Domestic Space in Britain, 1750–1840: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion. Freya Gowrley. Review by Penelope Cave

Domestic Space in Britain, 1750–1840: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion. Freya Gowrley. London; New York; Dublin: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2022. Pp 266. 8 colour plates, and further illustrations. £80 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-5013-4336-0.

One should not assume that the pretty cottage ornée, on the cover of this book, is an eighteenth-century version of ‘Your Home made Perfect’. Freya Gowrley explores the notion of homely spaces with a depth of scholarship that is exceptional; it is a masterclass in close reading, as she provides ‘thick’ descriptions, going beyond the undoubted charm of her four visual case studies, to find and interpret, within each house, the rarefied history, context, and the particular emotions of its owner/s. In her excellent introduction, she outlines her intention to use a micro-historical methodology, one that interrogates large issues within the confined limits of her chosen material objects, in the wake of Clifford Geertz’s 1973 essay in The Interpretation of Cultures. Her opening image of a small, ceramic pastille burner, in the shape of a cottage, is a nice conceit to introduce the houses of the unconventional, heteronormative subjects that she will go on to study.

Her first section is entitled ‘Representation’, as she is particularly interested in how owners flaunted their homes and contents, and how others viewed and described what they encountered— letters and print are quoted as a crucial element in the dissemination of style and influence. The display of taste in conspicuous materiality, both in ownership and in its critical appreciation of contemporary culture, was thus made more widely available. Gowrley also uncovers interesting aspects of hospitality, sociability, gifting, tourism, letter-writing and identity formation, that are closely related to ownership of the country house, which are as significant in a study of the cottages and small houses presented here.

The four individual dwellings she has chosen, unique as each is in itself, connect to each other through their owners, whose exceptionally creative lives all side-stepped marital convention in their rural retirement, to lend a satisfying homogeneity to the collection. The first to be considered is Sandham Cottage, the ‘villakin’ at Sandown on the Isle of Wight that was owned by the former rake, radical journalist, and politician, John Wilkes, during the last decade of his life, from 1788–97, when his most valued relationship was with his daughter. Gowrley makes a very convincing case for the cause of a change in Wilkes’ previously wild reputation, owing much to the many written words about his expanded island property and its hospitality. Both private letters and contemporary publications inspired tourists to continue visiting, long after he died.

A la Ronde, near Exmouth in Devon, and Plas Newydd, Llangollen, in Wales are the case studies that form the second section of this book. Gowrley exemplifies the movement of both people and objects; tourism that commemorated personal travel in the first example, and the movement of objects in the form of gifts both incoming and outgoing in the second. A la Ronde was built from the specifications of two first cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, after their extensive tour of the Continent from about 1784—91. Unlike Sandham Cottage, the unusual, sixteen-sided building has been conserved by the National Trust, but the alterations it underwent, after the deaths of the cousins (whose intention had been that it should pass only down the female line), by the Reverend Oswald Reichel, mean that the original thatched roof and limewashed exterior, so typical of the Devon vernacular, is no longer evident. Gowrley has chosen a building which I would describe as, itself, a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, that houses a highly distinctive collection of personal and, indeed, curious, meticulously displayed souvenirs of their European experience, memorials of loved family members, and feats of female craftwork that, as she says, “evoke memory, experience, and narrative, and therefore … function biographically” (106).

Plas Newydd is taken into consideration as the setting for its occupiers, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, whose intimate friendship, domestic crafts and hospitality led to a generous gift exchange with their friends and visitors. As elsewhere, Gowrley airs diverse opinions on the nature of their relationship building a cultured friendship circle that included the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Southey. All chapters are well-supplied with illustrations, such as images of the original cottage, gothicised, but boasting the original stone outer walls, and the gift from Anna Seward of Romney’s Serena. Missing, I felt, was the addition of one of the many later items, merchandised as ‘The Two Ladies of Llangollen’ in their matching top hats, which would have emphasised the lasting celebrity of their ‘shrine to friendship’.

