Students of English social history with even a passing knowledge of recent feminist writing will be familiar with the theory that the industrial revolution spelt the end of productive lives for elite Georgian women. The division of labour between the sexes grew from a gap into a yawning chasm between 1780 and 1850 with the rise of "separate spheres" for men and women. Factory-building husbands effected their wives' transformation into "angels of the hearth" whose days were cramped by custom, corset and crinoline. The struggle to escape from that suffocating cocoon is our contemporary legacy.

However, Amanda Vickery's new history of women in Georgian England offers a revolutionary reinterpretation of this accepted script. As she points out, "all these [previous] accounts, irrespective of the period they pinpoint as the key moment of change, rest unquestioningly on the assumption that a thundering commercial or industrial revolution created a new gender order, indeed the modern gender system, in the very era under consideration".

Using a remarkable cache of letters and diaries written by Lancastrian gentlewomen in this period, Vickery reveals that continuity was more apparent than change and suggests that the neat transition from family workshop to dark, satanic mill was a myth.

Even in the tricky arena of marriage, Georgian women appear to exert a great degree of control over their choices of future husbands. Common wisdom ran, "Love in a cottage? ... Give me indifference and a coach and six," but women still held out for a balance between satisfying their romantic intentions with those of family duty.

As evidence, Vickery uses the correspondence of women such as Elizabeth Parker, who exchanged 81 letters with her future husband, Robert, between 1745 and 1751. Their fascinating correspondence suggests that Elizabeth was "profoundly ambivalent in the face of parental opposition, revealing the tension between the will to wed and the will to obey operating in a single breast". She kept Robert's fantasy of eloping at bay and proved a skilful negotiator with her father, who wished for a wealthier son-in- law. Elizabeth wrote that she felt obliged "to collect all that little Rhetorick I am Mistress Off and have had a difficult task to satisfie my Duty and my love, not please the one without offending the other." Her campaign of seven years ended in a well-won victory and the couple were married in 1751 under special licence.

Vickery's intimate knowledge of her Lancastrian ladies provides a convincing argument that the reality of their experience warrants this new historical interpretation. She decodes the traces of desire left in their writings and so provides a remarkable understanding of their lives. The Gentleman's Daughter is written with charm and suffused with wry commentary that testifies to Vickery's intimacy with her subjects. It is a both an academic triumph and a spellbinding read.