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Saturday, 8 October 2011

Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair, Public Lives: Women, Family and Society in Victorian Britain (2003)

Apart from a slight cavil over the title, which is presumably publisher business rather than the authors's choice - the book is rather specifically about middle class families in Victorian Glasgow - I thought this was an amazing and very useful book. I sometimes think it can never be reiterated too much that that whole public/private boundary was fairly permeable, what with the home/domestic space being a site for sociability, for a significant number of occupations where the male head of the family did all or some of his work, etc, etc, and women being in public in a whole range of capacities from the pursuit of pleasure to the practice of philanthropy, and by the end of the period, the campaign for political rights.

Makes one wonder whether too often 'public' life has been taken to mean involvement in formal political activity on a national or local level and engagement in a remunerative profession.

Though Gordon and Nair show not only that women were heading a significant number of households, they were not infrequently managing their own money (if they were single, widowed, or had money settled on them when married) and even pursuing a range of occupations beyond that of governess. It's also clear that in the class being described, women were often partners in their husbands' endeavours, even if few went as far as Agnes Lister in being Joseph Lister's experimental subject in calculating the dosage for chloroform.

A wonderful range of sources was consulted to make up this book,  from public records such as census returns and property taxes, and wills and testamentary dispositions, to private family papers.

One question that does rise is the extent to which the life-styles they describe were inflected by particular characteristics of Scots law, religion and social practice, or even the specific civil culture of Glasgow. However, they do make a powerful case for not accepting the rhetoric and ideology of 'separate spheres' and simplistic interpretation of the public and the private when thinking about gender roles in Victorian Britain (and indeed other times and places)

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