Harlots, Housewives and Heroines

This post will, I hope, come as no surprise to UK-based readers, especially the female ones. If they haven’t been watching Lucy Worsley’s series, Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls, then they have been missing out. Some of you will be able to catch it on the iPlayer, and if all else fails there’s some information here.

Worsley says in her introduction to each episode that the Restoration — when Charles II returns from exile to put an end to Puritanism — is the start of the modern world as far as the UK is concerned. I tend to agree. During this time, Charles’ Queen, Catherine of Braganza (a Portuguese princess) introduced tea drinking to England. The era also saw the invention of the coffee house and the shopping mall, and a change in the law that allowed women to act in the theatre. The pamphlet became the forerunner of newspapers (and was every bit as dishonest and muck-raking as the worst tabloid). The King had to develop skills in spin doctoring. Alongside the significant expansion of scientific endeavor, and of the British empire (part of Catherine’s dowry was the city of Mumbai), there was a significant change in women’s place in society. After all, under Puritanism things could not have been much worse.

The era saw the rise of many prominent women in all walks of life. Nell Gwyn is by far the most famous, but Worsley introduces us to many others. They include the much traveled Celia Fiennes, the woman soldier, Christian Davies, and the prolific playwright, author and poet, Aphra Behn. Above all there is the early feminist Margaret Cavendish. She was one of the few women allowed to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in its early years. And her novel, The Blazing World, is not only an early example of science fiction, it is decidedly feminist in outlook.

I thoroughly enjoyed all three programs in the series. Worsley was perfectly happy to dress up in period costume to illustrate a point, and did not shy away from the bawdier aspects of 17th Century life. Yes, it is history as entertainment, but it is good history too (at least as far as I know — I await correction from my historian readers). And, of course, it is her-story. Thank you, Ms. Worsley.

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9 Responses to Harlots, Housewives and Heroines

  1. Cathy Butler says:

    I’ve not seen the series, but coffeehouses flourished under the Protectorate years before Charles Stuart’s return.

    Also, I’m not sure about the line that life for women couldn’t have been much worse than under Puritanism: for example, Puritans were far more likely to educate their daughters to read than other people of that time, if only because they laid so much store on an ability to read the Bible.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thanks, I knew I’d get something wrong.

      And while I appreciate literacy, being literate just so you can see that you are officially the source of all evil in the world is not very useful. You have to read other things too.

      • Farah Mendlesohn says:

        The Puritans weren’t that hot on the “women as the source of all evil”.

        It’s a real problem that Victorian puritans appropriated the term, because it means very different things. 17th century Puritans were real radicals in all sorts of ways, and they didn’t oppose drink or fun, they opposed public disorder (theatres of the 17th century were more like 1980s football grounds in terms of behaviour). Many were brewers (the Vassar brothers i New England, who founded the women’s college); or brought in coffee or chocolate (and the history of the Quakers and slavery is complicated, they were using free labour all through the 19th century-the link to slavery is from the 1900s when they discovered the Portugese were using slaves. The British government asked them to keep quiet during negotiations and they made the mistake of agreeing. They won the subsequent libel case. see Deborah Cadbury The Chocolate Wars). By the standards of 19th century puritan moralists, the “Puritans” were temperate, not teetotal, and were dangerous radicals with strange ideas about equality.

  2. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    Yeah, sorry, was about to splutter. This is about as wrong as it can be.

    Almost all the people you list here were educated in the early seventeenth or mid seventeenth century (it enrages me that the Restoration gets credit for the Royal Society for example, because it was actually founded the month before the Restoration, and all its members were educated in the Commonwealth).

    The most useful book for the power (and very real authority) of seventeenth century women is The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser. It’s a while since I read it, but it’s about the role women played in the civil war. Lucy Hutchinson ran her husbands’ estates; the Duke of Newcastle’s daughters (he’s Cavendish’s husband but she’s not their mother) ran his estates and sued for his liberty for him. I have forgotten her name but one woman held off Royalist soldiers with her retainers from her own estate while her men were fighting (it’s the background to the same scene in Geoffrey Trease’s Silver Guard).

    Women can hold property in this period–widows in particular–and because the role of the 17th century aristocratic woman is essentially household manager (replaced by housekeepers in the 19th century) she is a producer, not a consumer, in charge of dairy, still room, manufactory. If she is not competent and not able to read, and do figures, she cannot run the household (see a book called In the Georgian Household for the transition in the 18th century into the role of consumer/producer of luxuries (music, painting, and the other nice things of life). On an unrelated note, it’s the thing the 19th century authors I’m reading often get wrong ie in Children of the New Forest, the girls have to get used to labouring in this way when in fact they would have been brought up to it. This means when a woman “has” to take over the estate because her husband is at war, it’s more like the Lieutenant stepping up, than a story of a useless fribble stepping in.

