Women in England 1760-1914 by Susie Steinbach

Rebel angels in the Victorian house
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The Independent Culture

Like many a keen schoolgirl in the Sixties, my chief introduction to the Victorian period was through the figure of Victoria herself. I can recall the thrill of learning how the teenage princess was woken to be told she was now to be queen. Later, as I grew up, social history seemed to transform itself alongside me. The emphasis shifted dramatically to working-class history and then to feminist narratives, the rediscovery of working-class heroines, political activists and regional campaigners, as well as a passionate new interest in the lives of so-called "ordinary" women.

Like many a keen schoolgirl in the Sixties, my chief introduction to the Victorian period was through the figure of Victoria herself. I can recall the thrill of learning how the teenage princess was woken to be told she was now to be queen. Later, as I grew up, social history seemed to transform itself alongside me. The emphasis shifted dramatically to working-class history and then to feminist narratives, the rediscovery of working-class heroines, political activists and regional campaigners, as well as a passionate new interest in the lives of so-called "ordinary" women.

Women in England is a grand sweep of a book, a well-researched, freshly written and unexpectedly entertaining look at "the long 19th century" from women's points of view. Susie Steinbach, a young American academic, has undertaken an engaging synthesis of two previous "schools" of social history: feminist history, with its "aim to rediscover and celebrate the lives of women", and a more sophisticated gender history with its more fractured view of "identity".

There is also a touch of the old traditionalism, but with a new twist. In her opening section on women and class, Queen Victoria is put gracefully in her place in a group of aristocratic women able to exercise behind-the-scenes influence on political life. Quoting fellow historian Linda Colley, Steinbach argues that our obsession with British royal women from the early 19th century on is a relatively recent secular substitute for an earlier "cult of the virgin"; an argument that seems particularly appropriate in relation to Diana, Princess of Wales.

"The history of England during the long 19th century is, to a large extent, the history of English women," Steinbach claims in her last sentence. By then, she has made a substantive case for this bold assertion. Certainly, this was a period of fantastic activity, by women as diverse as socially involved nuns, empire loyalists, suffragists, trades union activists, aristocratic reformers, women novelists and thousands more. Each seems to have found an impressive path through the inhibiting ideology of separate spheres, the cult of "femininity" that strongly denied women any significant role in public life.

There is also a clear line of continuity between the 20th century and the earlier period, despite the obvious discrimination faced by women in an era when married women had no legal personality, divorce laws were unjust and they had scant access to education. Yet, in more subtle ways, there are some striking similarities. Steinbach says: "Middle-class women did much domestic labour behind the scenes while trying to appear as if they did none. Housework was hard work and making it invisible was a task in itself" - an observation that applies to plenty of apparently leisured women today.

In education, which would also appear to have undergone a complete revolution, class always structured provision, and still does today, despite the "opportunity for all" language of political parties. Feminism, too, was always contradictory, always impressive, with its hard-working Tory ladies, sexual radicals, liberal do-gooders, glamorous, charismatic troublemakers - types all identifiable on today's scene.

Steinbach has a clear-eyed take on the idiosyncrasies of the British class system and the pomposity of so many Victorian men. She managed to put me right off John Stuart Mill, the fearless advocate of women's suffrage - and up to now a second-division hero of mine - by revealing how much he preferred "womanly women", as well as by his belief that a "pretty face" was an important element to suffrage campaigns.

Steinbach also made me laugh by describing how the niece of a very impressive suffrage campaigner once said her aunt wanted the vote because she resented the notion of "an employing lady not [having] the Vote when her gardener did". Somehow, I suspect the nature of English gardeners has changed rather more than that of patrician Englishwomen over the last hundred or so years.

Melissa Benn is the author of 'Madonna and Child: the Politics of Modern Motherhood' (Vintage)

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