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'

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders