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

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'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash