A History of Private Life, Radio 4
Night Waves, Radio 3

And there you were, thinking a house was just a home

The BBC revels in ambitious projects, and A History of Private Life is one such. It is composed of 30 quarter-hour programmes, spread over six weeks, which explore the home and everything it has stood for over the past 500 years.

The historian Amanda Vickery, pictured right, has spent 20 years amassing material, ransacking record offices, poring over diaries, unearthing caches of letters, discovering forgotten songs – and, on the evidence of the first week which deals with the 16th and 17th centuries, she's marshalled it all quite brilliantly.

As she says, we know all about the deeds of the rich and powerful "but where's the Hansard for family life?" Monday's programme examined the bed and its position at the apex of family life; Tuesday's explored the notion of the house as a protection against evil spirits; Wednesday's programme depicted the family as a microcosm of hierarchical society ("a family is a little commonwealth, a school wherein the first principles and grounds of subjection are learned"); Thursday's looked at the closet, the private inner sanctum to which the wealthy repaired (and from which, eventually, we got the "water closet"); and Friday's dealt with protecting the house against burglary, a capital offence way back when.

Not all life was nasty, brutish and short – witness the union between a schoolmaster, William Ramsden, and Bessie, whom he described in a letter as: "The baggage, my duchess, Dame Bessie, my Eve, my better half, your broad-bottomed cousin ...."

In a marriage described by Vickery as "a rollicking affair", he pretended to be henpecked. "Madame, at her departure, left me 100 things to do, with strict instructions to follow her by teatime, which to be sure I must obey .... My madame is a saucy hussy, not to be imitated by you obedient wives."

A discussion on the evergreen Night Waves sparked by Maureen Waller's new book The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery posed the big question these days for anyone thinking of getting hitched: in an increasingly godless society, what's left for an institution hitherto dependent on the idea that marriage is a ménage à trois composed of him, her and him upstairs? (The answer seems to depend on how pious or secular you are.) I was surprised to discover that cohabitation isn't new: while the great and the good, with all that wealth to consolidate, tied the knot as a matter of course, the great unwashed often didn't bother. In 1690, a Gloucestershire vicar conducted a survey in his parish and found that more than half the couples were living in sin.

Whatever the domestic arrangements, life was tough on the distaff side. The song "The Housewife's Lament" in Monday's Private Life said it all – and demonstrated how little some things have changed: "Life is a toil and love is a trouble / Beauty will fade and riches will flee / Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double / And nothing is as I would wish it to be."

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