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

Reminder: WSG seminar March 2018

WSG’s final seminar of the year focuses on “works in progress” papers, or with more of a “how to” element.  These three by Valerie Schutte, Cheryl Duncan and Catriona Cooper look at life writing, the use of legal documents, and audio research.

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Sunday 11 March, 2018 (This is a ‘how-to’ session that also involves a measure of ‘work in progress’).   Chair: TBC
Valerie Schutte: Princess, Duchess, Queen: Mary Tudor as represented in the long eighteenth century.
Cheryll Duncan: Music, women and the law: the challenges and rewards of legal documents.
Catriona Cooper: Listening to the Commons: the sounds of debate and the experience of women in Parliament c.1800.
Karen Lipsedge: Reading women and the eighteenth-century home.

Cfp: Women, Money and Markets 1750-1850 pt 2

Last year the first Women, Money and Markets 1750-1850 conference was held at King’s College London. Co-organised by WSG member Emma Newport and Amy Murat, the conference was a great success (not least because it featured a WSG panel, ‘Material Girls’).

This year the second is co-organized by Joyce Goggin and Emma Newport and will take place at the University of Amsterdam, 7-8 June 2018.   The call for papers ends on 15 March, so get your abstracts in quick.

The conference organisers welcome submissions in the form of individual papers, panels and roundtable discussions on the following themes:

  • The varying practices of women associated with currency, global and/or domestic markets and marketability
  • Material practices associated with value, exchange and/or female creativity
  • Women as producers and/or consumers in the literary or other marketplaces (including, but not limited to, food, clothing, agriculture and raw materials)
  • Representations of women at work or women’s involvement in: Trade and industry / Professional services (e.g. law, finance, hospitality and the media) / Domestic service / The rural economy / The stock market and speculation
  • The place of women in the literary marketplace (past and present)

They particularly welcome cross-cultural considerations of the above issues.

Guide for submissions:
Please send 300 word abstracts to the conference email address (womenmoneymarkets@gmail.com) plus a covering email outlining briefly your proposed format (individual paper, panel, roundtable, etc.).  If you are submitting a proposal for a panel, please include an abstract for each paper (up to 300 words each). Please indicate if you would like your paper to be considered for a monograph to be published in conjunction with the conference.

Material Girls: Women Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference and WSG panel report

The Women, Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference took place at Kings College, London on 11 May 2017 and three WSG members formed one of the panels delivering papers, writes Johanna Holmes. Co-ordinated by Miriam Al Jamil, the panel spoke on married women’s use of their moveable property as security in the credit market in eighteenth-century Scotland (Rebecca Mason, University of Glasgow), women painters constructing careers in the art world of the period 1820-1850 (Johanna Holmes, Royal Holloway) and Eleanor Coade, a woman who meant business in decorative stonework in the eighteenth century (Miriam al Jamil, Birkbeck College).

The conference was extremely well-attended – an estimated 100 or so delegates and panel speakers, including international delegates who had made a special trip. In view of this, conference organisers Emma Newport and Amy Murat also facilitated a visit for delegates the following morning to the Foundling Museum, a trip partly inspired by WSG’s connections there.

With a total of twelve panel sessions and two plenary lectures, it was a long and busy day, but the number and enthusiasm of delegates ensured that every panel had a good-sized (and discerning) audience, and that speakers found plenty to stimulate their thoughts when not on the platform. The full programme and speaker details can be found on the event website. Audio will be available shortly.

The WSG panel’s personal highlights of the day included:

  • The consistency of a number of themes emerging from the discussions, particularly in recognising women’s agency in a wide range of business activities in various forms of family and business relationships with men – this was history with women in equal focus
  • The opportunity to share research and emerging thoughts with other enthusiastic delegates.

WSG member Carolyn Williams gave a paper independently, on women and their makeshift ways of making money, which was full of illuminating quotes and anecdotes about the lengths to which women had to go in order to survive.

So WSG were well represented at the conference. Many thanks to our speakers!

WSG Women, Money and Markets 1750-1850 abstracts

The WSG’s panel proposal for the Women, Money and Markets 1750-1850 conference taking place at King’s College London on 11 May 2017 has been submitted.  (Full disclosure! It is co-organized by WSG member Emma Newport).

‘Material girls: trading and maneouvring in a material world’
Our panel proposal is for three papers, each dealing with different ways by which women negotiated and managed their material survival and their individual rights to financial control, to thereby claim and fashion a degree of independence. They faced the complex problems of financial and commercial markets as they developed through the eighteenth-century with courage, persistence and determination, and the new research represented in our papers uncovers more active and imaginative economic management by women than has hitherto been recognised.

