Briony McDonagh, Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830

Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830. By Briony McDonagh, London and New York: Routledge. 2018. Pp. 190. £110 (hardcover), £37 (paperback), ISBN 9781409456025.

In 1782, the leading bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu wrote the following letter to Elizabeth Carter boasting about her achievements as a landowner:

“[B]y Fees to Laywers, I laid out 36:000 in a purchase of Land, as good assurance of ye title; and by ye help architects, Masons, &c, I have built as good a House in Portman Square; & am now, by ye assistance of ye celebrated Messrs Brown & Wyatt, embellishing Sandleford within doors, & without as successfully, as if I was Esquire instead of Madame. All that I have mention’ has been effected in little more than 5 years, few gentlemen in ye Neighbourhood have done more.”

Written during the period succeeding the death of Montagu’s husband in 1775, after which she inherited considerable property, this letter fully expresses her pride in her work. For Briony McDonagh, this is a feminist statement, one in which Montagu expresses her deep belief that gender played no part in defining one’s capabilities as estate manager.

Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700-1830, abounds with such examples of aristocratic and genteel women who played an active role in the management of landed property, some of which owned the properties in question and some that did not. A study on feminist historical geography, McDonagh’s new book is the first large-scale quantitative study considering female landownership in this period, and it expertly revises many long-held assumptions on female management of property. While we might, as McDonagh states, “be forgiven for thinking female landowners didn’t exist in any real numbers” due to the lack of work done on the topic, her study argues that over 3 million acres in England would have been owned by women in the later eighteenth century, and more than 6 million acres in Great Britain as a whole. “While undoubtedly disadvantaged by primogeniture, coverture and various other legal devices,” as McDonagh concludes in her second book chapter, ‘Women, Land and Property,’ “Female landowners as a group consistently held somewhere in the region of 10 per cent of the land.”

Nor were women the passive vessels through which property made its way back to the hands of their male owners. McDonagh’s third chapter, ‘Managing the Estate,’ considers the active role that many single, married and widowed women played in estate management. In this chapter, McDonagh emphasises the importance of such practices as the keeping of account books, which allowed the female landowner to keep a record of her decision-making and achievements regarding the management of the estate for her heir and wider family.  Elizabeth Prowse and the Duchess of Beaufort, for example, were responsible for the introduction of sophisticated systems of accounting that became the basis of bookkeeping practices in their respective estates for generations. Perhaps an even more impressive achievement was that of Anna Maria Agar, who after inheriting an incredibly encumbered estate from her uncle, cleared am eye-watering debt of £68,000 in only 15 years.

Equally impressive achievements by female landowners fill the pages of the subsequent chapters. Chapter 4, ‘Improving the Estate’ focuses on improvements introduced by women into their estates.  The already-mentioned Montagu had cause to boast in 1790 of her “genius for farming” and the improvements originating from her “own prudence and activity,” since after her death in 1800 the value of her estates was estimated at £10,000 a year, a 33% increase on their annual value since the death of her husband. Though of more modest means than Montagu, Anne Lister achieved great successes in the management of Shibden Hall, which she inherited from her uncle in 1826. Instead of leasing out the mines in the estate, as had been the practice in her family, she managed them herself, and through a careful calculation of costs managed to offer better prices than those of her competitors. Both women, as McDonagh affirms, demonstrate how, much like their male counterparts, female landowners were “influenced by a wide intellectual commitment to the idea of improvement,” a discourse that combined economic concerns as well as ideas about the social and moral dimensions of improvement.

One of the most common and long-held assumptions about female property management has been that by the early eighteenth century single, married and widowed women played little to no part in the management of large agricultural estates. This is an assumption against which McDonagh continues to successfully argue in the fifth chapter, ‘Country houses, gardens and estate villages.’ In this chapter, McDonagh argues that, much like their male counterparts, female landowners were “important figureheads in the local community, where they demanded votes and deference, and sometimes also on a regional and national stage.” McDonagh presents examples of several women who, by undertaking comprehensive programmes of building works, asserted their power and constructed their identities around their property management. To suggest, as scholars before McDonagh have done, that female landowners would inevitably have been less interested in altering the landscapes of their estates “is to vastly underestimate the degree in which gentle and aristocratic women acted to articulate, bolster and defend the status, power and wealth of their class.”

Whilst emphasising the active role that so many women played in the management of estates and their involvement in areas of activity far beyond their households, McDonagh is nevertheless deeply mindful of the ways in which their gender influenced their experience of landownership and estate management. This is the particular focus of the sixth chapter, ‘Representing women and property.’ As McDonagh points out, coverture made it difficult for women to sign leases and pursue legal proceedings, as well as keep their property out of the control of their husbands, even in cases in which they held it as separate estates. The majority of women would have also been educated at home, receiving an education generally focused on social and domestic rather than intellectual accomplishments, and they were also less likely to have practical experience of estate management than men of comparable age and status. Even dress would have been a factor that would have made their experience a gendered one. Indeed, one of the most vivid examples McDonagh provides is that of Amabel Hume-Campbell, whose letters describe in great detail her long walks through the landscape despite her lack of suitable clothes, which often resulted in her having to walk in wet shoes and sometimes even barefoot.

McDonagh leaves her stamp on the field of property studies with this deeply original and masterfully researched work which, besides making an unarguably valuable contribution to history and human geography, it is also important reading for scholars considering the portrayal of propertied women beyond these two subjects. For anyone interested in the portrayal of female property owners in literature, for example, this work is just as essential. Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape vividly brings to life the distinct and powerful ways in which women experienced, modified and improved the eighteenth-century landscape, and it will undoubtedly influence future contributions to the field of property studies.

RITA J. DASHWOOD
University of Warwick

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