A History of Private Life, Radio 4
Night Waves, Radio 3
And there you were, thinking a house was just a home
Sunday 04 October 2009
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."
After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violencefilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Mother fed her daughter tapeworms to make her skinny for beauty pageant
- 2 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 3 Crystal Palace next manager latest: Palace consider Ally McCoist - EXCLUSIVE
- 4 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 5 Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'
Jeremy Clarkson 'sees no problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC
Lucy, film review: Scarlett Johansson will blow your mind in Luc Besson's complex thriller
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw
Miley Cyrus concert banned on morality grounds in the Dominican Republic
Celebrity Big Brother 2014 line-up: Meet the contestants from Lauren Goodger to Kellie Maloney and Audley Harrison
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Disgusting, frustrating, but intriguing: how the country really feels about its politicians
Bin bag full of cats' heads discovered near Manchester's Curry Mile