‘Moveables, markets and married women’s access to credit in eighteenth-century Scotland’
Rebecca Mason

When researching early modern women in relation to their ability to access and attain credit, historians have tended to focus on women’s work in weaving, brewing, and skilled and unskilled trades, with paid labour dominating discussions of married women’s active participation in their local economy and beyond. Instead, this paper will focus on how married women in Scotland understood and utilized the property they attained through marriage, and how they employed this property when engaging in moneylending, pawnbroking, and purchasing merchandise from local market stalls. Wherever commerce took hold, it affected ideas about property, marriage and exchange; resulting in ever-shifting boundaries between what constituted married women’s separate property, which was her own to sell, pawn and bequeath; alongside her and her husband’s conjugal property, which was explicitly under his administration. This paper will focus on those married women who placed their separate and conjugal property in ‘wad’ (Scots legal term meaning ‘in pledge’) as a means of attaining access to credit either alongside or independently of their husbands, and will investigate the extent to which married women could act on behalf of their husband when contracting debts for the benefit of the household. By focusing on burgh court records and family papers pertaining to the west of Scotland, it will investigate how women established informal and formal networks of exchange amongst other members of the burgh communities they resided in and beyond, and investigate the extent to which married women attained access to credit through property ownership, social credibility, trustworthiness and reputation.

Rebecca is a second year PhD student at the University of Glasgow working under the supervision of Prof Alexandra Shepard and Dr Karin Bowie as part of a wider project funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council entitled “Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice, c.1100-c.1750.” Her PhD thesis, “Married Women and the Law in Scotland, c.1600-c.1750”, investigates the transmission and procuration of property, both landed and moveable, acquired by married women in the west coast of Scotland from 1600 to 1750.

‘Enterprising painters: women in the art market 1820-1850’
Johanna Holmes

In 1832 a talented young female artist came from Norfolk to live in London for a period wondering whether she might make some extra money from her work. She discovered that she was not alone in a competitive market and, ultimately, that a literary career would suit her better. This paper considers the art world she encountered, the many female artists who were successfully making a living in it and the constraints imposed by their gender upon their income, their careers and their art.

Based on new research and analysis of secondary material, the paper examines three aspects of the art practitioner’s world critical to making a living – skills, marketing and pricing. Analysis of a group of over 300 female artists who exhibited at the Royal Academy during the period together with thumbnail sketches of individual female painters’ careers reveal women artists’ personal circumstances, the scale of their output, the length of their careers and the media in which they worked. The factors in their favour and the strategies they adopted which contributed to their success are discussed, which perhaps challenge the popular assumptions of today about women’s opportunities at this time. However, the overall outcome from their persistence and compromise was in many cases a respectable but modest living within a predictable, unadventurous market. In the last decade of this period, it was becoming evident that a burgeoning market for art, linked to economic growth and British national and imperial identity construction, would offer their male contemporaries wealth, celebrity and diverse career opportunities from which women were excluded.

Johanna is a second year PhD student at Royal Holloway University of London (History), working under the supervision of Dr. Alex Windscheffel and Dr. Jane Hamlett, in the field of nineteenth century visual and material culture. She has a previous career in public sector management consultancy and policy advice. Her PhD thesis, “Strong women: Images of womanhood and their female audience 1820-1880” proposes a continuity of female resistance to the idealisation and stereotyping evident in visual culture through the examination of six women’s motivation and experience at critical points in their careers.

‘The “fiery force” of Eleanor Coade’s business success’
Miriam Al Jamil

Eleanor Coade (1733-1821) developed a successful manufactory of artificial stone statues and decorative items from 1769 at her premises in Lambeth. Her customers eventually included major architects, civic and church officials and the royal family. Clearly, she was a shrewd businesswoman and inspired loyalty from her employees and associates, but she was not afraid to litigate and to insist on her rights. Due to a lack of information about her as an individual, she has received little scholarly attention and has necessarily been represented through her products and their locations.The uniqueness of her case is thus less apparent when she is subsumed as a footnote within discussions of taste and luxury goods, and neoclassical architecture.

My paper examines the evidence that points to Coade’s marketing strategies, to business problems and the assumptions which denied her a role as entrepreneur. She was unusually not engaged in the businesses associated with a feminised luxury trade, although she began as a draper. Her trade card and catalogue demonstate how she utilised classical iconography and prints from Grand Tour collections to promote and design her goods.They feature sculpture and emblematic images which were owned by or demonstrate the prerogatives of powerful and wealthy men who were also her customers. However they also point to the religious and charitable interests of her customers for which she provided evidence in enduring stone. Her nonconformist background and connections are likely to have contributed to her success, but hers is still a remarkable achievement in a highly competetive market.

Miriam has just begun her research at Birkbeck, University of London, supervised by Dr. Luisa Calè and Dr. Kate Retford, looking at the ways in which eighteenth-century women accessed and engaged with Classical sculpture. She has MA’s in Eighteenth-Century Studies and in Early Modern Studies, and has taught at all levels in the past, currently in EFL.