Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Review of:

Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. 436pp. ISBN 0-300-07531-6 (hb and pb)

(Published 2001. HSL/SHL 1)


In The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, Amanda Vickery interprets letters and diaries and account books written by elite Lancashire women and their network of correspondents.  Vickery’s principal concern is to debunk the influential historical narrative that has linked eighteenth-century economic developments with the supposed confinement of wealthier women to the domestic, private sphere.  As well as arguing against the conventional separation of “private” and “public”, Vickery’s analysis of these women’s networks also emphasizes the close connection between “land” and “genteel trade”, the unity of “polite networks of gentry, professional and greater commercial families”.  The social boundary which Vickery charts is the boundary erected and vigorously defended by the polite against the vulgar.

The chapter titles signal the range of women’s experiences documented by Vickery and her sense of the importance of the ideology of politeness to her conservative subjects: “Gentility”, “Love and Duty”, “Fortitude and Resignation”, “Prudent Economy”, “Elegance”, “Civility and Vulgarity”, “Propriety”.  Most of the chapters document and interpret the life experience and writings of her subjects.  Vickery’s final chapter surveys female public life - literature, the theatre, the assembly, for instance - and is of interest to any scholar of eighteenth-century culture.

Vickery’s book is of interest to historical sociolinguists for a variety of reasons.  First, she is attentive to the language of her elite female subjects.  She analyzes a nuance of grammar in order to identify their social practices: if distinction from one’s servants was paramount to politeness, did elite women do housework?  An ambiguous use of the personal pronoun is considered in “Prudent Economy”, a chapter charting women’s real power in the home and its basis in the keeping of information and the giving of orders.  Vickery notes that Elizabeth Shackleton’s sentence “We scowered all the Pewter & cleand all the things in the Kitchen” could reflect either her direction or her active participation.  However, Vickery comments more often on lexis.  Keen to keep her subjects in “public”, Vickery examines how some of them contextualize and define the word “public(k)”.  Dominating the monograph is Elizabeth Parker Shackleton, a prolific diarist and letter-writer: Vickery shows how adjectives like “civil”, “polite”, and “genteel” anchor Mrs. Shackleton’s judgement of servants, gentlemen, and husbands.  Unlike some historians, Vickery has chosen to retain the original spelling and punctuation of her material: eighteenth-century capitalization somehow intensifies the despairing vulgarity of Mrs. Shackleton’s complaint that her husband “farted and stunk like a pole Cat” in their conjugal bed.

Second, Vickery characterizes elite eighteenth-century women’s social networks by analyzing individuals’ letters and diaries.  Historical sociolinguists like Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Fitzmaurice and Bax have applied the model of social network analysis to the writings and language of eighteenth-century figures in literary life; Vickery’s analysis is interesting because her subjects are ordinary people - or, rather, are elite but non-literary.  Most of her subjects lived in a large parish in rural Lancashire, in what was to become the “frontier” of the textile trade that epitomized the Industrial Revolution.  Vickery examined “all letters and diaries that survive for privileged women between about 1730 and about 1825 in the Lancashire Record Office at Preston, irrespective” of their family’s source of wealth.  Her book makes some simple arguments about the role of gender and class in her material.  With respect to gender within marriage, Vickery argues that “male prerogatives were taken for granted” but didn’t belie a “tight bond of marital alliance”.  With respect to class, Vickery maps and seeks to quantify the permeable boundary between land and trade: members of the same family moved in and from one and another, and over half of Shackleton’s “social encounters” were with people in the professions and greater trades.  Only a third of Shackleton’s encounters were with “retailers and craftspeople”, documenting the divide between “genteel” and “common Trades”. Often Shackleton’s language will highlight social nuances: “Betty Hartley Shopkeeper” was invited to tea, but must nevertheless have known her place.   Appendixes to the monograph further classify the demographics of the participants in Shackleton’s social interactions and in her correspondence networks; one appendix itemizes all of the correspondence sent or received by Shackleton in her never-ending quest for reliable servants, thus identifying her “Servant Information Network”.  Another topic of women’s letters was fashion: clothes, like material culture generally, united the polite, and distinguished them from the vulgar.  By highlighting the types and frequencies of epistolary and economic exchanges, Vickery also seeks to show that these women were not passive prisoners in the private sphere.