In the third section of the book, subtitled ‘Ownership’, Gowrley uses Horace Walpole’s highly creative, gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill, to explore legacy, and what she has earlier described as “a gesture of queer heirlooming” (13). The reasons for his decision to leave this property to Anne Damer, the daughter of his cousin (and close friend at Eton), Henry Seymour Conway, substantiate Walpole’s manner of assembling and personalising the idiosyncratic collection, and continuing the private theatricals. We are persuaded that it could only have been similarly perpetuated by the related sculptress whose work was already represented at “his darling Strawberry”, as Mary Berry, another major legatee, described it (205). Walpole described Mary and Agnes Berry as his “sister wives” (211), who were not only left Little Strawberry (once owned by another Walpole friend, the actress, Kitty Clive), but also his literary estate for them to produce a new edition. Walpole thus extended his coterie of cultural and emotional ties, to ensure longevity; the lamentable sale of Strawberry Hill’s contents in 1842 was probably what he most dreaded.

The Conclusion completes the book with descriptions of a valedictory dinner party given by Anne Damer’s mother before leaving her family home of Park Place, and following her departure, noting the emotional and material loss to her friends, of emptying the house, and a later description of a ball held there by the new inhabitants. Gowrley emphasises the strength of identity formed by the change of ownership. She quotes the text from the Parminters’ pottery jug, which perfectly aligns the life of an earthy object to that of the human span and reiterates the value of evocative objects in bereavement. Gowrley’s intention to view the four houses and their owners, through an historical and contextual lens, is meticulously achieved in this richly fascinating study; the multi-layered, emotional sub-texts invested in material objects are sensitively extracted and interpreted, to display meaningful domestic spaces, three of which outlived their owners.  

Penelope Cave

Penelope Cave gained her PhD from the University of Southampton in 2014, with a thesis on music in the English country house, and she was accepted as an Attingham Scholar, before working as a music advisor for the National Trust. She was also a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford from 2018–20, and in addition to numerous conference papers, her essays appear in a number of recent and forthcoming academic publications.

Review: WSG Seminar, 26th March 2022 at The Foundling Museum

Sophie Johnson: History’s ‘Other’ Sculptors: The Underrepresentation of Historic women sculptors (1558-1837) in the history of art

Charlotte Goodge: ‘Sedentary occupations ought chiefly to be followed by women’: The ‘Fat’ Woman and ‘Masculine’ Exercise in the Literary Culture of the long eighteenth century

Moira Goff: Evered Laguerre: A Female Professional Dancer on the London Stage

We returned to the Foundling Museum for our March seminar, after an absence of two years, to hear three outstanding papers and to enjoy an afternoon of lively and informative discussion. As so often happens, unexpected connections between the subjects emerged and we could certainly have continued our explorations for much longer. Sophie Johnson began by extemporizing on her research into women sculptors throughout the period covered by the Women’s Studies Group and beyond, to examine how the few who have found a place in art history have been represented and under what circumstances they forged a career in this overwhelmingly male-dominated art form. She discussed the amateur/professional binaries, the problems and risks surrounding the perceived transgressive nature of the art and emphasised curatorial practice and questions of mistaken attribution as crucial factors in the invisibility of women sculptors.

Charlotte Goodge tackled debates about corpulent women in the eighteenth century in the light of society’s expectations about women’s delicate nature and what kind of exercise was considered appropriate. She focussed on participation in the hunt and on mountaineering and walking, citing literary examples from Charlotte Lennox The Female Quixote (1752) and Thomas Love Peacock Crotchet Castle (1831). Through these literary examples, Goodge argued that the ‘fatness’ of their female protagonists was pointedly used to flag an immoderate excess in terms of over rather than under exercising. Contemporary anxieties about women’s over-enthusiastic exercise centred less on health risks and benefits and more on the fact that robust physical strength was perceived as characteristic of labouring people (especially labouring men), an undesirable outcome for women from the genteel classes. Women’s transgression in different forms was important in both these papers.

