Women and the World: Explorers from the Home during the Enlightenment in Britain
“I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.” (Austen: 1817).
So said Jane Austen in her 1817 novel Persuasion, a view emphasised in all her novels that women could be writers of their own fate and indulge their desires for education through activities like reading. Her heroines could often be found in the British country house, where women had access to whole treasure troves of art, furniture and other objects. These objects are frequently detailed as being possessions of elite gentlemen, the Fitzwilliam Darcys, George Knightleys and Edmund Bertrams of real country house histories. Behind this, however, collecting could often be directed by women as a means to follow their own interests, desires for education and personal fulfilment. Account books, receipts and ledgers don’t tend to detail this female involvement, but the use of family papers can reveal this kind of input and detail the way women interacted with Enlightenment ideas in the country house.
Collecting as a hobby was popularised during the Enlightenment. Through the use of objects, mankind’s place in the history and progress of the world was scrutinised, allowing for analysis of interactions of British society with other cultures. Enlightenment philosophy and ideas opened up possibilities for further educational opportunities to be seized by women, gradually changing their place in society. The presumed natural weakness of a woman’s character was now blamed on poor education, so these weaknesses could be corrected through exploration and learning. Researching the history of women’s collecting offers a unique window onto female education, cross-cultural exchange, preservation of heritage, uses of space and the exertion of cultural and intellectual influence.
This project will closely investigate the objects chosen and curated by women in the country house in order to discover two key things: firstly, what opportunities did collecting objects with an exotic background provide for women to participate in intellectual circles and debate? And secondly, did women choose to collect and commission different kinds of objects to their husbands and male relatives? I aim to use the correspondence and private papers of women to discover the personal relationship they had with their objects and collections. Through this, I hope to engage with national institutions such as the National Trust, British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in order to examine both the space of the country house, the journey of these objects and how they are presented to the public.
Women, the Country House and Heritage
Focussing on female collectors in the country house provides the chance to reveal the role women had in shaping the interior of these buildings through engaging with both their own ancestral heritage and other cultures encountered through objects brought into the home. By looking at object biographies and engaging with museum collections, it will highlight how curatorship of these collections and movement of objects can obscure and reveal particular stories and provenances. Country houses are visited by thousands each year and I hope that the case studies I use will allow for the relevant institutions and historic houses to further engage with women’s history and the cross-cultural and intellectual exchange these women fostered through collecting in the curating of their exhibitions and displays.
I received a BA in History from the University of Hull in 2015, where I then studied for an MRes in History. This was supported by a scholarship from the Heritage Consortium, during which I researched the role of women in shaping and curating the collections in the British country house from 1650-1850, focussing on the case study of Lady Sabine Winn of Nostell Priory. It was here that I saw further research could be undertaken to discover the ways in which women could play an integral role in the formation of the English country house. Alongside this, I am a volunteer at the University of Hull Art Collection and social secretary for the History Postgraduate Committee at Hull. I also run my own History and Art blog, which I hope to expand with stories from my research on women and the country house.
Supervised by Dr Amanda Capern (University of Hull), Professor Jessica Malay (University of Huddersfield) and Dr Briony McDonagh (University of Hull).