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How the Other Half Lived

The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe—Volume One, 1500-1800

by Olwen Hufton
Knopf, 638 pp., $35.00

Olwen Hufton opens the first volume of her two-part history of Western European women with a supposedly revealing anecdote.

In the late 1950s Keith Thomas was rash enough to offer a series of lectures on seventeenth-century women to Oxford undergraduates. His colleagues found the subject bizarre and the students simply did not turn up to listen. There were doubtless many good reasons. Oxford was virtually a male bastion at the time and the odds on getting a question about women in the final examination papers were probably a million to one against. Above all, however, the subject was perceived as neither relevant nor interesting.

This does not read convincingly to me. Nineteen fifty-eight was the year I myself arrived at Oxford as an undergraduate reading, admittedly, not History but English Language and Literature. Statistically Oxford may have been a male bastion, with women outnumbered one to ten. But academically, in the days before the advent of political correctness, there was a sense of freedom, a tradition of wide and eclectic reading and a cavalier attitude toward examinations. In the whole of my time at Oxford I do not remember the likelihood of a subject appearing in the final papers ever being discussed. There simply were no pressures for pro-male or pro-female specialization. In my own discipline we read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women poets, essayists, novelists, and playwrights—Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Astell, Charlotte Lennox, Eliza Haywood, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith—as avidly as their male contemporaries. The university hall in which Lord David Cecil gave a memorable series of lectures on Jane Austen overflowed with both male and female students. They sat on window ledges and crowded down the aisles.

Ours was a star-conscious generation of students. We were not an eager audience for run-of-the-mill lectures. The level of attendance at Keith Thomas’s lectures would simply have reflected a certain apathy toward a performer who then lacked the pulling power of Edgar Wind, the voluble art historian who could fill the Oxford Playhouse, or W.H. Auden, who acquired a pop-star glitter after he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956. The rejected lecturer was not, at that stage, Sir Keith Thomas, the renowned historian of early modern England, President of Corpus Christi College, and President of the British Academy, but merely a young History Tutor at St. John’s. Hufton’s uncritical use of Thomas’s story is typical of the tendency that has developed in women’s writing from the middle Sixties onward: a too-ready acceptance of any evidence showing women being marginalized or victimized.

To be fair, this is not true of Hufton’s work in general. But her latest book, her most important work so far, raises the inevitable question of “why women?” Why not A History of Men and Women in Western Europe? Has intensive concentration upon women by women historians and other female writers of non-fiction over recent decades distorted more than it has clarified? Hufton’s enormous book, drawing as it does upon years of research by hundreds if not thousands of female academics, suggests to me that gender separatism may have reached a cul-de-sac.

Hufton is a reliable and knowledgeable writer whose great strength, as we see here, is in her command of a broad view. Her recurring image—an engaging one—is the “ladder of life,” a woodcut or engraving that was a staple item in the itinerant European peddler’s pack. These moralistic ladders, ascending and descending, were priced within reach of the humblest cottagers, who stuck them on the wall. Each rung represented a stage in the life cycle, from childhood to be-trothal, marriage, and motherhood. The mother’s role was illustrated by sedentary domestic occupations: she is captured embroidering beside the baby’s cradle. On life’s ladder the female expectations were demonstrably lesser than the men’s. The definition of the male role was more varied: he might be a soldier, a lawyer, or a sage. And the man could be seen to age more gradually. As Hufton puts it, “He is frequently quite spry to the end.” Her intention in this book is to measure the actual experience of women against the idealized image of their lives. She is, for instance, alert to the problems for widows in maintaining the stipulated levels of decorum once their libidos had been aroused.

Hufton ranges confidently through centuries, explaining her choice of this particular three-hundred-year span by her conviction that between 1500 and 1800 “a deep chasm opened up between the culture of the rich and comfortable (mannered society) and the rest, between the informed and the ignorant, between high and popular culture.” She analyzes closely the effects of this growth in “social distancing” on possibilities for independence in women’s daily lives. She brings out an interesting contrast between the new breed of acerbic, assertive European intellectuals, who by 1800 were on the verge of formulating their own critique of male-dominated society, and servant girls and agricultural laborers locked into agonizingly tentative systems of self-betterment, held back by physical exhaustion, financial resourcelessness, the almost total lack of privacy.

The canvas for Hufton’s study is, as she describes it, “deliberately very broad.” The range of reference includes most of Western Europe because of her conviction that in Europe—unlike in America and Canada—much of women’s experience in fact was widely shared. Hufton’s book puts special emphasis on Britain and France, largely because these two countries have been so far in advance in feminist research. But she also covers women in the Netherlands and Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, the last three now getting much attention from historians of gender.

