Skip to main content

The Nice Girls

Before Girl Power came Lady Power, when Georgian gentlewomen showed a subtler brand of strength. John D Clare reads about Selfish Nice, Stoic Nice, Tragic Nice and Cradle-snatching Nice. All saints, they weren't...

FANNY BURNEY: HER LIFE. By Kate Chisholm. Chatto amp; Windus Pounds 20. THE GENTLEMAN'S DAUGHTER: WOMEN'S LIVES IN GEORGIAN ENGLAND. By Amanda Vickery. Yale University Press Pounds 19.95. Fanny Burney was much more than a novelist, diarist and failed playwright. Her four novels were famous enough in their time to gain her admission to French polite society,and she was an intimate of the literary circle which included Dr Johnson and the "blue-stockings".

As Second Keeper of the Robes, Burney (1752-1840) was also a member of the Royal Household during George III's mad phase, and was once (if we are to believe her) chased round Kew by the King. She witnessed life in Napoleonic Paris, and the battle of Waterloo.

She married an impoverished French emigre when she was 41, had her first child at 42, and at 59 survived a mastectomy without anaesthetic (her description of this is truly gruesome).

She added a number of new words to the language, and her second novel, Cecilia, inspired both plot and title of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Kate Chisholm offers a lively biography with a fluent style that makes for easy reading. But don't expect to find her subject exciting or forceful. Although Burney has enjoyed a feminist resurgence on the grounds that her work reflects "the difficulties faced by women in a world where all the best opportunities were reserved for the sons", she was no feminist. When her sister sought advice on an unhappy marriage, Fanny urged her to "submit" to her husband.

What seems to have concerned Fanny Burney most was Fanny Burney. After a stormy Channel crossing in 1814, she became "so weak and dehydrated" she had to be carried off the boat in an armchair. She regularly became "emotionally exhausted" (especially when she was doing something she didn't want to do) and enjoyed nothing more than having women of quality fussing round her, nursing her back to health - women who subsequently found themselves satirised in her next novel.

She loved praise and attention, and, most of all, she valued her reputation; in old age she went through her letter-journals, scoring out everything she considered demeaning or improper.

Burney's first novel, Evelina, is structured as a series of letters, through which the story emerges. This is not chance; throughout England, hundreds of Georgian women were writing similar diaries and letters. If the contents of a mother's handbag reveal her preoccupations today, a gentlewoman's letters and diaries fulfilled the same function in the 18th century. There, as nowhere else, they were able to reveal their inner thoughts and feelings.

In The Gentleman's Daughter, Amanda Vickery draws on the memorandum books,diaries and letters of more than 100 Georgian women (mainly from Lancashire and Yorkshire) to produce an authoritative study of women's lives in the 18th century. She begins by describing the current academic thinking on each area of women's experience (for instance childbirth, manners or household management) and then proceeds to use the vast range of evidence from her sources to challenge, refine and extend our knowledge.

The text is rich, stimulating, dense and revealing. Studying The Gentleman's Daughter will help the reader understand Fanny Burney's behaviour and attitudes, and some of Vickery's subjects are quite as remarkable as the novelist: the resilient Bessy Ramsden, whose husband mocked her big bottom; the stoic Anne Gossip, who kept her husband informed about her piles; tragic Ellen Stock, destroyed by a broken marriage.

Elizabeth Shackleton's extensive diaries reveal a woman who, having courted for seven years and married against her father's advice, found herself widowed at 32, with three sons under five. Then, aged 38, Elizabeth eloped with a man 18 years her junior. She administered two households, sold anti-rabies medicine, and suffered illness, and an alcoholic and brutal husband. She did not mince her words - one letter denounced a neighbour as "scrubby, mean, underbred, low lived, ungrateful, covetous, designing, undermining, stupid and proud". In this, and in her criticism of her husband's "uncivil, underbred behaviour" we see echoes of Burney's emphasis on reputation and propriety.

Indeed, there were immense pressures on 18th-century women to behave as society expected. They had to maintain an appropriate horse and carriage. They all bought their mahogany tables from the same respectable firm. They accepted the principle: "Let the men shine unenvied in public, it is we who must make their homes delightful to them." And they were happiest when their work was "invisible"; for that showed that their households were running smoothly.

But, as both Chisholm and Vickery show, Georgian women knew how to get their own way. They expected free rein in running the household, and kind treatment. Amid the trials which fate, childbirth and husbands delivered, they tackled life with strength, ingenuity, dignity and fortitude.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you