more than 30 years of marriage.
An entire chapter is devoted to bachelors who, instead of parading around town as frivolous dandies — as they have been portrayed in the past — often longed for marriage. Many despised their makeshift accommodations and take-away meals (by 1700, the commercial provision of food employed more people than most other sectors), as well as crowded taverns and a maid who might take “my sheets to her own use.” When comparing bachelorhood to marriage, Dudley Ryder, the son of a linen draper, decided he wanted a “constant companion” who would be “always ready to soothe me, take care of me.” Marriage, Vickery writes, “announced and confirmed men’s adulthood” and marked the beginning of a well-managed domestic life. Just because men didn’t fill their diaries with their notion of “homeliness” doesn’t mean they weren’t interested in it, nor does it deter Vickery from trying to find out the details. Few writers have such a talent for transforming the driest historical source into a gripping narrative, for teasing stories from account books, inventories, ledgers and pattern books.
Some of her most fascinating sources are the records of the Old Bailey, the main criminal court in London. During proceedings dealing with theft, witnesses often gave descriptions of their valuables and the places of safekeeping within the home. These records allow Vickery to chart the fraught and difficult negotiations that were necessary to secure at least some bit of privacy behind the uniform facade of the terraced 18th-century house. Since a maid didn’t have her own room, she might have only a small wooden box in which to lock her few belongings; a lodger might put his coins in the hollow leg of his bed to hide it from his preying landlady. Others protected their private property in secret drawers and boxes, or behind the wainscot. Such “personal receptacles,” Vickery writes, “stood proxy for individuality.” This battle over the frontiers of privacy wasn’t confined to servants and lodgers. Wealthy aristocratic women often had closets that functioned as private sanctuaries into which no one — not even their husbands — would intrude. “Behind Closed Doors” carefully describes how servants, married women, spinsters and widows struggled for a space they could call their own.
According to Vickery, these negotiations are at the core of domestic life in Georgian England and became part of “setting up home” — sometimes even before marriage. Mary Martin, the fiancée of a colonel, asserted her role as future wife and domestic manager when she oversaw the refurbishment of his London house. When her fiancé’s decorator painted a room in a shade of white that wasn’t quite what she had envisaged, she flew into a rage and “frighten’d him out of his Wits.”
What went on behind closed doors after her wedding (and most others) has been difficult to ascertain, but Vickery found three rare sets of matching account books for husbands and wives. (One was in my possession, for which I’m thanked in her acknowledgments.) The picture that emerges from the “His and Hers” chapter is that of efficient wives responsible for child-related expenses — schooling, dancing masters, clothes — as well as groceries, the husband’s personal linen, laundry and servants’ wages. Unsurprisingly, the husbands dealt with expenses related to their estates, loans and stables, but also bought most luxury goods. In one of the three examples, most of the family’s money flowed through the wife’s account book, with the husband receiving a rather enormous “allowance.” Though women have often been accused of “fetishistic self-indulgence,” these account books reveal husbands who bought “dandyish” waistcoats and women who didn’t indulge in new gowns.
“Behind Closed Doors” also leads the reader into the rooms of spinsters and widows, an important inclusion, since in 1700 the average marriage lasted only 10 years. Of the two, spinsters were worse off, often at the mercy of brothers or fathers. Their lives, Vickery writes, could be “one long tour of kin,” while widows (if they were wealthy) frequently enjoyed greater freedom than during their marriages. Martha Dodson, the widow of the high sheriff of Berkshire, for example, was clearly having fun, constantly redecorating her house even when she was in her late 70s.
“Interiors do not easily offer up their secrets,” Vickery writes but then succeeds in getting them to do just that. The blue and yellow wallpaper the depressed spinster Gertrude Savile bought in 1739 illustrates that she was very much in tune with the latest fashion, while her disapproval of the “debauchery in London” was embroidered into her chairs — on which she had copied images from Hogarth’s famous series “Harlot’s Progress.” At the same time, her lack of teapots and other china bears witness to her social isolation and “dread of company.”
If until now the Georgian home has been like a monochrome engraving, Vickery has made it three dimensional and vibrantly colored. “Behind Closed Doors” demonstrates that rigorous academic work can also be nosy, gossipy and utterly engaging.