Moira Goff offered her findings on the life of the early eighteenth-century dancer, Evered Laguerre, whose remarkable career on the London stage lasted more than twenty years, from her debut at thirteen in 1716 to her final performances in leading dance roles for John Rich’s company in 1737 when she was only thirty-five. We had glimpses of her in a print depicting her dancing with Francis Nivelon in the pantomime Perseus and Andromeda (1731),and in a possible second representation as the ‘Lady dancing’ in Nivelon’s The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior (1737). During our discussion, Goff gave us further fascinating insights into the stage careers of young dancers and into the published dance notation for a Harlequin dance, perhaps related to The Necromancer; or, Harlequin Doctor Faustus (1723) in which Laguerre danced the part of ‘Harlequin Woman’.

The papers demonstrated the difficulties of finding women in the archives, but the importance of pursuing the research if we are to recognise their contributions, a perennial problem faced by those working on women’s history. They also highlighted the delicate line between compliance and error, recognition and notoriety and the inescapable judgements of a patriarchal system. Our thanks to all three presenters, and to those who joined us at the seminar.

Miriam Al jamil

Mary Shelley and Europe: Essays in Honour of Jean de Palacio. Edited by Antonella Braida. Review by Jacqueline Mulhallen

Mary Shelley and Europe: Essays in Honour of Jean de Palacio. Edited by Antonella Braida. MHRA, Oxford: Legenda. 2020. pp. 206. £80 (hardback), ISBN: 9781781885482. £10.99 (paperback, forthcoming), ISBN: 9781781885529.

Mary Shelley and Europe is a wonderful selection of essays which discusses an aspect of Mary Shelley’s life that was so important to her art and yet is perhaps under-emphasised in discussing her work.  Mary Shelley travelled to Europe in 1814 and lived in Italy from 1818 to 1823.  She wrote two books of travel, which mark the beginning and end of her writing career, and many of her novels and stories are set either wholly or partly in Europe. She spoke Italian and French fluently and translated from those languages. Europe was very much present to Mary Shelley even when she was unable to travel. And yet, in 1951, when Jean de Palacio began to study her work, she was known mainly as the editor of Shelley’s poems and the author of Frankenstein – and at the time her work as editor was very much under-appreciated and Frankenstein was better known for James Whale’s film version than the novel itself.

Jean de Palacio’s study of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Epipsychidion led to his interest in Mary Shelley, especially when he discovered that she had correctly included a line omitted by a Victorian editor of the poem. Yet he was discouraged from this study and found it difficult to find texts, reading them in the British Library and acquiring them from rare books dealers.  Since then, as he notes in his chapter, Mary Shelley’s status as a writer has been completely transformed and now she is considered a major writer of the time. De Palacio was one of the first to show how Mary Shelley’s transcription of her husband’s poetry and her knowledge of Italian made her superior to the Victorian editors who followed her.

Nora Crook, as well as paying tribute to de Palacio’s pioneering work, shows how many poems, reviews, articles and translations have been identified subsequently, thus establishing Mary Shelley as a professional writer with her own style and voice and showing her as European.  She describes the difficulties of identifying these and other contributions to journals where they are unsigned. Although style, subject matter and dating are helpful, mistakes can be made. She gives examples of possible work yet to be confirmed and stresses the need for fora to be set up to establish an agreed canon of work since no current bibliography on Mary Shelley is comprehensive.

De Palacio also suggested that collaboration between husband and wife tended to give Mary Shelley an entitlement to sometimes make additions, though she may have exceeded this on occasions. He also appreciated the importance of Italy to Mary Shelley. Michael Rossington, also paying tribute to de Palacio’s groundbreaking work, considers how, when he started his studies in the 1950s, the critical appreciation of the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, then at its nadir, began to rise. Manuscripts from the Shelley family were donated to the Bodleian Library prompting fresh books and essays from scholars, in particular Geoffrey Matthews, who seems to have been one of the first to have realised the difficulties facing Mary Shelley as an editor, citing examples of text crossed out, written criss-crossed or upside down. The difficulties were not only practical but emotional, such as the pain involved in looking at text stained with seawater as a result of being in the boat when her husband drowned. Valentina Varinelli also discusses what she describes as two forms of dialogue with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry (p. 57), being the memories prompted from these texts, and Mary Shelley’s poem The Choice. Varinelli’s extended critique of this poem is particularly interesting. The theme of collaboration is discussed in more detail by Anna Mercer in her essay, which also looks at the poetry that Mary Shelley wrote in Italy.

