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.