Firm convictions that women's brains, being smaller than men's, have somehow escaped evolution and that education would ruin their potential for childbearing proved hard to shift. But the fact that we have even started along the path is largely due to some pioneering heroines.
Many of them are well-known. Mrs Pankhurst said that, as a child, she was puzzled as to why she had to make home attractive to her brothers since it was never suggested that they make home attractive to her. Such early clarity of vision was to have some far-
reaching effects. Mary Somerville took a less assertive route, reading algebra and the classics wrapped in a blanket before breakfast so as not to offend her father, who believed that study would drive a girl to madness.
The less famous heroines are also good fun. There was a splendid girl called Grace Foakes who sabotaged her domestic science classes by drowning the doll they were supposed to be bathing, and there was Nellie Boulton who said that her sex education was so minimal that, although she had seven brothers, she grew up not knowing that men even had ankles.
Nellie Boulton, however, was born in 1909, which makes her scarcely Edwardian, let alone Victorian, and that is the problem with this book. If it even stuck to the scope of its title, it would be unmanageably vast. As it is, some of the women discussed here were born and died before Victoria settled comfortably on the throne and others are still alive. Joan Perkin is tremendously knowledgeable, but to compress all this knowledge into a comparatively short volume is impossible. There are the seeds of at least a dozen huge tomes here, many of which have been written by other people. She gives potted versions of subjects as large and interesting as the biographies of Elizabeths Barrett and Fry, the legal wrangles leading to the Married Woman's Property Act, the rise and fall of the workhouse and the glorious, unchaperoned liberation brought about by the invention of the bicycle, to name, honestly, but a few.
To condemn her for this seems hard, as if to agree with whoever wrote in the Saturday Review that 'an over-accomplished woman is one of the most intolerable monsters in creation'. But such a broad canvas includes general views that are at best indistinct. Statements like 'men were often small and wiry whereas wives tended to be stout', or 'within the working class, relations between husbands and wives depended on personality and strength of will', seem hardly worth making, at least without considerable qualification.
To counter the effect of such generalisations, the text is peppered with odd, isolated statistics. In 1852, for example, 76 per cent of Manchester's 14-year-olds worked in cotton mills; and in 1874 in Northumberland, sexual mores varied between coastal and inland villages: farmers apparently fornicated freely, but fishermen infrequently.
However, the best antidote to generalised history is not statistics but individual examples, and here Ms Perkin is superb, not just on the great reformers, but on the independent free-wheelers like Isabella Bird-Bishop, who set off at 40 to see the whole world and managed it - or even Swindling Sal, an East End prostitute who never paid any rent, and never intended to. I also rather liked an unnamed aristocrat whose only advice to her daughter was: 'After your marriage, my dear, unpleasant things are bound to happen, but take no notice. I never did.'Reuse content