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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Desperate (Victorian) housewives - by Jen Newby

I'm very proud to welcome the fabulous Jen Newby, editor of Family History Monthly, to my blog this week! I've often written about how hard life was for working class women, but what was life like if you couldn't earn your own living, and were doomed to a life of cosy domesticity? 

Jen takes up the thread of their lives:

"If I could travel back in time to the 19th century I would rather have been anything but a middle class woman – chimney sweep, scullery maid or even a factory worker. While researching Women’s Lives, my new book on women’s social history during the 19th and early 20th century, I discovered that many relatively well-off women lived lives of quiet desperation, boredom and, frustration.

While female educational opportunities were gradually improving, and their peers were heading off to become teachers, doctors and political activists, ordinarily young ladies were stuck at home with some needlework or improving reading, waiting for marriage and the chance to escape to a house of their own. The conventional view was that women should aspire to marriage and motherhood. Even as late as 1895, novelist Grant Allen got away with writing, ‘A woman ought to be ashamed to say that she has no desire to become a wife and mother’.
So throughout the long 19th century, thousands of carefully-dressed young ladies vegetated on chaise longue. ‘Women’s business’, as novelist Sarah Stephens described in, Passages From the Life of a Daughter at Home, in 1845, was finding ‘something to pass the time…in drawing or in music or literature or worsted work…reading aloud’. Every Girl’s Book (1860) lists uninspiring entertainments open to young middle-class girls: spillikins, fancy work, embroidery, silk work, making wax flowers. For older women there were card games, bridge and sewing.
Lacking suitors and balls, jaded young women devoured romantic novels of adventure and excitement, like Edwardian bestsellers, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Blue Lagoon. The market for women’s magazines rocketed during the second half of the 19th century, with Isabella Beeton and her husband churning out The Queen and The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.
Not all meekly accepted a life of flower arranging and trips to church. Remembering her youth, Florence Nightingale complained: ‘Oh, weary days – Oh evenings that never seem to end – for how many years have I watched that drawing room clock and thought it would never reach the ten’. Some were pushed by their comfortable, stultifying upbringings to aspire to something more, escaping into the world to make their mark. Their stories are still capable of inspiring women today".

Jen’s wonderful new book, Women’s Lives: researching women’s social history 1800–1939 is published by Pen & Sword. You can find out more about Jen's books here.

All images from Jen Newby's collection.

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