Lisa Vargo’s chapter on Mary Shelley’s political thought and activity shows that Mary Shelley was always interested in Italian politics and that, although her politics remained liberal, she never wished to ally herself wholly to a group and did not want to play a public part. Maria Parrino’s essay emphasises Mary Shelley’s study of Italian. When they lived in Italy, the Shelleys’ knowledge of the language distinguished them from other English residents. Mary Shelley was not only able to converse with well-educated Italian friends but to chat happily with her servants, using their colloquial phrases. Years later, on her return to Italy, she was still able to speak Italian fluently, showing that she had in the intervening years kept up her study of the language. Indeed, she reviewed books and translated stories from French and Italian, so the knowledge of the languages was very much part of her cultural life and her career.

Other essays in the book discuss the reception of adaptations for the theatre of Frankenstein, such as Presumption (1823), and popular images of Mary Shelley. However, the idea of her as a European, whose working life involved translation and travel in Europe and interaction both politically and artistically with other Europeans, is one which transforms her image from that of an indigent, lonely widow and single mother living on memories of a brief happiness into an independent professional woman with a fascinating creative life and interesting contacts. One realises that this must have always been the case, of course, but emphasis on her editing of her husband’s poetry and on Frankenstein, rather than on the later novels and stories, has obscured the literary and personal achievements of her later life. This book does much to redress the balance.

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Author of The Theatre of Shelley (2010), Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (2015), and the plays Sylvia and Rebels and Friends.

Conference Report – ‘Bath 250: A Virtual Conference to Mark the 250th Anniversary of the New Assembly Rooms At Bath’ by Rachel Bynoth

On 30th September 1771, the Upper Rooms in Bath opened their doors for the first time. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Bath 250 conference welcomed scholars from across the globe to celebrate this momentous occasion.

The conference pushed against a simple retelling of Bath’s glamorous spa town façade to uncover and present many of its hidden depths. In doing so, the papers collectively nuanced understandings of the operations and experiences of Bath in the eighteenth-century and beyond. This conference beautifully demonstrated the merits of utilising one space to examine a variety of different aspects of eighteenth-century society, to understand the multiplicities of experiences and create a fuller picture of how politics, health, entertainment, and polite society played out within one location.

The first day of the conference began with an opening keynote from Dr Hannah Greig, which introduced us to the centrality of the assembly rooms, not just within Bath, but towns and cities throughout the eighteenth century. Her talk wonderfully illustrated the role of the assembly rooms in cultivating ideas of sociability and as an accepted environment for the mingling of the sexes. Later talks considered some of the discomforts of sociability within these public spaces: the mixing of those pursuing entertainment with those seeking remedies, the anxieties of the marriage market and even how the proprieties of touch meant that the use of hands could be both dangerous but exciting.

Despite the Bath season occurring outside of the London parliamentary one, several talks stressed that Bath was not an escape from politics. Indeed, they presented politics as such a central aspect of Bath’s social scene that several speakers questioned exactly how restful it was for those there to recuperate from illness or to simply relax. Politics continued to play out via notions of sociability, through female influence and celebrity politicians.

The overlooked aspects of Bath’s social scene also threaded through the papers. Explorations of sedan chairmen and their struggles, the locations of lodging and boarding houses and the undertakers of Bath revealed social, political, and hierarchical elements of Bath society which co-existed amongst the more well-trodden histories of the balls, promenades, and pump room visits.

Yet Bath can foster more conversation over its overlooked or previously marginalised histories. In the roundtable session which examined the next 250 years of Bath’s history, Professor Olivette Otele called for a joining up of Bath’s decolonising and slavery projects to push this conversation forward and coordinate a response which looks to the future as well as the past. This prompted more general discussion from the panel on the need to present Bath as a place with multiple, concurrent narratives and the challenges of heritage sites to present this.

