Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Ideal Georgian Woman

Advice to a Lady
Seek to be good, but aim not to be great,
A woman’s noblest station is retreat,
Her fairest virtues fly from public sight,
Domestic worth, that shuns too strong a light.
Lord Lyttelton

The feminine ideal of Georgian womanhood may best be defined as a combination of moral perfection and intellectual deficiency. She was required to be above all things a ‘womanly woman’ meek, timid, trustful, clinging, yielding, unselfish, helpless and dependent, and robust in neither body nor mind. She was also expected to be a thoroughly practical domestic sort of person, not educated except in how to run a domestic establishment with good sense of judgment. Her tombstone might say she was born a woman and died a housekeeper. She was also a model wife and mother. The only career open to her was marriage, and she would have considered a loveless marriage infinitely more respectable than the pursuit of a profession. If a suitor presented himself it was her duty to love him, or at any rate marry him. Because masculine idealists of the time felt ‘The soul of the true woman finds its supreme satisfaction in self-sacrifice’ the woman who rejected this must renounce all claims to womanliness.
The kitchen and the nursery were her sole spheres of action. She must treat her men-folk with respectful admiration and accept their judgments in a spirit of childlike faith and obey them with unquestioning submission.

The education and training of the ideal woman was completely subordinated to the tastes and demands of men. In the words of Jean Jacques, “Woman was created to give way to man, and to suffer his injustice …. To please us, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young and take care of us when grown up, to admire and console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable.”

Jane Austen made mention of the prejudice with sweet-tempered sarcasm in a passage in Northanger Abbey. "... in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their natural charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well-informed themselves to desire anything more in a woman than-ignorance." 

Below: A shell-encrusted surround to a window in the Shell Gallery at A La Ronde, Devon made by the spinster cousins Jane and Mary Parminter, 1790c/
The doctrine that it was unfeminine for a ‘female’ to pursue any exact study, led in the course of time to the curious notion that it was unfeminine for her to do anything well. Unable to execute anything with professional skill, during the reigns of the third and fourth Georges, they were forced to they deliberately invented a kind of ‘mock art’. Modeling in clay was unfeminine but modeling in wax or bread a feminine occupation. Filigree and mosaic work was copied in coloured paper, medals were made of cardboard and bold-leaf, Dresden china of rice paper, cottages of paste-board, flowers of lambswool, coral of blackthorn twigs painted vermilion and ‘Grecian Tintos’ were painted –or plastered-with black lead mixed with pomatum, the lights being scratched out with a penknife. This medium was considered particularly adapted for sea and moonlight pieces.
In my novel, The Reluctant Marquess, which is to be released in March, Lord Robert expects as a Georgian member of the aristocracy that his wife will make the necessary adjustments to fit in with his way of life. He is shocked to find that his country-bred wife, Charity, the daughter of an academic, has a mind of her own. Her small rebellion against the strictures of society is sculpting in wood, which she learned from her grandfather. Thrown into a marriage of convenience, Charity wishes to be more than just decorative adjunct to her husband. Determined to live on her own terms, she fights for true intimacy with the handsome, moody and complex man she married. 
Many wives to their credit were extremely efficient, running properties and businesses alongside their husbands. Some ran large estates on their own after their husband's died.

Side-Lights On The Georgian Period by George Paston
Behind Closed Doors At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery


J.A. Beard said...

Great entry. What was perhaps most pernicious is, as you pointed out, how anything that might even lead to more actual competency in many realms was in of itself frowned on. Of course, the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling cycle.

Maggi Andersen said...

So true, J.A. Thanks for stopping by.

Grace Elliot said...

You really pu your finger on what it was to be a woman in Georgian society. Very interesting, and your new book sounds fascinating.
Grace x

Maggi Andersen said...

Thanks for stopping by, Grace.