    Among the Puritans, women had liberty to read the bible, and among some sects (Quakers and Convenanters) to preach. And the Royalists were notorious harrassers of women (Charlotte Younge is very funny on this: “Steadfast noted that the Cavaliers doffed their hats to the clergy, but harrassed the women, while the Roundheads harrassed the clergy but were ever courteous to the women.” — and with the exception of Ireland, this is broadly true.

    What happens after the Restoration is complex: the death rate in the Civil War is as high (possibly even higher) than during the Great War. There is a massive man shortage. Pepys talks in his diary about his desperation to marry off his sister (who is driving his wife mad). The result is that women are exploitable, and we see this in the culture at court where the only route to power for a woman is through the bedroom (none of that under Charles I), and on the streets where prostitution is rife, and will stay so until we have a period of relative peace in the mid 19thc. If you can, read Defoe’s Moll Flanders. This is always framed as a romp. It isn’t, it’s a social novel about women’s exploitation.

    The collapse of the social structure means that arranged marriage takes on a different meaning: arranged marriages had taken place between families. It was rare for people not to know each other, and often “arranged” meant telling your father that you quite liked so and so and if he was suitable, a match would be arranged. In the Restoration, thanks to war and plague, there are a lot of very vulnerable women reliant on uncles and guardians, and the stories of pressured marriages. It’s in this period we get the “eloping with a fortune hunter” narrative, which was all too often straightforward kidnap. See Wendy Moore’s Wedlock: How the Worst Husband Met his Match.

    Women’s property rights diminish–increasingly their rights are tied up in entails, preserving land for their children. They are supposed to have portions of their own but nothing can stop a man squandering it. Increasingly the law ignores women’s individuality. It’s in 1756 Blackstone writes: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband;”. This was a new concept, not a restatement of an old one. 15th century women would have been horrified. They had the right to go to law over a beating.

    As for education: the evidence is that literacy rates drop at the end of the century, picking up again only in the mid eighteenth century. Aristocratic women’s education, which in the sixteenth century included Greek and Latin, became ever more diminished. See Blue Stockings by Jane Robinson and Other People’s Daughters: the Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon which also tells you what happened to Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont after Byron and Shelley died).

    Ok, enough from me. My current hobby work is on the Civil War and Restoration, so I could Bore for Parliament on this topic.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thank you, I was kind of expecting you to drop by. :-)

      I should note that Worsley does mention the sexual harassment, and the lack of men. Parallels with the 1920s here?

      It seems to me that the situation under the Restoration was quite like it is today, with women having the theoretical ability to do lots of things, including be a sexy actress, but still against a background of Patriarchy and poorer women being forced into sex work rather than having the choice. I’m wondering how much all this sexualisation is an inevitable byproduct of emancipation. I’d note also that the only route to power being through the bedchamber is better than there being no route to power at all, so please correct me if there are routes to political power for women under the Commonwealth.

      Point taken about the improved education under the Commonwealth being the springboard for later success.

      1756 is hardly Restoration is it?

      Responding in haste as I’m on my way out. Please continue to kick my ignorant butt. I’m always happy to soak up history.

      • Farah Mendlesohn says:

        The Restoration atttitudes to women last into the early 19th century when the “Victorian values” sweep in.

        Re power under the Commonwealth: impossible to tell given that for much of the time it’s a military dictatorship, ruled by the Major Generals, but certainly, where a woman inherits from her Royalist husband or father, her property rights are respected.

        In terms of parallels: with the 1920s is very strong indeed, but with now not so much. Those routes to power were for a very tiny number of women. For the majority of women, life got much, much worse.

        However there is one set of new opportunities I know of: prior to the Civil War, house servants–except for a lady’s own servants–tended to be male. After the Civil War most servants were female.

  3. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    ps. Note how many interesting women were widows. There were some serious advantaged to marrying an old crock and hoping you made it through child birth.

    • Joris M says:

      This effect is shown a couple of times in episodes of ‘Who do you think you are’ (Alex Kingston, and at least one more in the same series). Even as late as the Victorian era if I remember correctly.

  4. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    Sorry to blather on, but the Commonwealth is a really exciting period, but there is little to read, because there was a mass paper burning at the Restoration. I got interested both through the travesty that is I, Coriander, and the realisation that *of course* people cheered Charles. Just as the Iraqis cheered Bush.

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