Various papers across both days focused on the Assembly rooms themselves, from the food and drink served, to the music performed, the country dances, and the competition to elect the Masters of Ceremony for the rooms. This included a consideration of life before the upper rooms and unexecuted assembly room plans. This led very nicely into the various discussions of the international influence and historical legacy of eighteenth-century Bath which brought the online section of the conference to a close.

The finale to the conference was a live event, set in the upper rooms themselves. Beginning proceedings was a keynote by Dr Jonathan Foyle which explored the architectural influences of the upper rooms. It was such a pleasure to gaze upon the plans, shapes and objects while spotting the little details in the rooms around us. After a wonderful introduction to the ridotto by Hillary Burlock, the conference ended with a spectacular dance display by the Bath Minuet Company which captured the essence of the activities of the Upper Rooms on that opening day in 1771. Long sets, cotillions and, of course, the minuet, rounded off what was a compelling two days of discussion and reflection on Bath and its history.

Bath Minuet Company performance

The organisers would like to acknowledge the generous sponsorship of the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies and the Royal Historical Society, whose grants helped to support the attendance of PGRs and ECRs in Bath. They would also like to thank the Early Dance Circle, especially Barbara Segal, Bill Tuck, Sharon Butler and Paul Cooper, for their decision to award the Janet Hauton Grant to the conference. This helped to fund a sound engineer and Bath Minuet Company’s fantastic dance display which concluded the event. The event was also supported by the University of Liverpool, the History of Parliament, TORCH from the University of Oxford, Queen Mary University, London, and the National Trust, and special thanks goes to the technical team at the University of Liverpool for their exceptional work.


Rachel Bynoth is a final year PhD student examining expressions of anxiety in the Canning family letters, across the lifecycle, between 1760-1830. She has an article forthcoming with the History journal in early 2022 which examines eighteenth-century female distance education through letters.

Review: WSG Seminar (25 September 2021) by Miriam Al Jamil

This is a review of the WSG seminar that took place on 25 September 2021. The speakers were:

  1. Valerie Schutte: Anachronistic representations of Edward Underhill
  2. Helen Leighton Rose: Women’s subversion of the Scottish Church Courts 1707-1757
  3. Matthew Reznicek: Healing the Nation; Women, Medicine and the Romantic National Tale
  4. Norena Shopland: Women Dressed as Men

Abstracts of the speakers’ papers are available to read here.

Our 2021-2022 Seminar season began with an excellent selection of papers from four speakers, ostensibly on a variety of unrelated topics and yet subtle connections emerged through the discussion.

Valerie Schutte’s paper examined the afterlives of Gentleman Pensioner Edward Underhill’s 1561 memoir which traced his life as a Protestant under Mary I’s reign, beginning with his arrest for publishing a now lost ballad at her accession in 1553. Elements of the memoir later appeared in John Strype’s 1721 Ecclesiastical Memorials which was used by Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland in their Lives of the Queens of England, From the Norman Conquest, With Anecdotes of Their Courts (London: Henry Colburn, 1845) and by the prolific writer W.H. Ainsworth in his popular The Tower of London (London: Bentley, 1840). Schutte offered Underhill’s devotion to the queen in spite of his anti-Catholicism as a more nuanced alternative to the standard view of hostile Protestant reaction to Mary. The nineteenth-century writers she examined were sympathetic to Mary, citing her marriage to Philip II of Spain as the source of Protestant oppression throughout her reign, although Charles Dickens’ unequivocal characterisation of ‘bloody Queen Mary’ still prevails as part of the national historical narrative.

In the discussion Schutte expanded on archival evidence of ballads against Mary I, citing twenty surviving examples, handwritten on cheap paper, most in single copies at the Society of Antiquaries. The writers were persecuted, though some of their ballads no longer exist. Underhill’s Catholic friends gave him the nickname ‘the Hot Gospeller’, a term picked up on by Ainsworth. Schutte also noted that the Strickland sisters’ romantic study of the Queens of England focused on them as women rather than simply as wives, which makes the book unusual.

