Amanda Vickery - Preston's history woman (with audio)
19:28 31 January 2010
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The sweet, wilting and, occasionally, witless women who grace our Georgian costume dramas seem the perfect accompaniment for men seeking wives. Not so, says Preston historian Amanda Vickery.
What a man really wanted, I suspect, was a sexy battle-axe, she laughs. They wanted Venus but they wanted Minerva, too - an attractive woman who was tough enough to run an efficient household.
While most historians chart great events which changed the lives of millions, Amanda specialises in the minutiae of domesticity. But you would be mistaken if you thought this strand of research was in any way inferior.
My aim was to look at the small things, things considered boring or humble and set them in a much broader historical context, adds Amanda. Having a stove or a fireplace might not seem important but it can be as significant as victory in a war.
The crucible for Amandas passion was Penwortham Girls Grammar School, the spark lit by history teacher Angela Gibson. It set her on a path to letter and diary archives, initially at the Lancashire Records Office in Preston, and then across the county and into other parts of the UK.
What lay buried beneath the dusty pages of generations long dead turned out to be gold nuggets of fascinating, lively detail. Initially, they were used to form her first book The Gentlemans Daughter: Womens Lives in Georgian England, which picked up prestigious awards. Her latest work is Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, a book which helped to spawn one of the BBC Radio 4 hits of 2009.
The History of Private Lives ran for 30 weeks and took us through the keyhole and into the dining rooms, servants quarters and bedrooms of Georgian life. It received rave reviews and demands for the series to be released on CD.
I was taken aback and thrilled by the success. Ive always been interested in old diaries and letters but you worry that things which interest you wont interest others,
The truth is she has produced highly readable books brimming with wit and wisdom.
Amanda was born at Sharoe Green Hospital, where her mother was a nurse and she was brought up in Longton, where her father still lives. Research for her doctorate took her to many archives. She hit the jackpot with the 18th Century diaries of Elizabeth Parker Shackleton, of Alkincoats, near Colne, and with the help of the Parker family, of Browsholme Hall, she pieced together love letters and diaries to paint a vivid picture of life in a Lancashire household.
She was able to get a picture of the intimacy of marriage and to examine what men got from domestic life. I was interested to discover what binds couples together, says Amanda, who is the professor of history at Royal Holloway University, London.
A lot contained humour, the banter of any close relationship. One husband writes, describing his wife as a big bottomed baggage and a hussy. On paper it might sound less than flattering, but it was mocking humour of a 50-year-old amazed to find love later in life.
Another writes in one breath that he is missing his beloved and in the next asking: How are your piles?
Many marriages were not so happy, with severe husbands backed by a cruelly biased legal system. For instance, when former governess Ellen Weeton, of Upholland, was driven from the family home by a violent, loveless marriage, she paid a high price by being denied all contact with her daughter.
There were also stories demonstrating the indomitable human spirit. A widow, almost demented by grief, writes that she has found the power to go on because she dreams her husband is in bed next to her each night, willing her to go on. Its extraordinarily moving, says Amanda, who spent many happy childhood hours in Prestons Harris Museum, which she regards as one of Englands finest.
The importance of the past lies as much in the history of relationships and private rituals as in public institutions like universities and parliament. I am fascinated by how people lived their day-to-day lives, their secret struggles and their longings. And what researchers heart would not lift at the words ... please burn this letter that no mortal eyes may read it?
A surprisingly large number of love letters survive simply because people treasured them.
In the archives, she found one young man seeking advice because he lost control of his arms and legs when in the company of women, worried he had bad breath and feared impotence on his imagined wedding night. Another bemoans the fact he had proposed to nine women and was rejected by the lot.
Future archivists might not be so fortunate. Email and texting have largely rendered the art of writing love letters redundant. Ive asked my students and hardly have ever written a love letter, she says. Its tragic!
The maternal side of Professor Amanda Vickerys family were weavers from East Lancashire and her next project will examine womens experiences in the Lancashire mill towns of the 50s and 60s. If anyone has material which might be included in her research, they should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her hardback book, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, is published by Yale University Press, priced 18.99