Third, Vickery’s close study of her material identifies some conventions of language, but also shows how these conventions could be deliberately adopted and exploited by men and women.  Courtship, for instance, had its own conventions, many recorded in letter-writing manuals.  Men could and did exploit conventional subject positions: Vickery shows how Elizabeth Shackleton’s first husband, Robert Parker, on some occasions adopts “the conventional language of proposal”, “the role of the plain-speaking man of honour”, on others “melodramatic attitudes … when circumstances absolutely demanded it”.  Women, too, could exploit stereotypical roles.  As a young woman being courted by her first husband, Elizabeth had to acknowledge and exploit her subordinate status when pleading with her father.  Vickery contends that she sees Georgian social hierarchies on their own terms, and that female pleading was not always a sign of subservience, but could be exercised as policy and even as power: “in a society habituated to hierarchical relationships”, “female pleading…was seen as legitimate policy”, “the expression of abject weakness … was the key to a successful petition”.  Vickery also contends that the cultural codes of politeness gave women cultural licence to criticize men.  Elizabeth Shackleton’s second marriage was unfortunate, and Vickery describes her husband as “the absolute antithesis of the polite partner”.  Shackleton’s diary reveals both the importance of the “civil” and the “polished” to her, and also her husband’s assault on her values: “he shits in bed with drinking so continualy”.   Whether the cultural licence to criticize brought Shackleton consolation is another matter: Vickery’s chapter on “Love and duty” notes that married women had their own spheres of responsibility, but also describes the situation of an unhappily married woman, pitted against a “confederacy of husband, brother, and lawyer [that] show[ed] patriarchy at its most cruel and crushing”.

Print is a major marker of cultural and linguistic modernity, and Vickery observes its influence on the language of ordinary readers.  She characterizes Elizabeth Shackleton’s “language of civility” as similar to that of some of her other subjects, as “profoundly derivative” of eighteenth-century courtesy literature.  What Vickery describes as “linguistic models” are derived from periodical essays (Addison and Steele), novels (Richardson), and letter-writing manuals.  Vickery insists that this “female literariness”, women’s reading and writing, rooted them in public life.  She is nevertheless skeptical about the extent to which the sentimental fiction of the 1760s and 1770s influenced the language of readers’ letters and diaries, seeing “politeness and passion” as “rivals, not successive, philosophic and emotional ideals”.  And she highlights and indeed exploits the idiosyncrasies of her individual subjects - the social hypersensitivity that provoked the prolific Mrs. Shackleton to “exploit a conventional language to the full”, and the uniqueness of the “conjugal idiom” of each married couple. 

Vickery acknowledges some limitations of her material: not all social relationships are recorded in diaries or letters, and not all of her subjects left records behind.  Vickery can only speculate on the motives of John Shackleton for his boorish behaviour, for instance: “Perhaps he saw himself simply protecting his manly pleasures? Perhaps he saw Elizabeth Shackleton’s polite rules as so many artificial constraints upon nature?”  Vickery reminds us that Mrs.Shackleton was “ailing, all-but toothless”, and “seventeen years his senior. Possibly then his vulgarity was simply a destructive expression of impotent rage”.

Although Mrs. Shackleton’s prolific writings and hyperpolite personality dominate the book, it is easy to keep track of other individuals: Vickery writes engagingly, and has appended a biographical index of all of the correspondents in Elizabeth Shackleton’s network, and for selected correspondents within and outside five other networks at the heart of this study.

This social history has paved the way for rigorous sociolinguistic study of these individuals and of Georgian correspondence generally.  In her capacity as advisor to the microfilm publisher Adam Mathew, Vickery has made accessible other manuscript material written by and pertaining to eighteenth-century women: she is the consultant editor for Adam Matthew’s microfilm series Women’s Language and Experience, 1500-1940: Women’s Diaries and Related Sources.  And by questioning received wisdom about eighteenth-century social history, Vickery has reminded us of the fallibility of some of the “history” that we might take for granted when doing “linguistics”.

Carol Percy, Department of English, University of Toronto, Canada

See also:

  • Amanda Vickery (ed.). Women’s Language and Experience, 1500-1940: Women’s Diaries and Related Sources. Marlborough, Wiltshire: Adam Matthew Publications.