Hufton travels nimbly from terrain to terrain, wholly in control of her statistics, noting in passing an unusual tendency for women to murder their husbands in Languedoc and explaining why witches seem more “homely” in England and the Netherlands than elsewhere: not only were they often poorer and older, but they were outside the domain of Roman law in which torture could be used to elicit a confession and highly dramatized accounts of supernatural activities could be elicited from women under inquisitional threat. Words were often put into their mouths. The witches of England and the Netherlands appear relatively humdrum because they were less likely to confess to an ability to fly or attendance at a coven or a witches’ sabbath. Their “familiars,” i.e., the supernatural spirits that were supposed to accompany them, were “usually straight out of the farmyard, cat or dog, rat or toad.” Hufton is in general extremely good on witches, whom she characterizes as exemplifying the “most tragic aspect of the female predicament.”

As well as being old and poor, in Britain two-thirds of the women accused were either widowed or spinsters. They might have children, but the majority were seeking to eke out a living on their own. They hence fell outside patriarchal protection or, perhaps equally pertinently, their situation of semi-dependence on the community exposed them to the imputation of witchcraft. Some were in receipt of poor relief; others were illegally pasturing a goat or other livestock, others arousing their neighbors’ ire through thefts of fruit or firewood.

Hufton keeps an admirably firm grasp on realities. The grand sweep of her enquiry, which encompasses, among women, the feckless and the godly, the helpless and the cosseted, courtesans and fishwives, wet nurses, women jailkeepers, princesses at Versailles, is saved from any danger of vapid generality by the precision with which she poses central questions. In each category she goes straight for the collective modus vivendi, confronts the basic practicalities. How did such women manage? How were things for them exactly? With unflagging sensitivity to social nuances, Hufton explores the limits of female possibility. Choices for the women of this whole long period were almost always desperately limited. Hufton’s commentary often echoes that of the mischievous narrator in Daniel Defoe’s Roxana. When the impoverished widow turns whore, Hufton, too, poses the question, “What else could she do?” But Hufton goes much further than most twentieth-century readers and adaptors of Defoe’s Roxana and Moll Flanders, who see these subtle novels simply as sexy adventure stories. (A version of Moll Flanders promoted as including “seventeen sex scenes” is being shown on British television as I write.) Hufton conveys these novels’ deep ambivalence. Though Defoe depicts Roxana’s resort to prostitution as the result of her inadequate resources, “there is more than a shade of criticism of one who takes the obvious way out.”

Hufton makes much of the centrality of marriage. In her chapter entitled “The Strategic Plan: Marriage as Goal,” she stresses the sheer labor expended on achieving it. Throughout the European middle classes mothers were eternally vigilant, repelling the marauder. Unprotected working girls, who could of course expect no dowries, would leave home as young as twelve to start gradually accumulating the small amount of capital they needed to get married. These girls were likely to have twelve or fourteen years of domestic service or agricultural laboring ahead of them. Even then, Hufton reminds us, there would certainly be compromise. On these lower social levels, “the man or woman who was not pock-marked and suffering from vitamin deficiency diseases, congenital defects or industrial malformations counted as handsome.” Hufton conveys a terrifying sense of the vulnerability of women.

She also has sharp and sudden insights. “In Ireland the spread of the potato to Munster made it easier for women to manage while their husbands were away.” Her accounts of the defensive networks of women—sailors’ widows in Honiton in Devon, female cooperatives at Carrick in Ireland, widows eking out a living around the Piazza Navona in Rome—are particularly fascinating. She points to a certain resilience in women, their ability to make do and mend, their natural talent to adapt. But Hufton’s is in most respects a tragic history, showing even the most fortunate women living lives of immense tension and the less well-equipped pushed to the absolute limits of survival. Stark images abound, the most poignant that of unwanted foundling babies born to women in the silk trade being transported out of Lyons strapped into panniers on the sides of donkeys. The dead were thrown out en route to the hills. The cries of infants still alive were stifled with wine or eau de vie applied to a wet rag. They were supposedly being sent out of the town to be looked after by wet nurses in the outlying villages; yet a local official estimated that of six thousand foundlings who left Lyons every year, no more than two thousand were likely to return.

The heroic scale of Olwen Hufton’s undertaking can be gauged from her generous source notes. (The note about menstruating women, cripples, and old people, on page 546, is almost an essay in itself.) She has trawled through the ocean of contemporary scholarship of women’s history and absorbed and assessed huge amounts of material in several languages and of varying intellectual depth. That Hufton has managed to shape so much documentation into a book which is logical and lucid, and with a strong central narrative, is a considerable feat of organization.

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