Helen Leighton Rose’s paper presented her ongoing work on cases brought before the Scottish Kirk in two localities. She discussed the different recorded cases brought before the sessions, the types of moral offences and forms of punishment. The crimes included adultery, for which the punishment was six appearances wearing sackcloth in a public place of repentance, and fornication which involved three appearances. The ultimate sanction, meted out to a woman who repeatedly refused to appear was ‘lesser excommunication’, which meant she was shunned by her community, denied marriage, baptism or a funeral and banished from her place of birth. Rose pointed out that this had serious implications for accessing poor relief. The case studies revealed intriguing facts about women who were unafraid of accusing and naming the men implicated in their crimes, and who defied the punishments meted out to them. They also highlighted the fact that wealthy men could often avoid embarrassing personal repercussions by helping their pregnant victims circumvent the kirk disciplinary system and give birth in arranged lodgings in Edinburgh, while they themselves could evade punishment by paying fines. The case studies brought the individual women uncovered from the archives vividly to life.

Discussion points included the role of the well organised private lodging houses in Edinburgh, which require more research. A question was asked about cross-dressing as a recorded crime, and Rose has not found this or homosexuality mentioned in the records yet. The rich subject of her research clearly offers many different rewarding paths for future work.

Our third paper centred on Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) Vol. I, II and Vol. III,   

and Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui, or Memoirs of the Earl of Glenthorn (1809).

The paper interrogated the idea of healing as a potentially feminist intervention. Reznicek gave a close reading of these novels, in the light of the social and economic conditions of Ireland which contributed to high mortality in nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks, and the concept of a healthy social body composed of healthy individuals to which the woman as healer made a crucial contribution. Owenson’s novel is usually cited as the first ‘national tale’, but is not usually interpreted as a story of sickness and healing (See for example, discussions in: [accessed 28 September 2021]).

Reznicek suggested that Owenson’s use of the word ‘physicianer’ to describe her character Glorvina was a deliberate subversive one to challenge contemporary male-dominated medical practice. The plot of the novel reveals that the threat of disease and religious fervour in the Prince of Inismore character makes his integration into the new social body impossible. Edgeworth used fever as a potent metaphor with multiple meanings. Her novel Ennui poses literature as the remedy of ennui as a disease. Once again, the woman is healer within the plot and in the broader context of the national social body.

Discussion ranged from the disabled body in Romantic fiction such as the Waverley novels, to Swift’s The Story of the Injured Lady in which ‘Ireland’ is the wronged virgin and ‘Scotland’ is the sickly rival for marriage to ‘England’, in Swift’s critique of marriage.

Our final paper was an overview of Norena Shopland’s writing projects, specialising in LGBT history, highlighting pertinent issues for many researchers into womens’ history. The instability of terminology and changes of definitions over time means that it can be difficult to find people from the past, particularly in the case of women living their lives as men, dressing, and working as men, unrecorded and marginalised. Shopland mentioned such celebrated cases as Hannah Snell, the soldier; Mary Anne Talbot or John Taylor, a sailor; and the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Other unidentified women later worked as navvies on the railways or as bricklayers, etc. The pay was better for men’s work, and it could be a short-term solution to hardship.

During a lively question session, the point was made that the literary cross-dressing heroine usually returns to heteronormativity after her escape to follow her lover is resolved in the plot. The detective work necessary to uncover archival sources for the anonymous women and the confusion over national traditions of dress which might be interpreted as more male than female; the infantilisation of women as a subtext in the ‘breeching’ of boys who progressed to adulthood and left their sisters behind; breeches parts for women in the theatre; and the hazards of labouring as a man with the vulnerabilities of the female body were all topics addressed. The interesting textual alteration made to the 16th century Geneva Bible which described Adam and Eve using fig leaves to make themselves breeches showed the sensitivity to gender-appropriate terms, when it was illegal for a woman to take men’s clothing.

As usual, the discussion could have continued well beyond time. We found all the papers stimulating and thought provoking. Our thanks to all the participants, and we look forward to more insights into WSG speakers’ research in the months to come.

-Miriam Al Jamil