Home truths: Amanda Vickery on why David Starkey is wrong about women’s history

The virility of history is sapped by women's agendas! Rubbish, writes Amanda Vickery. Domestic diaries and family letters reveal the beating heart of an age
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The Independent Culture

Domesticity is not a word to flourish if you ever want to sell an idea to publishers, newspapers, radio or TV. Describing a piece of fiction as a "domestic novel" is to damn it as dainty, hide-bound and feminine. Clare Alexander, the chair of the Orange Prize, reflects: "If Freedom by Jonathan Franzen had been written by a woman it would be considered a 'domestic novel', but because it is written by a man it is seen as a magnum opus – the great American novel." So the difference between "Dickensian" breadth and "domestic" insularity is often in the eye of the beholder. Constant, however, is the conviction that focusing on hearth and home is a snore.

There is a stubborn suspicion today that home is a trap invented by women to keep men from testosterone-fuelled adventure and their Harley-Davidsons. Domestication is synonymous with the death of the spirit: the gelding of male animals, the breaking of rebels and the house-training of people and pets.

Nineteenth-century bohemians fostered the fear that creativity was crushed in the well-upholstered parlour. After the Great War, JB Priestley warned returning servicemen: "Beware the charmed cosy circle. Don't stay too long in that armchair." Cyril Connolly notoriously listed domesticity as one of the leading enemies of promise: "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall." In truth, he dreamed of sitting down to breakfast opposite a nice wife "with two newspapers and the marmalade between us".

A hierarchy of critical value still prevails which devalues anything associated with the cloying concerns of women – even 80 years after Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, exposed the systematic privileging of masculine interests over feminine: "This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists."

"Every one of us – male, female, child, adult or elderly – lives in a home," reflects Kathryn Hughes, the author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton. "So, far from being a marginal subject, domesticity is the universal subject." Hughes dismisses the suggestion that an elemental femininity led her to Beeton. "I think some male historians suspect that female historians like writing about domesticity because we'd rather be in John Lewis fingering fabric swatches than in the seminar room. But I'm the least domesticated person in the world. I hated being asked whether I was a good cook. I was interested in why the culture had produced a figure on to whom it projected its desires and fears about 'home'."

"There is as much politics and meaning in everyday notes on 17th-century housekeeping as there is in the diplomatic correspondence of a minister," argues Evelyn Welch, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London. Welch delights in studying "fripperies" – fans and lace, gloves and shoes – using them to map the emergence of the fashion system, nationalism and globalisation. Not so frivolous, then.

I chose to write Behind Closed Doors, my book on interiors – both physical and emotional – precisely because the theme combined architecture and family, culture and economics. I have spent the past six years peeling back the façade of Georgian elegance, though most of the 60 archives I toiled in were far from glamorous. But they were my portal to a vanished world. In Rotherham library, nursing an overheating microfilm reader,

I was gripped by the papers of a stonemason's family. When the 39-year-old Elizabeth Platt lost her husband to diabetes in 1743, she was left with seven children, and unhinged by her grief. Fortunately, "when she obtained a few hours' slumber, she dreamed her husband was beside her, and used every tender argument to console and comfort her".

A widow's dream may not be as epic as a political speech (though most of these are mundane), but it captures one of the deepest intimacies of a culture; subtleties far more difficult to retrieve than legislation. Where is the Hansard for family life?

Are the struggles of family life less important than the history of parliament? I found tart letters in Somerset County Council's archives that posed this very question. While the MP Edward Clarke hobnobbed in Westminster in the 1690s, his wife Mary held the fort in Taunton: "I phancey I am as much Imployed in the Care of my 6 children as you are with all your Business in parliament and else where..." It was the proficient housekeeper posted on the threshold who gave a gentleman peace of mind as he rode away, the axis around which his freedom revolved.

Peer behind closed doors and you find men's hopes as much as women's management. Only upon marriage and householding did a boy become a man, enjoying a huge injection of prestige and privileges. One should not need to say that a subject concerns men in order to assert its importance, but blokes are deluding themselves if they reckon the history of domesticity has nothing to do with them. As an Exeter doctor, George Gibbs, concluded more than 200 years ago, the good-natured "will for ever take the greatest delight in their own home; & indeed it is my opinion that those who are incapable of relishing domestic happiness, can never be really happy at all".

The household has long been grist to the scholar's mill. David's claim that female historians have sapped the virility of the discipline, turning the subject into "soap opera", ignores the history of scholarship itself. It was the male-dominated Annales School in France (founded 1929) which pioneered research on the structures of everyday life. In the Anglo-American tradition, experts of both sexes – Olwen Hufton and Natalie Zemon Davis, Lawrence Stone and Peter Gay – broadened the reach of history to embrace mentalities and relationships, sex and power.

Feminism has long stressed the domestic burdens of women. Women's history saw the home as the prison of female aspiration, a cage at its most gilded in the 19th century. Victorian middle-class women were "Angels in the House", leading lives drained of economic and public purpose. They were immured in the private sphere and would not escape till feminism released them. Compulsory domesticity persisted until recently (plenty of women remember the marriage bar, which restricted married women from employment in many professions), hence the shudders from an older generation every time a journalist presents herself as a domestic goddess.

The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure has been crunching parish registers since 1964, revealing that the marital home had unique significance in north-western Europe, where marriage caused the creation of a separate household, whereas in southern Europe and China, young couples were absorbed within the parental unit; in eastern Europe, unrelated families crowded in together. In pre-industrial Britain (before 1750), the British married only when they could afford to set up an independent home – average grooms were over 27 and their brides 26. Domesticity is fundamental to who we are as a nation.

Regardless of critical fashion, the fascination with past homes blazes on. Visiting historic houses is often listed second only to gardening as the favourite leisure activity of the British. When the 1901 census for England and Wales went online in 2002, it had 30 million hits every day in its first week, and the server crashed. Public interest in the way we lived then is intense. My TV series At Home with the Georgians focuses unashamedly on design and décor, characters and choices, men and women. It may not be to the taste of Michael Gove's history czars, but my sympathies were ever with the czarina and the serfs.

Amanda Vickery's 'At Home with the Georgians' begins later this month on BBC2

The extract

Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, By Amanda Vickery (Yale £10.99)

'...On a spring afternoon in England of the 1760s, an elderly spinster of decayed gentility dusts her chimney ornaments and sets out her mahogany tea tray to receive female neighbours in her two room lodgings in York. Meanwhile, a Liverpool merchant's widow sits complacent in her parlour leafing through architects' plans for the refashioning of her town house in correct Palladian'