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Friday, 10 December 2010

At Home with the Georgians

Amanda Vickery presents an extraordinarily interesting new history series on BBC2 in which she explores the Georgian home and its importance on eighteenth century relationships. The first line of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice reads, "it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man of good fortune must be in want of a wife". This sets up the premise of Vickery's first episode, in which she suggests that finding a house and settling down was equally important to a man as it was to a woman, and that many men took more of an interest in the running of their household than had previously been acknowledged. She shows how houses could make or break a relationship, and brought with them wealth, status and often happiness, for the men just as much for the women.

What makes this a great history series is the way it mixes presenter-lead documentary with contemporary scenery and period acting. Vickery's lively presenting is set amidst the splendour of Georgian homes, so that the present and the past become entwined, and Vickery is more strongly attached to the homes she is trying to present. We see her sitting in a ale house, sipping Georgian beer, walking through the iconic pasonage where Pride and Prejudice's Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins set up home in the 1995 BBC series, and we see her at Chorston House sitting at what was Jane Austen's writing desk. This engagement with the past allows the viewer to engage in the past as well, and to more easily imagine what a Georgian home would have looked like and felt like. 

Vickery not only engages with the backdrop of the past, the houses she is trying to present in the series, but she also engages in the evidence. The episode is focuses around the letters and diaries of middle class Georgian singletons and couples, and to show how homes influenced relationships. We see Vickery really interacting with the sources, putting herself in her rightful place as historian and not merely presenter, as she is filmed in the archives, showing us some of the sources, and the handwriting of the subjects, makes the whole topic much more interesting and engaging. She even shows off the new iPad by using it to show some sources in the back drop of the home, sometimes even with a lit fire for an added touch of warmth, and pictures to show contemporary attitudes towards the home and domicity.

In order for the audience to really engage with the people behind the sources, the men and women who Vickery uses as examples of this important domicity in Georgian society, actors and actresses in period dress speaking out the words of their letters really make the past come alive for an audience. Instead of being forced to imagine what they would have looked like and how they would have lived, it is recreated for us, in an attempt to make the history more interactive.We also feel more sympathy with the people she is talking with, we feel more like we could know them.

The classical music creates an atmosphere of culture and sociability. It really brings home the fact that women had power in the home, that they had control of how the household was run, and would often feel comfortable in this positon, but men were not excluded from the home, many men has a comfortable relationship in the home, where they could maintain their masculinity. It also suggests that having a house was important for male status, and brought with it coveted voting rights which were important for male power.

The episode then goes on to explore women's position in the home, talks about women and men who did not have the benefit of a home, or of singletons who were lonely with property they were unable to share. Of course, the way that people are most connected to Georgian relationships is through Jane Austen, who is her 7 novels, explores the challenges of Georgian relationships and with that the pursuit of the home. She shows how Charlotte Lucas' motives in marrying was to have a comfortable home, and how it was possible to be happy and married with a husband, without loving your desired partner. It also shows the importance of wealth in deciding to marry, and how this could be a problem for men and women. People were guided by wealth and status in an insecure environment, and would not marry below them, but many were happy to have a comfortably home without splendour and pomp, so long as they were happy with their chosen partner. 

This is important for the many homes the Georgians have left us, and shows that the perfect wife was the one who could deal with the household and please their husband in the bed room. It shows that men desired wives for status, domicity and general companionship as much as women did, and that the Georgian home was ultimately built upon a steady Georgian marriage.

A very interesting series.

By Emma Burbidge

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